These days, the scenario of a neglected wife having an affair with the son of her husband's law partner would be too tame for a TV talk show. It would make it to the air only if the host tried to help the woman work things out after her daughter ran away with her lover.
Back in 1967, the script to The Graduate treated its now-famous wandering wife, Mrs. Robinson, as a predatory comic monster. But thanks to Anne Bancroft, who died Monday, she became the most sensual and complex character in the movie -- and its least-dated achievement.
Director Mike Nichols wanted Jeanne Moreau for the role, but wound up with someone more apt: as Mrs. Robinson, Bancroft became a sensational American Moreau, with a quicksilver erotic ambience plus tinges of warmth and lightness that cement her crack bits of comedy.
The running joke in the movie is that Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) wants to talk and have what future cosmopolites would call a "relationship," while Mrs. Robinson wants sex. But Bancroft shows that Mrs. Robinson likes the sex -- she conveys how it renews her vitality. Rubbing her hands over her lover's chest, she expresses the pleasure this woman takes in being close to a strong young body.
Because Bancroft had such an up-and-down career -- in movies, she started at the bottom, with roles like the femme fatale in the 3-D circus murder story, Gorilla at Large (1954) -- her creation of a milestone character has often been seen as an anomaly. But Bancroft had given two great performances before, in The Miracle Worker (1962) and The Pumpkin Eater (1964), and Mrs. Robinson became a cultural bellwether because of Bancroft's characterization, not because of Buck Henry's writing or Nichols' direction.
When Benjamin disrupts the church where her daughter Elaine has just married a med student, Mrs. Robinson smiles for a second, just before she snarls; it's as if, in her gut, she approves his attempt to save her daughter from something potentially as false and empty as her own marriage.
From Charles Webb's source novel on, the story is conventional; the unfaithful woman must be punished, the true lovers must have their day. Luckily, Bancroft never allows the filmmakers to demonize Mrs. Robinson completely.
The comic Mrs. Robinson sequences really do blend intelligence, sensuality and hijinks. It remains an unqualified delight to see and hear Bancroft turn simple statements and questions into a comic gavotte: "I am not trying to seduce you. ... Would you like me to seduce you?"
And she brings her more serious moments with Benjamin a complicated charge. She's a bigger person than he is. When he badgers her into admitting that she got pregnant from backseat sex, she withstands Benjamin's Neanderthal insensitivity when he says, "That's great -- so old Elaine Robinson got started in a Ford." Her appetite and ardor burst the confines of the fable. No wonder the moral onus that Nichols and Henry put on her faded within a matter of years. "Mrs. Robinson" was used to describe any older woman who was having an affair with a young man.
Tenderness and fury
Bancroft, a Bronx girl born Anna Maria Italiano in 1931, had a grit that got audiences and critics pulling for her through funky pictures and thankless roles. Starting out in TV in 1951, she "went Hollywood" only to land in one big-screen turkey after another from 1952 to 1957. Returning to New York, she found artistic salvation on the stage. Arthur Penn cast her in William Gibson's Two for the Seesaw (she won a Tony Award), and then in Gibson's The Miracle Worker, as Helen Keller's mentor, Annie Sullivan (she won another one). And when Penn got the chance to turn The Miracle Worker into his second movie (in 1962), he insisted on casting Bancroft.
She won her only best actress Academy Award for her characterization of Sullivan. It may be the supreme big-screen portrayal of the agony and the ecstasy of teaching.
From the moment Sullivan enters the picture, embarking on an exhausting series of train rides from Boston to a small Southern town to treat the blind, deaf Keller, Bancroft imbues the instructor with an extraordinary mixture of tenderness and fury.
Only a supremely gifted actress would make the choices Bancroft does here. Saying farewell to her old teacher, Sullivan displays a youthful softness and eagerness that she reserves for private moments. Under Penn's robust yet sensitive guidance, Bancroft's Sullivan doesn't plead for sympathy, neither from the Kellers nor the audience -- though, as the victim of a brutal upbringing in a state institution, Sullivan nearly went blind herself and (after nine operations) still requires dark glasses.
When she pleads for Keller, it's for respect, not sympathy. Bancroft does something exhilaratingly difficult here. Sullivan disdains the family's pity -- "It's less trouble to feel sorry for her," she says of Helen, "than it is to teach her anything better." But Bancroft manages to be ferociously right without ever being self-righteous.
Such is the range of Bancroft's performance she never loses her footing from one extreme to the other. She triumphantly demonstrates that every fiber of Sullivan's being is committed to teaching Keller first the rudiments of human integrity (such as eating from one's own plate) and then the link between hand-formed language and reality.
Her complete physical, emotional and intellectual commitment makes the knock-down, drag-out clash between her and Keller in a dining room one of the most amazing fight scenes in film history: Bancroft, and Patty Duke as Keller, and Penn behind the camera, give their clash of wills an intensity and logic that never seem rehearsed.
When Sullivan grabs a half-dozen or more spoons to shove in Keller's fist knowing that the girl will throw them away, the repeated action has the spiritual thunder of a spontaneous anvil chorus. Yet Bancroft's performance is just as vivid in its quiet moments: When Sullivan sings "Hush Little Baby, Don't You Cry" as if Keller could hear it, the purity of Bancroft's emotion rids the bit of any sentimentality and links it to this heroine's belief in the rhythm and meaning of language -- building to the glorious moment when Keller feels water and spells it.
A poet's touch
Bancroft's performance as the housewife in Jack Clayton's The Pumpkin Eater (1964) is a masterpiece of moodiness and suggestion; as a much-married woman who finds happiness only in carrying and raising children, she conveys depression with a poet's touch.
Like much of Clayton's best work (The Innocents, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne), it may have been too uncompromising to reach a mass audience. But three years before The Graduate, it showed that Bancroft could play in the European big leagues. And as Annie Sullivan and Mrs. Robinson, she created a heroine and an anti-heroine of equal magnetism and stature.
To do it once requires talent and luck; to do it twice requires luck and a bit of genius.