|"She would stop you from breathing, because there was something stunning about her." - Dustin Hoffman|
She was born in the Bronx, as Anna Maria Louisa Italiano, to a proudly Italian Catholic immigrant family. (Years later, she was told to pick out a stage name from a list given to her by the studio because her given name was "too ethnic", and so she chose Bancroft because it was the only one that "didn't sound like a stripper.") As a child, she scrawled "I want to be an actress," on the back wall of her family's flat, and at nineteen, after a stint at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, she set out for Hollywood to make that dream true. Unfortunately, the studio was more interested in giving her a sex symbol buildup than investing in her acting potential, and she spent the majority of the 1950s muddling through B films that exploited her looks rather than her talent. She turned her career around by heading back to her hometown, New York City, and participating in the Actors Studio and HB Studio, and within a year, she was an overnight Broadway success. When she returned to movies to film The Miracle Worker (1962), there would be no more cheesecake pinups for this serious leading lady, but instead, a Best Actress Oscar. The career that followed is more of the career that we associate with Anne Bancroft - one where she was selective about the films she agreed to appear in, determined never to appear in duds like Gorilla at Large (1954) again.
Her shiny black hair, beautifully shaped mouth, winged cheekbones and intensely expressive dark eyes lent her a startling, fresh beauty. And it was a beauty that she never seemed to lose: well into her film appearances of the 1990s and 2000s, she was unfailingly lovely looking. People magazine named her as one of their "most beautiful" when she was sixty-six. Yes, she had wrinkles, and she looked her age, but in spite of that, she had aged with grace, in a way that perhaps only Mrs. Robinson could. As for her acting ability, you could get me started on my campaign for why she should have won the 1964 and 1967 Oscars as well, but I also think that Arthur Penn put it best when he said that, "More happens in her face in ten seconds than happens in most women's faces in ten years." Anne could convey so much just with the sheen of her eyes, and that's what I appreciate most about her acting. She had a vulnerability about her that she brought to every role, a part of her that never lost the little girl from the Bronx.
Anne was loving, confident, easy, warm, earthy, funny, and all the while never taking any bullshit. There are so many stories about Anne that I love. I could begin with the rapport she developed with Patty Duke while they were on Broadway doing The Miracle Worker. They learned sign language and signed to each other secret messages, which drove Arthur Penn crazy. They fell apart laughing together over a ridiculous stage prop wax ham that fell unnaturally when it was sliced. In an incident where a door onstage was locked during a performance and Anne couldn't get it open to exit the scene, she began to swear profusely, so Patty covered her her curses with Helen's guttural noises. (Eventually, Anne scooped Patty up in her arms and climbed out through a window). And each show before the curtain, Patty spent half an hour in Anne's dressing room. "Ninety percent of actors won't let you do that," Patty wrote later, "Especially not a kid, but never did she say, 'no, you can't come in now.'" Patty hung around, toyed with her makeup and perfumes, and watched Anne finish dressing for the show. "'Do we know every minute of everyday?' That half an hour I knew. The whole feeling of the room, the temperature, the smells, the perfume, the costumes, and her, just her," she recalled. Patty was struggling with abusive stage parents at the time, and "felt from Annie the sense that it was truly possible for someone to care about and accept me, to want me to be intelligent and mature." Years later, when Patty, under the strain of bipolar disorder became pregnant and was unsure of the baby's father, she called Anne, who came right away to help her. When Anne died, Patty wrote in an obituary for her, "She taught me, by example, not by lecture, the ethics and disciplines of the theater. She was also one of the sexiest creatures that ever lived. Without being too obvious, I stole as much as I could from her behavior."
Teaching by example and not by lecture was something her friend, Alan Alda, also attributed to Anne. When Anne and Mel vacationed with Alda's family, he recalled Anne collecting sea glass with his children and grandchildren, putting them in touch with nature with her own admiration of beauty. In his eulogy for her, he told of how after undergoing chemotherapy for her cancer, she knit hats of marvellous colors and textures to cover her head. Her favorite director was Arthur Penn, and she was his favorite actress. They worked together not only on the film version of The Miracle Worker, for which she won a Best Actress Oscar, but multiple times on the stage as well. Her breakout Broadway performance, Two For the Seesaw, was under Penn's direction, and he would remember with astonishment her determination and drive: "Annie changed my life not only because she brought both of us success, but because she taught me the importance of always being hungry, of always trying harder, of always defying expectations." When Anne gleefully presented her friend Sidney Poitier with his Best Actor Oscar in 1963, at the height of racial tensions, she threw her arms around him and kissed him on national television, for which she received tons of hate mail and even death threats.
Anne's marriage to Mel Brooks seemed like Hollywood's most unusual couple. When Mel told his mother he was in love with an Italian Catholic girl, she responded with, "Bring her over - I'll be in the kitchen, with my head in the oven!" But with a second glance, when one looks beyond their physicality, religions, and divergent career pursuits, there are similarities: they were both the children of New York boroughs, of ethnic families that instilled in them similar values, and she loved to laugh and he loved to make her laugh. When you look it at that way, it's not so hard to understand why their union survived up until her death. Mel, who was head over heels with whom he called "the most gorgeous woman that ever lived", was "trapped in a pit of depression" following her death and even now, finds it hard to talk about her. He usually only manages an anecdote about that time they sang "Sweet Georgia Brown" in Polish together (for 1982's To Be or Not To Be) and she exaggerated the movements of her lips to help him learn the song. "It is very difficult to go on without her," he said last year. Their son, Max Brooks, is the author of World War Z, the book that inspired the blockbuster Brad Pitt vehicle, and is most likely today's leading authority on zombies. (Yes, Mrs. Robinson and The 20,000 Year Old Man gave birth to a zombie expert). Max is their only child, and as an only child myself, this is something I can't help but appreciate. Max, who is dyslexic, credits his mother for helping him to conquer his initial fear of reading and then inspiring him to love it, so much so he became a writer himself. Anne (who essentially gave up her career after having Max "in the nick of time" at forty-one) read to him every night before bed, and if she couldn't be there to read to him, she recorded her voice on tapes. She also took his schoolbooks to the institute for the blind and had them also translated to audio. The last page of World War Z, published the year after her death, reads simply, "I love you, Mom."
Max has also shared that Anne was a passionate gardener. Mel always told his son behind her back that her love of the land came from her "Italian peasant heritage." Max remembers his mom retreating to the garden after dinner, recruiting a reluctant Mel and Max to help her tend to her plants, crying out theatrically every time she saved one of them from being molested by a worm. Now that she is gone, Max and Mel took up the garden as a way of healing. Max finds himself as protective of the plants as mom had been, and takes pride in the organic selection of vegetables he now has to offer to his own wife and son.
Lastly, one of my favorite anecdotes about her is a fan's story from 2002, just three years before her death. Anne had returned to the stage for what would be the final time in a play called Occupant. She was a riot during her performances; when a woman started to exit through the back of the theater during her monologue, she cried out, "Darling, you're leaving? Please, dear, please, I'm almost finished! Gimme a shot, would ya?" The time of this fan's visit, a woman had been coughing continuously for minutes on end, and finally got up, perhaps, to get a drink, to which Anne said, "It's about time. Go get some water or something." After that show, this fan and her daughter waited at the stage door for Anne to come out. When a security guard told them that Anne wasn't going to be leaving any time soon, they pleaded with him just to get a glimpse of her. He told them he'd see what he could do, and he came back to say that Anne would seem them separately. They went back to see her in her dressing room, and the fan's first words were, "Quanto sei bella" at the sight of seeing Anne, who got a kick out of this and told her, "No, tu sei bella!" Anne talked with them for a long time, holding the woman's hand throughout their conversation and hugging them before they left.
I quoted Patty Duke earlier, where she said that she stole as much from Anne's behavior as she could without being too obvious - and I too, wish I could be like her in many ways, for there are just so many things that I admire about her. Finally, I'd like to suggest that if you ever have some free time, you should watch this interview she did with Charlie Rose in 2000. The interview ends with Charlie Rose proclaiming, "I am mad for you!" and you will be, too.