My current Top 5

My current Top 5

6/12/2010

Best Actress 1967: Anne Bancroft in "The Graduate"

How many truly iconic movie performances have ever been nominated for an Oscar? Well, there are a few. There is Scarlett O’Hara. There is Don Corleone. There is Mary Poppins. There is Norma Desmond. There is Rhett Butler. There is Baby Jane. And there is Mrs. Robinson. In the later years of her life, Anne Bancroft often complained that her appearance in The Graduate overshadowed most of the other work of her career – a career that gained her critical acclaim on the screen, on the stage and on television and turned her into an Oscar-, Tony- and Emmy-winning actress. And so her remark points out how much these kinds of iconic roles can be both a blessing and a curse for an actor. On the one hand, securing the one role that will forever become a part of movie history must certainly be a never to be repeated thrill. But if that one role continues to hold its claws over an actor’s reputation and resume and therefore always overshadows the actor’s own identity, the results must surely be frustrating. Fortunately for Anne Bancroft, her Mrs. Robinson never prevented her from continuing to work as a highly versatile actress – mostly because Mrs. Robinson became a character that seems to exist independently from its creator. Vivien Leigh could appear in any part in any movie she liked but most people would still associate her with Scarlett O’Hara because in this case, actress and character seem inseparable. Could anyone think of Holly Golightly without immediately thinking of Audrey Hepburn, too? But the character or Mrs. Robinson seems to have left all the connection to its origins and became an iconic creation completely on its own. Neither Anne Bancroft nor The Graduate are truly needed any more for her. Marry Poppins is always Julie Andrews. Don Corleone is always Marlon Brando. But Mrs. Robinson never ceases to exist without Anne Bancroft. The single line ‘Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me’ and the famous ‘And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson’ have made her the kind of phenomenon that even people who never heard of either Anne Bancroft or The Graduate are aware of. And so, despite the iconic status of the character of Mrs. Robinson, Anne Bancroft’s actual performance of this woman seems to be completely separated from what Mrs. Robinson by now has become in the public’s mind. So – how much did she actually contribute to the success of this character? Did she benefit from the writing and the style of the movie that was sure to turn Mrs. Robinson into the center of attention? Or was she more than just a pure vessel and in her work laid the foundation that would enable Mrs. Robinson to turn into the sensation she is today? This question is, obviously, very hard to answer – who knows exactly why a certain performance or a certain character turns into an iconic creation and why others do not? But what is possible is a look at Anne Bancroft’s work in The Graduate from an independent point-of-view, forgetting everything about its reputation and fame and just see how Anne Bancroft approached Mrs. Robinson, how she crafted her thoughts and feelings and how the origins of the character were defined.

It seems surprising that the nomination of Anne Bancroft also brings back the never-ending discussion – leading or supporting? Hardly anyone ever defies Anne Bancroft’s leading status but looking at The Graduate, it’s actually surprising that her screen time is rather small and the character drops out of the movie in the second half almost completely. But after having established herself as a leading actress due to her Oscar win for The Miracle Worker and another nomination for The Pumpkin Eater, Anne Bancroft would certainly not have dropped to the supporting category now. But this does not mean that this category placement is the result of vanity – Mrs. Robinson, despite being pushed in the background very often and seeming of secondary importance compared to Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin, is always the driving force of The Graduate, not only setting the action in motion but constantly deciding its tempo and rhythm, dominating the story and the other characters even when she disappears from the plot. Sure, a less-known actress might have decided to enter the supporting category and would not have received any complaints for it but the leading category makes just as much sense for this character. But maybe this is not a question of ‘well-known’ or ‘less-known’ actress – but only of how much quality the actress in case actually brings to the role. The script of The Graduate does not define and shape Mrs. Robinson to the point where an actress only needs to speak the words and let the writing do the rest – instead, the character left large rooms for interpretation and different approaches. She could have been played as a pure comic relief or a sexy, fun-loving adulteress or a grotesque monster or even more. Such a timid, conventional or undecided approach to the role might easily have put Mrs. Robinson in the second line – the script and the direction might be fascinated with her character but they do not automatically result in a fascinating performance. But Anne Bancroft managed to work in perfect harmony with the style of the picture while also crafting Mrs. Robinson completely independent from it, making her an essential part of the story as well as a constant outsider who never really loses her distance. Combined with her matter-of-fact, sensual, thoughtful, complex and provoking approach to the part she single-handedly turned Mrs. Robinson into the domineering, unforgettable and unique creation she turned out to be and thereby making the leading category for her work much more plausible than other actresses might have done.

The Graduate is a movie that seems to be mix of everything – drama, comedy, satire, a movie that is strangely timeless despite so depending on the time it was made in and portrays. It shows characters that are lost in their life, young people trying to find their own direction and others trying to influence them, a world of people rejecting ideas and demands and people wanting to shape a new generation according to their own ideals. In the middle of all this is Mrs. Robinson – a woman apparently not interested in anything. She finds no joy or comfort in either of these groups but also refuses to be any kind of missing link. She obviously wants to seduce a younger generation for her own purpose – even if that is different from the others – but she is not standing as a symbol for an older generation, constantly distancing herself from any possible attachment. The Graduate might be filled with people who are ‘speaking without speaking’ and ‘hearing without hearing’ – but Mrs. Robinson is not among them. Instead, no character possesses such an understanding of what is going on and of its own position in the structure of the presented relationships. She never seems to pursue a personal agenda or desire, instead trying to find some kind of diversion in an existence that is mostly shaped by regrets and missed chances. There is something shockingly empty about her as she makes love to Benjamin like a business transaction, rid of any personal feelings or closeness. She is very direct about her sexual interest in Benjamin but she never appears to be desperate in any way – her affair with this young man is neither a return to her own youth nor does it bring her any kind of personal fulfillment. Instead, Anne Bancroft constantly reminds Benjamin as well as the audience that she only follows her own rules without any compromises. Her affair is never something she truly needs – instead, it seems to be another way for Mrs. Robinson to spend the day, to forget her constant regrets and sorrows. But even during the short moments in which Mrs. Robinson actually talks about herself instead of constantly creating her own aura of false sincerity, Anne Bancroft never lets her out of the dark completely. There are performances that tell the viewers everything about the character and there are performances that tell the viewer just a little bit – this can be the purpose of the performance to create a sense of mystery or it can be the fault of the actor or actress who are not able to create three-dimensionality in their interpretation. In the case of Mrs. Robinson, Anne Bancroft walked a very thin line to show the audience enough of an unsatisfied, lonely and also dangerous woman but constantly refused to open her up in any way. This was a very daring approach that could easily have destroyed its own purpose – if Anne Bancroft had told too little, Mrs. Robinson would not have turned out to be the fascinating character she was and if she had told too much it might have destroyed the mysterious aura she so carefully constructed. But Anne Bancroft managed to find exactly the right balance, turning Mrs. Robinson into a constant riddle that escapes every bit of logic, a riddle that was never intended to have an answer. It’s a testament to Anne Bancroft’s abilities that her Mrs. Robinson still turned out to be so dynamic that it became unnecessary to know more about her because it would only destroy the mystery and fascination of this character. Losing the distance that Anne Bancroft keeps to her surroundings as well as the audience would be like knowing the tricks of a magician – the whole excitement would be gone. It’s possible to speculate and guess but the truth will never be fully revealed – just like a magician’s trick Anne Bancroft’s performance leaves room open for all kinds of speculations and interpretations. But besides letting Mrs. Robinson be a strange and unfathomable creation, Anne Bancroft also crafted her as a completely real and natural character. Mrs. Robinson might be strangely stylized but there is also an honest core that Anne Bancroft displays with touching sincerity.

Just like The Graduate itself, Mrs. Robinson combines various aspects – drama, comedy, satire, each of them sometimes finding its way into Anne Bancroft’s performance, coming and going, flowing into each other but never dominating the overall character. She clearly has an understanding of Mrs. Robinson’s psychological inner life and portrays this inner turmoil with clear precision and outward order. Overall, Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson is a much more tragic than funny creation even if she does find moments to inject a dry humor into the proceedings – her face as she listens to Benjamin’s nervous ramblings on the phone is much more amused, softer and understanding than it would ever be again. And Anne Bancroft also used her first scenes opposite Benjamin and later during their first time in the hotel room to let Mrs. Robinson find an occasional bit of emphatic amusement. But mostly, Anne Bancroft portrayed her role without any grand exaggeration but a straightforwardness that created a stark contrast to the unique nature of the part. Her matter-of-fact approach to her role, the smoldering eroticism she displays on the screen while always keeping up the façade of a bored housewife and her strong screen presence result in a strangely complex and profound presentation of a seemingly empty woman. And as the different emotions of Mrs. Robinson come and go, Anne Bancroft rarely changes her own interpretation and uses small hints to suggest at her character’s inner feelings. Her Mrs. Robinson sparkles with self-confidence and calmness but these two aspects constantly cover all deeper feelings, may they be anxiety, anger, sadness, insecurity or annoyance. How many actresses would have used Mrs. Robinson’s line ‘I’m very neurotic’ to insert a good deal of comedy in their characterization? But Anne Bancroft’s matter-of-fact delivery without any hint of irony or humor makes Mrs. Robinson so much more interesting mostly because her performances constantly defies everything that usually would be expected. She further establishes this aspect of her character during the first meeting with Benjamin in the hotel room – she asks her question if he is afraid of her again completely straight-forward, neither sweet, delighted, worried or curious, teasing him with her questions about his virginity and basically playing with him like a puppet on a string, only trying to move the situation ahead, no matter in which direction, Mrs. Robinson might be the one who initiated the affair but it doesn’t seem to be something that she ‘needs’ or ‘enjoys’ or uses to break out of her daily life. She is willing to get on with it just as easily as she would be willing to end it again if necessary.

It is mostly this almost mysterious indifference that creates the most memorable moments in this performance. Anne Bancroft’s face of complete disregard when Benjamin awkwardly grabs her breast might be hilariously odd but her later scenes in which she is finally telling more about Mrs. Robinson’s character brilliantly help this performance to come to a full circle. Anne Bancroft perfectly understands the deep bitterness in Mrs. Robinson, a woman who studied art and most likely dreamed of a life of personal fulfilment – until a pregnancy forced her into an existence she most likely wanted to avoid just as much as Benjamin wants to avoid the life that his parents have planned for him. But even in displaying Mrs. Robinson’s emotional pain, Anne Bancroft keeps tight control over her work, making the shift in her character as well as in the dynamic of her relationship with Benjamin only slightly noticeable despite the depth of her revelations. Only few performances are able to create such a lifetime of sorrow that comes from self-pity and true inabilities for having done anything different in just a few moments. Anne Bancroft’s eyes can express grief about the past, indifference about the present and horror about the future while never letting her physical nakedness in front of Benjamin becoming an emotional one, too – even in her moments of self-reflection, Mrs. Robinson wants to keep her distance and the role she is comfortable with. Mrs. Robinson is aware that she has basically turned into ‘plastic’ herself, living a robot-like existence from day to day, unable to find true pleasure in anything she does but accepts it – this is the main reason for her actually being much closer to the type of people like her husband or Benjamin’s parents: she might consider herself above them or keep her intellectual and emotional distance but in the end she acts the same way when it comes to her own daughter, even if her reasons might be different, becoming part of an older generation trying to turn a younger generation into itself. Her self-assuredness and strong personality may make it seem like she is in constant control of herself and the others around her but once Benjamin begins to go out with her daughter Elaine, Anne Bancroft turns Mrs. Robinson into a quiet hurricane – she can display a whole storm going on behind her calm façade, a storm not caused by concerned maternal instincts but reasons that maybe not even she herself is able to fully comprehend. But again Anne Bancroft is in complete control of this woman, understanding her motives without explaining them.

Anne Bancroft also achieved the difficult task of creating a believable relationship with Dustin Hoffman that is neither defined by love nor by mutual respect but only by an unspoken agreement. Mrs. Robinson’s unwillingness to talk or go any step beyond the physical contact could have created an unsatisfying pairing but both actors show a fascinating chemistry without actually bringing their characters closely together. And Anne Bancroft might only have been a few years older than Dustin Hoffman but his goofiness and uncertainty combined with her maturity and strength make the age difference of the characters completely believable without drawing any attention to it. But while the relationship between both characters is the main point of Mrs. Robinson’s existence in the script, Anne Bancroft’s performance still stands independently from any connection to the world around her. Anne Bancroft never actively dominates the story but her performance quite naturally turned into the center of The Graduate, going beyond the mere concept of an older woman leading a young boy to manhood or an older generation trying to seduce a younger generation to its side – her Mrs. Robinson never turned into any kind of symbol but always remained a unique yet also recognizable human being. And even when she is gone from the picture for a long period of time, Mrs. Robinson still remains a constant point of reference, never to be forgotten for either her moments of uncompromising range or bored seductiveness. At the end, Mrs. Robinson might still be as strange as she was in the beginning – everything about her seems to be a kept secret, an untold story and Anne Bancroft obviously didn’t even want to tell it. It’s a mysterious but at the same time very real performance that leaves the audience wanting more and being totally satisfied at the same time. So, maybe the character of Mrs. Robinson is much more iconic than Anne Bancroft’s actual performance and has by now become an iconic creation of its own, a symbol of the older woman teaching sex to an inexperienced man. But Anne Bancroft’s performance is a case when reality triumphs over everything that legend has created. It’s a fascinating and complex portrayal that fulfils all expectations and even more. Sure, there is more to Anne Bancroft’s career than just The Graduate but there is no reason to complain that this masterful performance is the signature work of her career.


9 comments:

Sage Slowdive said...

A perfect 5 from me too :)

Fritz said...

Well, I know that! :-)

Sage Slowdive said...

Yes, but it deserves repeating! :]

Fritz said...

It surely does! :-)

joe burns said...

I would give her a five too. I think she'll be your pick. Can you do Dame Edith Evans next?

Lisa said...

Thank you for an insightful assessment of a very complex character played by a most fabulous actress. Visit my Anne B. fansite!:)

Fritz said...

Hello Lisa.

Thanks for the info, it's a very interesting site. You are obviously a great fan!

Zephyr said...

Anne Bancroft in The Graduate. Quite simply one of my favourite performances ever. I would give it a perfect five.

Anonymous said...

What a brilliant performance by Anne Bancroft, it was certainly the highlight of the film, it's really unforgettable. A big 5 for her, she should have beaten Hepburn that year for sure.