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Here's to You Mrs Robinson

Anne Bancroft   

   
 
   

Ah, Mrs Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know, and so too do the scores of middle-aged gentleman for whom your stockinged leg and relentless seduction of gawky Benjamin fuelled their adolescent fantasies, retained forever as a fond memory. How your name has entered the modern day vernacular as a metaphor for the older experienced woman.

Anne Bancroft was 36 in 1967 when she immortalised the character, just six years older than Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate's seductee. Doris Day had been the favourite choice for the role, and Bancroft hated the way in which she thought she looked so old in the part. It also puzzled her as to why she was best remembered for this and not her Academy Award winning role in The Miracle Worker.

With her passing this week from a long battle against cancer at the age of 72 , the lights were dimmed on Broadway and those pubescent sixties boys shed a collective tear for their lost love. However, they were not alone. In a career spanning more than forty years, and despite being remembered as the raven-haired temptress, Anne Bancroft amassed a body of work that was both prodigious and critically well received.

Born Anna Maria Italiano in the Bronx, she changed her name to the more 'dignified' sounding 'Bancroft' when Fox The Miracle WorkerStudios felt that her own was too "ethnic". Her film debut came in 1952 with Don't Bother to Knock, and enjoyed small scale success, but it was The Miracle Worker in 1962 that propelled her to stardom. Bancroft played Annie Sullivan, the woman who triumphed against all odds to teach Helen Keller (played by Patty Duke) how to communicate. Bancroft herself claimed the film's director, Bonnie & Clyde's Arthur Penn, was the greatest influence on her career. Her performance won her an Academy Award, and perhaps provides a clue towards the affection held for the actress by both men and women alike. Striking and regal rather than blonde and preppy, Bancroft seemed to carve herself a career playing strong determined women with a streak of vulnerability. 1964 saw her star alongside James Mason and Peter Finch in The Pumpkin Eater, a grown-up film that examined the betrayals and consequences of infidelity within a marriage. Fortunately, this didn't echo events in her own life, with 1964 also marking the beginning of one of Hollywood's most enduring marriages, that of Bancroft to the producer/director/comedian Mel Brooks, one which lasted until her death.

She appeared in John Ford's final film, 7 Women, in 1966, a film saturated with strong female characters with Bancroft, dressed in men's attire and the loner of the group, the toughest of them all. Heading a female run Christian Mission, alongside such cinema stalwarts as Margaret Leighton and Flora Robson, she again played a character whose strength of character included compassion and loyalty, forcing her to make the ultimate sacrifice.

The Graduate On to The Graduate in 1967, it seems as many women as men feel an affection for Mrs Robinson, this most iconic of her roles. Her seduction of Benjamin not only merits a 'good on yer' nod from the female contingency, they also identify with the motives behind it. Mrs Robinson may be feisty but she's bitter at the mundane marriage an unplanned pregnancy warranted her, and the loss of her own needs. She tells Benjamin she has no interest in art only to tell him, moments later in bed, that she majored in art. "I guess you just lost interest over the years" says Benjamin. Her face turned from him, the harshness momentarily disappearing from her features, she says quietly: "I guess". Mrs Robinson's tale is a tragic one, ultimately losing everything, Benjamin, husband and even daughter Elaine. Lusted after she may be, but women know the real Mrs Robinson and pay heed to the cautionary tale. Directed by Mike Nichols, who recently directed the critically acclaimed Closer, The Graduate not only introduced the great Dustin Hoffman to the world, it gave us a heroine that would be worshipped by men and empathised and sympathised with by women, a near-perfect delineation of the divide between the sexes.

Bancroft's gift for choosing roles that exemplified flawed but human characters continued with such roles as Jenny, Lady Randolph Churchill in Young Winston (1972) , Mary Magdalene in the classic tv series Jesus of Nazareth (1977) , and alongside Shirley Maclaine in The Turning Point (1977). Her moving portrayal of the wealthy Mrs Kendal who befriends John Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980) helped change the public's perception of a man who hitherto had best been known as a Victorian side-show freak, and the stern but misguided Mother Superior in Agnes of God (1985) earned her another Academy Award nomination. 1987 and 1988 brought two more of her finest performances, in 84 Charing Cross Road and Torch Song Trilogy .

Whilst building a reputation as one of Hollywood's most respected of actresses, Bancroft always appeared to remain out of the spotlight. Her body of work showed no sign of abating, however, with the nineties seeing her appearing in such To Be or Not To Befilms as Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), How to Make an American Quilt and Home for the Holidays (both 1995), Great Expectations (1998) and Up at the Villa (2000). Alongside this, however, she also proved along the way that there was more than a streak of fun and humour running through the lady - she was, after all, married to the man who gave us such films as The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. In 1983, she appeared in Mel Brooks' remake of the Jack Benny movie To Be or Not To Be, in which she happily hammed it up alongside her on- and off-screen husband, proving remarkably skilled at doing so. In later years she put that once derided ethnicity to full use to play a gypsy woman in Dracula: Dead and Loving it (1995), and provided the voice of the Queen in Antz (1998), a role similar to the one currently in post-production, with Bancroft voicing the character of Sedessa in the animated comedy fantasy adventure Delgo .

Small wonder that Anne Bancroft often wondered why she was most remembered for one particular role when she had so many fine performances tucked under her belt. However, Mrs Robinson defined a moment in many people's own lives. That the woman who played her did so by her own rules, did not succumb to the Hollywood starlet route, and consistently delivered strong and complex characters, yet demonstrated a healthy sense of humour and clearly enjoyed a successful and loving marriage only served to strengthen that place in the public's affections.

Here's to you Mrs Robinson.

Jean Lynch

 

 
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