Oscar Actors: Bancroft, Anne–Miracle Worker, The Graduate

Anne Bancroft, one of the great actresses of the American cinema, died June 6, 2005 in New York City, of uterine cancer. She was only 73.

Most people know Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, the older seductress in “The Graduate” (1967), a film that along with “Bonnie and Clyde,” heralded the arrival of the New American Cinema, ushering a new generation of movie stars, such as Dustin Hoffman, Bancroft’s “victim” in The Graduate.” However, few people know that Bancroft was only six years older than Hoffman. Though she had many stage and screen accomplishments prior to and after “The Graduate,” Bancroft became forever associated with this role, which became a signature piece.

Born In the Bronx on September 17, 1931, Anne Bancroft began her professional career on TV in 1950, using the name Anne Marno; her birth name was Anna Maria Louise Italiano. She made her motion picture debut in “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952).

Hollywood did not know what to do with Bancroft, a brunette with a strong brow and a husky, extremely sexy voice. For a while she was kept busy in a succession of B films, but dissatisfied, she returned to New York. In 1958, she appeared in “Two for the Seesaw,” opposite Henry Fonda, for which she received a Tony Award. (Neither actor appeared in the film version, though, which was cast with Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine). The following year, she won the New York Drama Critics Award as well as another Tony for her performance in “The Miracle Worker,” as Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher. Bancroft repeated her performance with resounding success in Arthur Penn’s film version, winning the 1962 Best Actress Oscar.

She played memorable roles in the British film “The Pumpkin” Eater, for which she shared the Best Actress prize at Cannes (1964). In addition to “The Miracle Worker” and “The Graduate,” other Oscar-nominated roles included “The Turning Point” (1977) and “Agnes of God” (1985). Bancroft was named Best Actress by the British Film Academy for her performance in “84 Charring Cross Road” (1987). Her specialty was playing bored, desperate housewives, for which her strong screen presence and husky voice were perfectly suitable. Equally adept at drama and comedy, she gave a wonderful performance as the domineering, movie-obsessed Jewish mother in Sidney Lumet’s “Garbo Talks” (1984).

Bancroft also tried her hand at directing. After attending the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, she first tried her hand at directing in 1976 with “The August,” a film that was never released. Her next directorial effort, “Fatso,” released in 1980, met with modest success.

Bancroft was happily married for 40 years to comedy director, writer, and producer Mel Brooks, with whom she appeared in a number of films, including the remake “To Be or Not To Be” (1983).

She made a cameo appearance, as British actress Madge Kendal, in David Lynch’s noirish biopicture, “The Elephant Man” (1980), which was produced by Brooks.

Chameleon-like, when she played Golda, the Israeli Prime Minister on Broadway, people assumed she was Jewish, and when she appeared in the UK movie “The Pumpkin Eater,” people assumed she was British.

Bancroft’s final major role was as a nasty pimp in the 2003 TV movie, “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone,” based on Tennessee Williams’ work in a role originated by Lotte Lenya in the 1961 Hollywood version.

Bancroft’s Oscar-Nominated Performances

The Miracle Worker (1962)

Repeating her stage success as the harsh Anne Sullivan, the devoted teacher of the deaf and blind girl, Helen Keller (Patty Duke), Bancroft gave a strong, riveting performance of a woman determined to break through the barriers of communication at all costs. Duke won a Supporting Oscar for her role.

The Pumpkin Eater (1964)

With a flawless British accent, Bancroft plays the mother of eight children, who leaves her second husband (Richard Johnson) for a screenwriter (Peter Finch), but finds that he’s incurably unfaithful. This was her second Oscar nomination; she lost to Julie Andrews’ “Mary Poppins.” Jack Clayton directed this intelligent and serious, but downbeat film, based on Penelope Mortimer’s novel. The film is full of exceptional performances by James Mason, Cedric Hardwicke, Maggie Smith, and Eric Porter.

The Graduate (1967)

In her career-defining role, Bancroft is Mrs. Robinson, the bored, frustrated suburban wife of Benjamin Braddock’s father’s best friend. The seduction is by now a classic, indelible scene, but Bancroft was good throughout, even when the film turns her into the monstrous mother of Katharine Ross, with whom Benjamin is in love. Bancroft should have won the Oscar, but she lost to Academy favorite Katharine Hepburn, in the interracial serio-comedy, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”

The Turning Point (1977)

In this woman’s melodrama par excellence, directed by Herbert Ross, Shirely MacLaine and Bancroft play old friends, who reunite when Bancroft’s ballet company stops in Oklahoma City on tour. MacLaine gave up her career as a dancer when she married Tom Skerritt, who needed to prove he was not gay. And the aging Bancroft, who chose career over marriage, now has to face her post-glamour career alone. The producers tried to persuade Grace Kelly to play either of the leading roles, but Prince Rainier didn’t give his approval. Later, Audrey Hepburn wished to play the Bancroft role, by that time, contract had been signed and commitments made.

Agnes of God (1985)

In Norman Jewison’s religious drama, based on the stage play and screenplay by John Pielmeyer, Meg Tilly (who received a Supporting Oscar nominations) plays a young nun, who had apparently given birth and then murdered her baby. Bancroft plays mother superior, clashing with a psychiatrist (Jane Fonda)who’s brought to investigate the case. The verbose pseudo-intellectual play, about the ways of God to woman and religious delusion, became a verbose pseudo-intellectual movie, elevated by good production values: Sven Nikvyst’s cinematography and Georges Delerue’s Oscar-nominated score. Ironically, Bancroft lost the Oscar to Geraldine Page (“The Trip to Bountiful”), who had played the mother superior in the Broadway production.