Anne Bancroft, Tony- and Oscar-winner who was (Mrs. Mel Brooks), dead at 73
There are only six of us left on this earth who remember a movie called “Don’t Bother to Knock.” It was released in 1952—script by Daniel Taradash and Charlotte Armstrong (from her novel), direction by Roy Ward Baker—and it was the flick in which Marilyn Monroe, as a sub-psychotic baby sitter, gave the best performance of her life, or, if you like, second best to what she did in “The Misfits.”
“Don’t Bother to Knock” is set in a New York hotel, where a husband and wife from Squaresville need somebody to keep an eye on their young daughter, Bunny, for a few hours while they, the hicks, attend a banquet of some sort. A slightly off-center hotel elevator operator (Elisha Cook, Jr.) has just the answer, his teenage niece, Nell—and they go for it!
Nell of course is quite a bit further off center. After fingering all the perfume and soaps and jewelry in the place, she stares out the window at a man in another room of the same hotel. On the house phone, they strike up a conversation. He (Richard Widmark) is an airline pilot who has just had a fight with his girlfriend, the thrush—the cabaret singer—in the bar and lounge downstairs.
This glamorous young singer is played by an actress who in that year must have been 20 years old—Monroe was then 25—and in the very first of some 65 motion pictures she was in from 1952 to 2002. Her name was Anne Bancroft. At the end of the picture, when the baby sitter is being escorted off the premises, Monroe looks at Widmark and Bancroft, who have reunited, and murmurs, with wonder: “People who love one another.”
In 1952, Bancroft’s performance would have been six years before “Two for the Seesaw” on Broadway, which is where her fire and talent and sexuality first hit most of us between the eyes; would have been seven years before “The Miracle Worker” on Broadway, which deepened and strengthened the foregoing; ten years before the movie of “The Miracle Worker;” and 15 years before the film that forever more would imprint her upon the world as Mrs. Robinson, sneering seducer of a college boy who fumbles his way out of bed with her and into bed with her daughter.
But before “The Graduate”—three years before “The Graduate”—there was a movie that those six of us left on earth who saw this one, too, will surely never forget. I first saw it the summer of ’64 in London—at a screening also attended, as it happens, by Eli Walach and Anne Jackson, which complicates things for people who say “Anne Jackson” when they mean “Anne Bancroft,” or “Anne Bancroft” when they mean “Anne Jackson.”.
“The Pumpkin Eater”—script by Harold Pinter from the novel by Penelope Mortimer, direction by Jack Clayton—is set mostly in London, and it is in fact smack in the middle of Harrods Department Store in the middle of London that Jo Armitage (Bancroft), simply gorgeous in a big side-of-the-head picture hat, has a full-blown nervous breakdown because her husband Jake (Peter Finch, the one and only) is carrying on with the reckless, nerveless young Philpott (Maggie Smith, the other and only) while she, Jo, gives tender loving birth to child after child after child.
The moment in Harrods is almost topped by Bancroft’s throwing a cup of coffee or tea or soup or something all over the obnoxious businessman (James Mason) who’s trying to move in on Peter Finch’s lost ground. If you need one more big talent, it’s Sir Cedrick Hardwicke as Bancroft’s father.
In 1994, Bancroft was nominated for an Emmy for her TV performance as the 99-year-old heroine of Allan Gurganus’ “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.” Gurganus, the gay novelist, was on the set daily in a small part.
“She was fantastic, totally professional,” he recalled this week. ”With the energy of a 26-year-old”—though she was then 63. “Everybody, even the extras, felt easy talking with her. She bought tremendous stature to the role, and obviously had read all 800 pages of the book.”
Each of us has our own Anne Bancroft. The Pumpkin Eater’s was mine and will remain mine. William Gibson, who wrote “Two for the Seesaw” and “The Miracle Worker” and “The Seesaw Log,” that 1959 memoir about, among other things, how Broadway newcomer Bancroft held her own against the royal aloofness of Henry Fonda, probably has two or three Bancrofts in his head, or more.
Anna Louisa Maria Italiano was born in the Bronx on September 17, 1931. She died on June 6, 2005, in Mt. Sinai Hospital, New York City.
Mel Brooks has lost a star, and so have we.
In 1967, in “The Graduate,” Anne Bancroft played the older woman in Dustin Hoffman’s life; in 1988, she played Harvey Fierstein’s mother in “Torch Song Trilogy.”