Here’s to You, Mrs. Robinson

When I first met Anne Bancroft, she was nursing a sprained ankle, but stylishly so. Draped dramatically along the length of a sofa in her Brentwood home, she had gingerly placed her leg atop two embroidered Oriental pillows. While an assistant laid an ice pack on the swelling, Bancroft was busy smoothing the cashmere and silk skirt of her Armani outfit. The effect was that, even in pain, the Oscar-winning actress seemed regal. And so it was with her acting. She veered between two big-screen personas, queens like Annie Sullivan or Mrs. Robinson, or commoners who took their inspiration from her real life as Anna Maria Louise Italiano, native of the Bronx. With Bancroft’s death from cancer at age 73 on Monday, the acting profession lost one of its finest. But Hollywood has lost something even more precious: a role model.


Today, when so many young actresses seem to give their finest performances to the paparazzi and Page Six and US magazine rather than to the big screen (Lindsay Lohan, are you listening?),Bancroft made it a point of pride to live so that all the public focus could be on her roles and not herself. That’s why Bancroft granted so few interviews throughout her career, and I considered myself lucky to have scored that one a decade ago. Really lucky, in fact, because Hollywood etiquette even now dictates that an actress is justified in canceling if she has broken a nail, let alone maimed a limb. No questions asked. No apology needed. But though Bancroft was press-shy even on the best of days, she wouldn’t contemplate ditching the appointment.


Once she had described to me how the sprain took place — she had slipped in a Los Angeles department store while shopping for her husband, actor-writer-producer-director Mel Brooks — Bancroft was eager to put the accident behind her. She even waved away a concerned phone call from the funnyman himself. “Tell Mr. Brooks I’ll call him later and tell him all about it,” she instructed her assistant. Instead, Bancroft got down to the business at hand.


She was for years known as an edgy, temperamental actress, going after physically and emotionally demanding roles with the aggressiveness of Mrs. Robinson pursuing Benjamin in The Graduate. She was, in her day, the equivalent of Angelina Jolie. But Bancroft in later life had mellowed considerably. In her golden years, her warmth and melodic laugh belied her youthful obstinacy about granting glimpses into her private world, unlike Jolie, who plays out her personal life for all the world to see.


These days, most aging actresses would rather undergo a face-lift than play an aging actress on television or in film. (Meg Ryan, are you listening?)At the time of the interview, Bancroft was working on a British TV series that called on her to summon her own deep-rooted fears about getting older and bring them to the surface to make her character more sympathetic. “I think it’s tough to grow older no matter what business you’re in,” she said. “It’s hard to no longer gaze in the mirror and see that you look wonderful. And when you’re an actress, all of this is compounded because the way you can look, feel and move are your tools.”


The problem, she said, was not just the wrinkles she saw in her face, and the pain she felt in her knees every morning. It was “not having the power I did 20 years ago in terms of my career. And I think that makes me even more conscious of it.” She talked about the parts that no longer came her way in the same matter-of-fact tone she used to request a cappuccino and a plate of cheese and crackers. Here was Bancroft, described then as “the only great actress in America” with five Best Actress Oscar nominations and one Oscar to prove it, demonstrating that, yes, even she had setbacks despite the obvious success of her career.


The Graduate didn’t come to me first. The Turning Point didn’t come to me first, either. They went to a whole lot of other women before I even saw the scripts. I never was terribly popular,” she told me, pronouncing the word with undisguised disdain. “I’ve never been the one that could bring the most amount of people into the theater. So the best scripts always go to the most popular actress. And if she says no, then they go to the next most popular. So when you’re third or fourth in line, as I’ve always been, you’re so grateful that the most popular turn it down. Because then I have a shot at it, or at least a chance to read it.”


Bancroft learned early in her career what some major stars still don’t understand today (Nicole Kidman, are you listening?):the importance of saying no. After graduation from New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, she said no to 20th Century Fox, which kept casting her in a succession of lousy movies (like Demetrius and the Gladiators) when she was just another starlet stuck in the 1950s studio system.


She also said no to Hollywood, when she fled to Broadway and won her first Tony in 1958 for Two for the Seesaw. Another followed for her stage performance as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. By the time she returned to Hollywood to star in the film version, which won her a Best Actress Oscar in 1962, she was able to come back on her terms, as an actress, not just as a starlet. “When I grew up and realized that the relations you have with other people are the most vital part of your life, that was what I wanted to do in my work, to do movies about interactive relationships. Not hold a gun and say, ‘Put ’em up!’ ”


Bancroft said no again immediately after the birth of her son in 1972. Though at the peak of her profession, she had lost interest in acting. “You can’t have it all,” she told me (Jennifer Aniston, are you listening?),“though I can’t say that I was intelligent enough to have thought that consciously.” She was 40 years old when she became pregnant. Doctors ordered her to bed, saying she would lose the baby otherwise. “And then the baby came and I was just,” she paused, looking for the right words, “swept away.”


The strength of those emotions came as much as a surprise to her as it did to the entertainment community, who were in shock when she put the brakes on her career. However, mention the word sacrifice, and Bancroft rejected even the suggestion of it. “I made a choice, a conscious choice, that the rewards of having a family were as important, if not more important, than whatever love you get from an audience.”


Even in later years, she turned down roles if it meant being away from her husband for weeks at a time. In 40 years of marriage, they were rarely apart. It was she who suggested that Brooks make a stage musical of his movie The Producers. When he confided that he was afraid to write a full-blown musical, she sent him to an analyst. Good move — the musical has made gazillions. Yet Bancroft was one of those actresses whose career earned more movie honors than movie dollars. But it never seemed to matter. She had what she’d always wanted: a very private public life.

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