So many people, when they picture her, picture her as a leg framing Dustin Hoffman, and that’s not fair to her really quite astonishing career. I’ll freely admit she was in some terrible movies—so did she. In the end, she became selective to avoid worse ones. But watching her pretend to be twice the age of Dustin Hoffman—six years younger than she—isn’t even as iconic to most people as that leg. Much less her Tony- and Oscar-winning role as Annie Sullivan, which I wish is what I thought of first for her.
Actually, in many ways, I think of her first for her long and happy marriage to Mel Brooks. It seems to have been love at first sight for him, when they were booked onto a talk show together, and he bribed someone to let him know where she was eating dinner so he could casually run into her there. They stayed together until she died, possibly one of Hollywood’s happiest but most improbable couples. She even appeared in some of his movies—and not just The Elephant Man, which he produced.
She excelled in women with an edge, I think. People who don’t know The Miracle Worker could be forgiven for thinking it’s a more saccharine role than it is because of how we as a culture have sanitized the story of Helen Keller. (Seriously, how much do any of you know about her adulthood? We don’t talk about the socialism.) Annie wouldn’t have been able to teach Helen if she hadn’t been willing to physically struggle with things. And she wouldn’t have survived the pressures if she hadn’t had a sense of her own value and abilities.
I’m not going to tell you that Anne Bancroft was as funny as her husband, although I’ve established before that his particular brand of comedy seldom works for me. She was funny on her own, though; when talking about her history of stage names, she recognized that she’d had a different name for every stage of her career and declared that, if she went into burlesque, her stage name would be Ruby Pepper. Which means she’d thought about a stage name if she went into burlesque.
She said she never fit into the “sex-pot glamour girl” image that Hollywood was using when she first arrived in town; her first movies were by all accounts pretty awful, and the combination of that and a dismal personal life meant she went to New York to go on the stage. She believed she learned to act because she did that, and indeed her first return to Hollywood was with The Miracle Worker. It’s a shame she got pegged as Mrs. Robinson. Not that she didn’t act well in the role, but I don’t think people remember that about her.
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