American actress Anne Bancroft (1931–2005) had an extraordinary career that spanned over five decades, garnered one Oscar, two Tonys, and two Emmy Awards, and earned the respect of millions. Her roster of memorable characters ranged from the heroic Annie Sullivan to the predatory Mrs. Robinson to the larger-than-life Golda Meir. No mater what the role, Bancroft made it her own.
Bancroft was born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano on September 17, 1931, in the Bronx borough of New York City, to Italian immigrant parents. Her mother, Mildred, was a telephone operator and her father, Michael, a pattern maker. The urge to perform was apparent in her even as a toddler. Tom Vallance of the London Independent quoted Bancroft as saying, "When I was two, I could sing "Under a Blanket of Blue.' I was so willing, so wanting, nobody had to coax me." But encouragement, especially from her mother, she did get. Even the Great Depression and her father's unemployment in the late 1930s did not stop the family from finding a way to provide the aspiring entertainer with tap dancing lessons.
At Christopher Columbus High School, Bancroft acted in student productions and briefly considered a career as a laboratory assistant. Her mother, however, championed the young girl's dreams and insisted that she enroll at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Bancroft studied a year there, and began to perform on radio and television, at first as Anne Italiano, and then as Anne Marno. She supplemented her income by working as a salesgirl and as an English teacher to noted Peruvian singer Yma Sumac. Early television credits included The Torrents of Spring and The Goldbergs. Then in 1952, Anne Bancroft was born.
In one of those quirks of fate that often become the stuff of legend, Bancroft helped a fellow actor by reading in his screen test for 20th Century Fox, but it was Bancroft, not her friend, who was offered a contract with the studio. So Bancroft headed west. Once in Hollywood, she was given a list of possible screen names from which to choose. The London Observer's Philip French quoted her simple explanation for her choice as, "Bancroft was the only one with any dignity." That dignity was not immediately transferred to Bancroft's career, however, as the next five years and 15 movies proved largely unsuited to her talents. Time's Richard Corliss described this period: "She was groomed as a standard babe when Hollywood signed her at 20. It was like fitting a firestorm for a corset."
Bancroft made her film debut with her new name in 1952's Don't Bother To Knock. Starring Marilyn Monroe and Richard Widmark, the movie gave Monroe her first big dramatic role and featured Bancroft as a cabaret singer, but hardly made Bancroft a household name. Other films of that time included The Kid from Left Field (1953), Gorilla at Large (1954), and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954). After her contract with Fox lapsed, Bancroft remained in California for a time as an independent artist, appearing in such movies as New York Confidential (1955), The Last Frontier (1955), Walk the Proud Land (1956), and Nightfall (1957). But neither did these later efforts bring Bancroft any particular notice.
Disillusioned by her stalled career and a failed marriage to building contractor Martin May, Bancroft decided to regroup. Brian Baxter of the Guardian quoted her recollections: "Life was a shambles. I was terribly immature. I was going steadily downhill in terms of self-respect and dignity." So Bancroft made the sensible choice of so many before her and thousands yet to come—she went home.
Two Tonys and an Oscar
After returning to New York in 1957, Bancroft lived at home and put her life back in order. She studied with a vocal coach, went into therapy, and appeared in such television anthologies as Playhouse 90 and the Lux Video Theater. At least as important, she began to take acting classes with famed Viennese actor/director Herbert Berghof, whose eminent HB Studio should not be confused with the Actors' Studio, although both are located in New York City. In Bancroft's obituary in the Independent, Vallance quoted her recollections of those classes: "It was the beginning of a whole new approach to acting, a deeper, more fulfilling, and more thinking approach. I learned to think a little, to set certain tasks for myself. My work became much more exciting." Her career became much more exciting as well.
In January of 1958 Bancroft made her Broadway debut in William Gibson's Two for the Seesaw. The two-person play featured her as a bohemian girl from the Bronx who has an affair with a married businessman (Henry Fonda). It was an unmitigated success, with such glowing reviews as that of John McLain's of the N.Y. Journal America, as quoted by Les Spindle in Back Stage West: "Bancroft threatens at times to take the entire theatre under her arm and go home. She can swear outlandishly without being at all vulgar; in the next sentence, she can break your heart." The plaudits were topped off with Bancroft's winning a Tony Award for best featured actress in 1958, and her lagging career was jump-started.
The following year, another William Gibson play cemented Bancroft's reputation. She was cast as Helen Keller's extraordinary teacher, Annie Sullivan, in The Miracle Worker, with Patty Duke as Keller. Duke recalled the moment in the production when Bancroft's character announced to Keller's parents that she had finally broken through to their daughter. She told Spindle, "The sound that she had in her voice [at that moment] transported every creature in the theatre to the place where you find lost souls." Critics and audiences agreed, and Bancroft was awarded another Tony Award, this time for Best Actress, in 1960. The triumph was rendered even more delicious when Gibson and director Arthur Penn insisted that she reprise the role on film, against Hollywood's wishes. That performance earned Bancroft an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1963. The formerly frustrated actress had both conquered Broadway and returned to Hollywood as a star.
An Extraordinary Career
As a newly-respectful Hollywood beckoned, Bancroft appeared determined to tackle it on her own terms. Independence, intelligence, and a fair amount of non-conformity with the star system seemed to dictate her subsequent career choices. This relative autonomy was likely partially fueled by her marriage to actor/director Mel Brooks in 1964. Many found the match an odd one—he was the fast-talking funny man from Brooklyn and she was the cool beauty with more than a dash of class. But the partnership endured over forty years, and the marriage produced one child, a son, Maximilian. Director Robert Allen Ackerman described the pair's relationship to Gregg Kilday of the Hollywood Reporter as "one of the great show business love stories of all time. They were madly in love with each other, the most inseparable, devoted, loving couple I have ever known. He could make her laugh so hard—she thought he was the funniest man, and she was as funny as he was. She could keep up with him, and he never stopped feeling how beautiful and talented she was." Such a strong relationship, along with having with a solid career of her own, was bound to give Bancroft a sense of security and keep her priorities in line.
Bancroft's Hollywood career was a rich and varied one that yielded four more Academy Award nominations, although no more wins. Beginning with her Oscar-nominated performance in 1964's The Pumpkin Eater, and moving on to 1965's The Slender Thread and 1966's Seven Women, her initial outing as a movie star had her specializing in women who were victimized by men in one way or another. Thus, it must have been refreshing to read the script for what was to become, for good or ill, Bancroft's most famous role: that of the coolly predatory Mrs. Robinson in Mike Nichols's The Graduate in 1967. The character of a bored, middle-class housewife who seduces a young man (Dustin Hoffman) interested in her daughter was summarily turned down by other actresses as too insulting. Bancroft, however, only six years older than her co-star, sunk her teeth into the part and put an indelible stamp on the role that helped turn the film into a cultural phenomenon. But the huge success, which nabbed Bancroft another Oscar nomination, was something of a mixed blessing, in that its star never entirely escaped the character's clutches. Unlike Annie Sullivan, for instance, Mrs. Robinson and Anne Bancroft were forever one.
Whatever her possible misgivings about her most remembered role, Bancroft was too good an actress to rest. She took a comic turn as Edna Edison in Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue in 1975, received another Oscar nod for the role of Emma Jacklin in 1977's The Turning Point, and appeared with her husband in 1983's To Be or Not to Be. The year 1984 saw her in Garbo Talks, 1985, in her fourth Oscar-nominated performance in Agnes of God, and 1986, she starred in 'Night, Mother. Her many other feature films included 84 Charing Cross Road (1987), Torch Song Trilogy (1988), Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), Home for the Holidays (1995), G.I. Jane (1997), Great Expectations (1998), and Heartbreakers (2001).
Nor did Bancroft neglect the stage or television. She returned to Broadway in Mother Courage and Her Children (1963), The Devils (1965), The Little Foxes (1967), A Cry of Players (1968), the Tony-nominated Golda (1977), and Duet for One (1981). Among television work that included the Emmy-nominated Broadway Bound (1992), Mrs. Cage (1992), and Haven (2001), Bancroft also appeared in the Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994) and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (2003). She did receive two Emmy Awards, in addition to her Oscar and two Tonys, one for 1970's Annie: The Woman in the Life of a Man, and the other for 1999's Deep in My Heart. It was a rare feat to win top accolades across performance mediums as she did, but Bancroft had long since proven herself an uncommon actress.
By 2005 Bancroft's remarkable career had spanned over 50 years. But failing health brought her run to an untimely end. On June 6, 2005, Bancroft died in New York City at the age of 73. Two nights later, the lights on Broadway theater marquees were all dimmed in her honor. Friends and fans all over the world mourned the passing of this indomitable spirit and superior talent.
Duke told Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly, "She taught me … the ethics and discipline of the theater. And she also had one of the best senses of humor in the world." Nichols characterized her for Les Spindle in Back Stage West: "Her combination of brains, humor, frankness, and sense were unlike any other artist. Her beauty was constantly shifting with her roles, and, because she was a consummate actress, she changed radically for every part." Yet, producer David Geffen may have described Bancroft most succinctly when he told People, "She was the consummate everything. Actress, comedienne, beauty, mother and wife. She made it all look easy."
American Theatre, September 2005.
Back Stage West, June 23, 2005.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), June 9, 2005.
Entertainment Weekly, June 17, 2005.
Guardian (London, England), June 9, 2005.
Hollywood Reporter, June 8, 2005.
Independent (London, England), June 9, 2005.
New York Times, June 8, 2005.
Observer (London, England), June 12, 2005.
People, June 20, 2005.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), June 8, 2005.
Time, June 20, 2005.
Variety, June 13, 2005.
"Actress Anne Bancroft Dead at 73; Tony-Winner Was Helen Keller's Hope in Miracle Worker," Playbill, June 7, 2005, http://www.playbill.com/news/article/print/93413.html (January 14, 2006).
"Actress Anne Bancroft Dies," CNN, June 7, 2005, http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Movies/06/07/bancroft.obit (January 14, 2006).
"Anne Bancroft," IBDB, http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?id=66812 (January 14, 2006).
"Anne Bancroft," IMDb, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000843/ (January 14, 2006).
"HB Studio Alumni," http://www.hbstudio.org/hbmenu.html (January 22, 2006).
"Bancroft, Anne." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bancroft-anne
"Bancroft, Anne." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved February 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bancroft-anne
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Nationality: American. Born: Anna Maria Luisa Italiano in the Bronx, New York, 17 September 1931. Education: Attended Public School 12 and Christopher Columbus High School, the Bronx; studied at American Academy of Dramatic Arts, New York, 1948–50, with Herbert Berghof, 1957, and at the Actors Studio, New York, 1958. Family: Married 1) Martin A. May, 1953 (divorced 1957); 2) the director Mel Brooks, 1964, son: Maximilian. Career: 1950—first TV appearance (as Ann Italiano) in Turgenev's The Torrents of Spring; 1951—contract with 20th Century-Fox; chose name "Anne Bancroft" from list submitted to her by Darryl Zanuck; 1952—film debut in Don't Bother to Knock; 1953—resumed TV work; 1955—two-picture contract with Columbia; 1958–59—Broadway appearances in Two for the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker; 1970s—Broadway appearances in The Devils and Golda; mid-1970s—attended American Film Institute's Woman's Directing Workshop and directs first film, The August (never released); 1980—wrote and directed Fatso for 20th Century-Fox; 1994—in TV mini-series The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Awards: Best Actress Academy Award and Best Foreign Actress, British Academy, for The Miracle Worker, 1962; co-recipient: Best Actress, Cannes Festival, and Best Foreign Actress, British Academy, for The Pumpkin Eater, 1964; Best Actress, British Academy, for 84 Charing Cross Road, 1988. Address: c/o Toni Howard, William Morris Agency, 151 EL Camino Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 9021, U.S.A.
Films as Actress:
Don't Bother to Knock (Baker) (as Lyn Leslie)
Treasure of the Golden Condor (Daves) (as Marie); Tonight We Sing (Leisen) (as Mrs. Sol Hurok); The Kid from Left Field (Jones) (as Marian)
Demetrius and the Gladiators (Daves) (as Paula); The Raid (Fregonese) (as Katy Bishop); Gorilla at Large (Jones) (as Laverne Miller); A Life in the Balance (Horner) (as Maria Ibinia); New York Confidential (Rouse) (as Kathy Lupo)
The Naked Street (Shane) (as Rosalie Regalzyk); The Last Frontier (Mann) (as Corinna Marston)
Walk the Proud Land (Hibbs) (as Tianay); The Girl in Black Stockings (Koch) (as Beth Dixon); Nightfall (Tourneur) (as Marie Gardner); The Restless Breed (Dwan) (as Angelita)
The Miracle Worker (Penn) (as Annie Sullivan)
The Pumpkin Eater (Clayton) (as Jo Armitage)
The Slender Thread (Pollack) (as Inga Dyson); Seven Women (Ford) (as Dr. D. R. Cartwright)
The Graduate (Nichols) (as Mrs. Robinson)
Arthur Penn (Hughes—doc) (as an interviewee)
Young Winston (Attenborough) (as Lady Randolph Churchill)
The Prisoner of Second Avenue (Frank) (as Edna); The Hindenburg (Wise) (as the Countess)
Lipstick (Johnson) (as Carla Bondi); Silent Movie (Mel Brooks)
The Turning Point (Ross) (as Emma Jacklin)
Jesus of Nazareth (Zeffirelli) (as Mary Magdalene)
The Elephant Man (Lynch) (as Mrs. Kendal)
To Be or Not to Be (Mel Brooks) (as Anna Bronski)
Garbo Talks (Lumet) (as Estelle Rolfe)
Agnes of God (Jewison) (as Sister Miriam Ruth)
'night, Mother (Moore) (as Thelma Cates); 84 Charing Cross Road (Jones) (as Helene Hanff)
Torch Song Trilogy (Bogart) (as Ma)
Bert Rigby, You're a Fool (Carl Reiner) (as Meredith Perlestein)
Broadway Bound (Bogart); Love Potion No. 9 (Launer) (as Madame Ruth); Honeymoon in Vegas (Bergman) (as Bea Singer); Mrs. Cage (for TV)
Point of No Return (Badham) (as Amanda); Mr. Jones (Figgis) (as Dr. Catherine Holland); Malice (Becker) (as Claire Kennsinger)
How to Make an American Quilt (Moorhouse) (as Glady Jo) Home for the Holidays (Foster) (as Adele Larson)
Homecoming (Jean) (as Grandma)
G.I. Jane (Scott) (as Lillian DeHaven)
Great Expectations (Cuaron) (as Nora Dinsmoor); Mark Twain's America in 3D (Low) (as Narrator)
Deep in My Heart (Kern—for TV) (as Gerry Cummins)
Keeping the Faith (Norton); Up at the Villa (Haas) (as Princess San Ferdinando)
Breakers (Mirkin); Haven (Gray—for TV)
Film as Director and Scriptwriter:
Fatso (+ ro as Antoinette)
By BANCROFT: articles—
Interview with Allan Hunter, in Films and Filming (London), May 1987.
Interview with T. Casablanca, in Premiere (Boulder), December 1995.
On BANCROFT: book—
Holtzman, Will, Seesaw, A Dual Biography of Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks, New York, 1979.
On BANCROFT: articles—
Current Biography 1960, New York, 1960.
Arthur, Karen, "Anne Bancroft: She Paid Her Dues," in Close-Up: The Movie Star Book, edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.
"Anne Bancroft," in Ecran (Paris), September 1978.
Haspiel, J. R., "Anne Bancroft: The Odyssey of Ruby Pepper," in Films in Review (New York), January 1980.
"Anne Bancroft," in Film Dope (London), March, 1982.
Roth-Bettoni, Didier, "Troublez-nous encore," in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), May 1990.
* * *
Once upon a time, one could count on Anne Bancroft for consistent brilliance. As youth faded, she rushed prematurely into character work and dismayed those who fondly recalled the slinky glamor of her TV variety specials. Why survive being manhandled by a gorilla in 3-D, silence your naysayers by winning two Tony awards, an Emmy, and an Oscar, only to specialize in irascibly cute character roles (Home for the Holidays)? And yet, how can one censure her for playing the steady work game, when Hollywood cavalierly wastes the most gifted actresses of her era (Julie Harris, Gena Rowlands, and others).
Never garnering less than laudatory notices (Don't Bother to Knock, A Life in the Balance) during her starlet period, Bancroft showed her moxie by fleeing the twilight time of contractual stardom and resurrecting her career with two consecutive Broadway smashes. Although Two for the Seesaw disintegrated on-screen with Shirley MacLaine's gamine overload, director Arthur Penn fought for his original theater stars to shine in his trenchant visualization of The Miracle Worker. After her Oscar victory, Bancroft won universal acclaim as a housewife imprisoned by her own maternal instinct (The Pumpkin Eater), then reversed this victim image and became a sixties icon as The Graduate's Mrs. Robinson, a suburban mom manqué who might have died laughing at Stella Dallas's nobility. Occasionally recharging herself with Broadway stints (The Devils, Golda), Bancroft's finest hour in the seventies was a still-cherished TV variety special, Annie: The Women in the Life of a Man, which showcased a dazzling musical comedy brio (that briefly resurfaced in her husband's To Be or Not to Be remake where Bancroft's tomfoolery bore favorable comparison with Carole Lombard's).
Although The Turning Point restored melodrama to transitory box-office glory, Bancroft's Daughter-of-Bette-Davis thesping barely tapped her resources. And if 84 Charing Cross Road was stagebound and Garbo Talks was gimmicky, Bancroft evidenced enough magnetism to transform medium and long shots into personal close-ups. In addition to wasting her time with great lady stints in Young Winston and Elephant Man, she sugarcoated otherwise perceptive interpretations of vinegary characters (Agnes of God, 'night, Mother) with her own desire to be liked. Through all the years of compromised performances, however, Bancroft rebounded again and again. In virtual cameos in Malice and Point of No Return, she electrified stalled escapism with mini tour de forces in which a lifetime of training pulsed through every gesture.
Television has been particularly stimulating for Bancroft who spilled an entire Crayola box of colors over her elegist role in The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. As the careworn homemaker railing against obsolescence in Mrs. Cage, Bancroft was a virtuoso clearly deserving of the epithet, great actress. Proving her outbreaks of hamminess aren't chronic, she displayed a rock-like resolve as a grandmother refusing to surrender to tenderness in 1996's Homecoming. Her affinity for the small screen was once again demonstrated with her trenchant performance in the melodramatic Deep in My Heart. When she attacked her roles cleanly without fussbudget mannerisms or a conspiratorial wink, she was surpassingly effective.
On the big screen, her problem has been less one of mis-application than over-application of her gifts, particularly a tornadic delivery, which many directors, seem incapable of harnessing.
For someone who rejected the role of Mommie Dearest, she often seems to be out-Dunawaying Faye. Apparently, the old reliable Bancroft was unavailable for the filming of Michael Cimino's pious drivel, Sunchaser, because over-the-top Anne blasted viewers out of their seat with a saccharine cameo as an alternative medicine practitioner. Is it any wonder she would load up a fusillade of acting tricks, when a mere volley would serve unworthy roles better—you could sense this short-changed performer's anger in How to Make an American Quilt, because she had been given nothing but attitudes to play. The potential for a moving experience featuring wonderful, seasoned actresses was botched in an attempt to have them prop up their less interesting star, Winona Ryder.
And yet, she continued astonishing fans in the oddest of places, none odder than a Demi Moore vehicle, GI JANE, in which she bent her Anna Magnani-intensity to serve her characterization as a cold-bloodedly pragmatic senator, trading in feminist causes to promote her own glory. Every time one's heart leapt with joy, however, the false Anne returned with a vengeance, as in Great Expectations. This MTV-style update was as exhaustively excessive as the recent BBC production (with Charlotte Rampling also falling short) was enervatingly muffled. Outfitted like a crone version of Jean Shrimpton, Bancroft portrayed Miss Haversham as a victim of fashion, not passion. As futilely grotesque a performance as you will ever see, Bancroft comported herself like a John Waters discovery on Crystal-Meth. Of course, she didn't bore you like De Niro does in his cameo, but she was brutalized by a director who used her for camp relief in a bankrupt re-conception of Dickens. Will she rediscover, at this late career juncture, the ability to simmer instead of boil over? (Not on the evidence of her cutesy turn in Edward Norton's directorial debut, Keeping the Faith.) Self-defeatingly, she seems to be undermining the adage that there are no small parts, only small actors, into a new proposition: There are only showy parts for veteran actors too big for small parts.
"Bancroft, Anne." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/bancroft-anne
"Bancroft, Anne." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved February 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/bancroft-anne
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Anne Bancroft, 1931–2005, American actress, b. New York City as Anna Maria Italiano. Her New York stage debut in Two for the Seesaw (1958) was a major triumph. She was acclaimed for her performance in The Miracle Worker (1959) and won an Academy Award for the 1962 film version. Her role as the predatorily seductive Mrs. Robinson in Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967) is a cinema classic. An extremely versatile and active performer, Bancroft starred in dozens of films, including The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Seven Women (1966), The Turning Point (1977), Agnes of God (1985), Torch Song Trilogy (1988), Great Expectations (1998), and Up at the Villa (2000). With husband Mel Brooks, she appeared in Silent Movie (1975) and To Be or Not To Be (1983). In 1980, she directed her first movie, Fatso, in which she also acted. After a 21-year absence from the stage, Bancroft starred as sculptor Louise Nevelson in Albee's off-Broadway play Occupant (2002).
"Bancroft, Anne." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bancroft-anne
"Bancroft, Anne." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved February 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bancroft-anne