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Chutzpah and Grace: Anne Bancroft (1931-2005)

Beth Gottfried

Anne Bancroft was one classy broad.

Anne Bancroft was one classy broad. A feisty Italian girl from the Bronx, she provided a stark contrast to the glamour-pusses of her day. In her selection of roles and commitment to her craft, Bancroft came to embody the struggles of many of the women of her generation, strong, dignified, and quietly compelling.

Anna Maria Italiano studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and landed bit TV parts before heading to California and a contract with 20th Century Fox. Renamed "Bancroft," she spent her early years in Hollywood working hard: she starred in over 15 films, including her debut, Don't Bother to Knock (1952), before returning to NYC and the stage. It was under Arthur Penn's direction on Broadway that Bancroft began to view acting more as art, less an occupation; she starred in Two for the Seesaw (1958) opposite Henry Fonda and The Miracle Worker (1959). Both of these collaborations with Penn resulted in Tony awards, and when she remade The Miracle Worker for film in 1962, she won an Oscar as well.

On screen, Bancroft played a suffering, ill-fated wife in The Pumpkin Eater (1964), but off-screen, never played second fiddle to her husband, Mel Brooks. The two would only star in one film together, To Be or Not to Be (1983), in which they played an unhappily married couple. She served as Brooks' muse in jumpstarting his theatrical career, encouraging him to get serious about writing The Producers (1967).

While Bancroft performed in over 50 films, it was the role of sultry adulterer, Mrs. Robinson, in Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967) for which she is best known. Though she worried about being typecast, Bancroft took her fame with a grain of salt. "I didn't appreciate it at first," she told the New York Times in 2002. "As the years went on, I began to have fun and take pleasure in it. To this day, when men meet me, there's always that movie in the back of their minds."

With this role, Bancroft established herself as part "thinking man's fantasy" and part feminist champion. In John Ford's last film, 7 Women (1966), she played an American doctor and atheist during China's Civil War. Bancroft sought out challenging, contrasting roles, including a woman on the verge of suicide, with Sidney Poitier in The Slender Thread (1965) and Mother Superior in Agnes of God (1985), for which she received her final Oscar nod. (Previous nominations came for The Pumpkin Eater [1964], The Graduate, and The Turning Point [1977].)

In recent years, Bancroft turned to TV and returned to her activist roots. In Deep in My Heart (1999), she played a Boston mother raped by a black man, who gives her daughter up for adoption, only to have her daughter suffer emotional trauma after finding out that she was indeed the product of rape. She won an Emmy for this role. In all her efforts, Bancroft demonstrated equal measures of chutzpah and grace. And for that, we can be grateful.

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