Here's to you, Anna Maria Louisa Italiano Brooks
This news is a shock--Anne Bancroft is dead at age 73. I realize now that in the list of my ten favorite movie stars, she should have had a place.
But maybe I forgot to list her because she wasn't so much a movie star as an actress. One of the highlights of my childhood was being taken to the original Broadway production of "The Miracle Worker" and seeing Bancroft and Patty Duke go at it on stage. If you've only seen the movie, which is powerful enough, you can't even begin to imagine the fury and the sense of true danger they portrayed when seen live. How they did it night after night without breaking every bone in their bodies is a mystery.
And then, of course, there's her Mrs. Robinson. What would "The Graduate" have been without her? She was a beautiful, sophisticated, bitter burnt-out case. Who could forget those two delicious moments: Bancroft inhaling, then holding cigarette smoke in her mouth through Dustin Hoffman's awkward kiss and then exhaling afterwards; Bancroft watching Hoffman ineffectually trying to get service in the hotel bar and then taking charge herself, not even having to raise that amazing low and throaty voice of hers to get a waiter to instantaneously materialize at their table.
When I saw the movie as a college student, I thought Mrs. Robinson was funny. Seeing it again thirty years later, I knew she was tragic.
I have a confession to make: I was in a movie with Ms. Bancroft. Yes, back in my ballet dancer/teacher days, I was hired to do what's known as a "silent bit," which is only one small step above being an extra. In the 1977 movie "The Turning Point," I got paid a hundred dollars for a day of work, which seemed a princely sum to me at the time. It was hard work, too--we dancers had to suit up in various leotards and leg warmers, trying to look scruffy and yet glamorous at the same time.
We stood around on a cold stage for most of an entire day, waiting, for what I'm not quite sure. We weren't privy to the dialogue or the plot, we just knew it was a scene that was supposed to be a rehearsal, and the stars were there. I seem to recall that Anne Bancroft was present, although I'm sorry to say I don't exactly remember. Undoubtedly, though, Mikhail Barishnikov was, because I remember being astonished when for a moment I stood next to him and saw that, despite his wiry frame and majestic presence, he stood ever-so-slightly smaller than my own 5' 4".
Once in a while we were told to dance a little combination of steps they had set for us. Every now and then, while we waited and waited and waited, our muscles growing ever colder and colder, people armed with spray bottles would come by and spritz us with water to give the appearance that we were sweating heavily. I was in the back of the stage, so far away from the camera that, try as I might when I studied the scene much later on videotape, I could not find myself. The scene itself, product of a full day, passed in less than a minute and was quite inconsequential.
In that movie, Bancroft played an aging ballet dancer who had sacrificed marriage and family to her career, and was now faced with the emptiness of retirement. I'm happy to report that life did not imitate art in Bancroft's case. Her long marriage to Mel Brooks (something I never quite understood, not that it makes any difference), which produced a son Max, was reportedly that rarest of Hollywood commodities, a happy one.