Before we called them MILFs or cougars – long before – there was only Mrs. Robinson. She was a mid-1960s adolescent fantasy come true; the sexy, available older woman/housewife next door with an appetite for young not-quite-men/not-quite-boys. She became so indelibly, boldly etched in the public consciousness that the name became a noun – and, for young males, a hope – and the referenced fodder for a thousand if-only-they-were-true Letters to Penthouse.
But the character in the movie The Graduate (1967) was no exercise in wish fulfillment, no Weird Science (1985) or Risky Business (1983) teen’s wet dream. Rather, Mrs. Robinson was a devouring suburban nightmare, a paean to unmoored youth and disillusioned adulthood and life-draining, soul-killing upper middle class ennui.
Over four decades later, the name still resonates, her portrait so deeply carved into the pop culture by Anne Bancroft’s letter perfect Oscar-nominated performance that Mrs. Robinson remains the proto-MILF/cougar, the root of that particular sexual anthropological tree. Throughout her career, Bancroft would be approached by admirers to be told that, as young men, her Mrs. Robinson had been their first sexual fantasy. That unending tribute demonstrated how well she had captured the undeniable casual eroticism of the character.
And it irritated the hell out of her because it sometimes seemed as if she’d done nothing else…and that was hardly true, hardly true at all.
She’d been born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano in the Bronx of immigrant parents, attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and almost immediately found work in the early years of live TV.
A friend of hers was called for a screen test at 20th Century Fox, and Bancroft followed along to read opposite. Fox passed on the friend but offered Bancroft a studio contract. She jumped at the opportunity, later admitting she had wanted not to be an actress, but a movie star. Fox chief Daryl Zanuck thought her name “too ethnic,” and gave her a list of possible alternatives. She picked “Bancroft” for its dignified sound.
At Fox, she became neither an actress nor a star. She might have had a new, dignified name, but the career Fox handed her was hardly comprised of classy stuff. The studio ran her through one forgettable flick after another; pictures like Gorilla at Large (1954) and New York Confidential (1955). “Every picture I did was worse than the last one,” she would later say. The parade of junk took a toll on her spirits and her personal life; her first marriage foundered.
As soon as her Fox contract expired, she high-tailed it back to New York to study at the legendary Actor’s Studio. She would come to the attention of Arthur Penn and later say the director was probably the single individual who’d had the greatest impact on her career.
Penn put her through a series of top-of-the-line performances which effectively re-minted Bancroft as an actress of the first order rebooting her career. On stage, she copped back-to-back Tony wins under Penn’s direction, first in the 1958 romantic comedy/drama, Two for the Seesaw, and then the following year for what would become one of her signature roles, that of Helen Keller’s tutor, Annie Sullivan, in The Miracle Worker. Penn would tap her again for the 1962 film version which would put an Oscar on her mantelpiece next to her two Tonys.
It would, over the years, become a rather crowded mantel.
For the next few years she split her time between stage and screen, consistently turning in acclaimed work and winning another Oscar nomination in 1964 as the dissatisfied housewife of Peter Finch in the Brit drama, The Pumpkin Eater.
But if Penn had been her first-stage booster rocket, Mike Nichols put her career in orbit with what is easily her best-remembered role as Mrs. Robinson in the screen adaptation of Charles Webb’s novel, The Graduate. She was 35 at the time, made up to play 40, while Dustin Hoffman was 30 playing painfully awkward 20-year-old Benjamin Braddock, freshly graduated from college, trapped between the great expectations of family and friends, and his own utter cluelessness as to what to do with his life. He finds a comfortable numbness in the seducing arms of family friend Mrs. Robinson.
As it turns out, Mrs. Robinson is looking for some numbness of her own. She’s never more sexy than her initial, liquory come-on (“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me…aren’t you?”), their later encounters becoming as erotic as a root canal. Mrs. Robinson isn’t there for romance or even for sex. She’s killing time, hitting on Benjamin the same way she hits on a bottle of booze. At one point, Benjamin, frustrated by the emptiness of their robotic trysts, presses her for conversation. For once, her self-control falters, and she allows herself one, pained rumination on her long-ago, dead dream of being an artist. For that moment, the gray-templed sex icon reveals the wounded soul under the well-coifed, immaculately posed exterior, and the predatory lady next door becomes both pitiful and pitiable. Benjamin is hiding from the terror of an unknowable future; Mrs. Robinson from the terror of her unbearable present. Said Bancroft of the character: “(We) reach a point in our lives, look around and realize that all the things we said we’d do and become will never come to be – and that we’re ordinary.”
She was a star now, but didn’t play the star game, didn’t make star choices, was even willing to pull back on her career a bit in favor of time at home. That stability and independence seemed to be directly tied to the stability she now had in her personal life.
In 1961, she met then comedy writer Mel Brooks while rehearsing for a TV show. According to Brooks, it was love at first sight, and three years later they were married. They seemed, to outsiders, the oddest of odd couples: the svelte, classy-looking, dark-haired Italian Catholic, and the short, homely, shtick-dishing Jewish shlubb. But, according to director Robert Allen Ackerman, they made “…one of the great show business love stories of all time…They were madly in love with each other…,” and they would laugh and love until her death.
If Bancroft sometimes chafed at how Mrs. Robinson overshadowed her later career, it’s understandable. The body of work she produced over the next thirty-plus years is impressive in its breadth and outstanding in its consistent quality. She moved between the big and small screen and the stage, gracefully aging from leading lady to character actress, piling on the critical plaudits year by year. She played drama (Young Winston, 1972; ‘night, Mother, 1986), she played comedy (The Prisoner of Second Avenue, 1975; Honeymoon in Vegas, 1992); she played cultured upscale ladies (The Elephant Man, 1980), she played noodgy yentas (Broadway Bound, 1992). She would add another Tony nomination to her score playing Golda Meir on Broadway in 1977’s Golda, and run her Oscar nomination tally to five with her portrayal of a fading prima ballerina in The Turning Point (1977), and the tough-minded mother superior of Agnes of God (1995). She increasingly turned to television where there were better roles for mature actresses, amassing five Emmy nods and wins for Annie, the Women in the Life of a Man (1970), and Deep in My Heart (1999), making her the 15th performer to take the Triple Crown of Oscar, Tony, and Emmy wins.
Though much of her work had an upscale prestige to it, she was not above knocking herself off her classy pedestal, buffooning around in her husband’s Silent Movie (1976), his remake To Be or Not to Be (1983), and his parody Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995). She even turned up as a shrink in a 1994 episode of “The Simpsons,” trying to cure Marge of her fear of flying.
She kept her private life private, not sharing her battle with uterine cancer, working nearly to the end, picking up her last Emmy nomination for the Showtime TV movie, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (2003), and then cutting up with her husband in a 2004 episode of the HBO comedy series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, with her and Mel Brooks goofily parodying a scene from his 1968 classic, The Producers. For many, then, her death was unexpected and a tragic surprise.
She wanted it otherwise, but even if she were only remembered for The Miracle Worker and The Graduate, there’s many a lengthy filmography which can’t boast even one work of that caliber. For those who knew her – and particularly, those who knew her well – her legacy consists of so much more. Said David Geffen, “She was the consummate everything. Actress, comedienne, beauty, mother and wife. She made it all look easy.”
- Bill Mesce