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ANNE BANCROFT | 1931-2005

Versatile, but Forever 'Mrs. Robinson'

She won an Oscar and a Tony for 'Miracle Worker,' among many laurels, but seductress in 'The Graduate' was her signature role.

June 08, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Anne Bancroft, the versatile, husky-voiced actress who won an Academy Award for portraying Helen Keller's teacher in "The Miracle Worker" but will forever be remembered as the coldly seductive Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate," has died. She was 73.

Bancroft died Monday night of uterine cancer at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, John Barlow, spokesman for Bancroft's husband, entertainer Mel Brooks, announced Tuesday.

An actress of uncommon versatility, Bancroft collected one Oscar, two Tonys, two Golden Globes, an Emmy and in 1996 a lifetime achievement comedy award in a career spanning more than half a century.

Bancroft earned a Tony and an Academy Award for best actress in "The Miracle Worker" as Annie Sullivan, the willful and determined half-blind teacher of Patty Duke's blind and deaf Keller. The Broadway and motion picture versions of William Gibson's play established Bancroft as a multifaceted actress with deep talent.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 09, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Bancroft obituary -- The obituary of actress Anne Bancroft in Wednesday's Section A said she earned an Emmy in 1970 for the special "Annie -- The Woman in the Life of Men." In fact, the title was "Annie, The Women in the Life of a Man."

Duke, who was 12 when she began working with Bancroft, was in tears Tuesday as she told The Times: "I don't know if we'll ever see the particular likes of her again.... I am blessed to have ever been in her presence. I am devastated.... But she leaves us with that great, throaty rasp and that wicked sense of humor."

Arthur Penn, director of the stage and screen versions of "The Miracle Worker," called Bancroft "a magnificent actress, a woman of rich, rich emotion and great humor."

Dustin Hoffman, who played the callow post-collegiate youth to Bancroft's world-weary Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate," said Tuesday that he could not think of her in the past tense.

"She was one of the most alive people I ever met," he told The Times. "Such exuberance, and she had this laugh in her that filled her from head to toe. I can see her, see her laughing right now."

Mike Nichols, who directed "The Graduate," called Bancroft a masterful performer and said in a statement Tuesday, "Her combination of brains, humor, frankness and sense were unlike any other artist. Her beauty was constantly shifting with her roles, and because she was a consummate actress, she changed radically for every part."

Bancroft was nominated for Academy Awards for four more films -- "The Pumpkin Eater" in 1964; "The Turning Point" in 1977; "Agnes of God" in 1985; and her most popular, "The Graduate" in 1967. She collected Golden Globes for "The Pumpkin Eater" and "The Graduate." There were also many nominations for other awards.

For several generations of film fans and moviegoers, mere mention of "The Graduate" immediately conjures up memories of Simon & Garfunkel's tuneful phrases: "And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know...."

The movie title also evokes images of Hoffman, as the son of her husband's law partner, saying with slow realization, "Mrs. Robinson -- you're trying to seduce me ... aren't you?"

In a 1969 essay, film critic Pauline Kael described "The Graduate" as a movie that, while "aesthetically trivial," penetrated the national culture because it so deftly reflected it. With its focus on middle-class alienation, it appealed to moviegoers because it gave them the sense that they knew what was going on. "They don't see the movie as a movie," she wrote, "but as part of the soap opera of their lives."

Although she was playing a woman old enough to be his mother, Bancroft was 35 and Hoffman was 30 when they filmed the movie.

But Hoffman said Tuesday that he looked up to her nonetheless because of her far greater acting experience.

"I was so grateful to work with someone so seasoned," he told The Times. "She had done 'The Miracle Worker.' She knew the boards. She was naturally theatrical. She just went right through you, pierced you.

"She had that elegance, but she was also street," Hoffman added. "A stoop kid, a neighbor who would lean out the window and yell down to you."

Recognized forever after as Mrs. Robinson -- the fantasy older woman willing to teach nervous young men about sex -- Bancroft resented the film's domination over other career accomplishments that she considered more important.

"I'm still trying to get away from it," she told The Times in 1997.

The entertainment community sympathized with the actress' pique, but nevertheless loved the character as much as the public.

"Sometimes, there's something about a role that is so unforgettable, that it's just very hard to get away from it," Charles Champlin, former arts editor and film critic of The Times, said Tuesday.

"It's hard to think of that actor or actress in any other performance. In that respect, she will be Mrs. Robinson...."

But Bancroft's feeling about the indelible identity never stopped her from sharing her razor-sharp insight into Mrs. Robinson any more than it kept her from taking on widely diverse and difficult roles in other projects.

"Mrs. Robinson was using sex as a way to diffuse this rage inside of herself," she told The Times in 2000, more than 30 years after the film's debut.

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