“Mrs. Robinson -- You are trying to seduce me … aren’t you?”
-- Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate
Like many other young men who went through adolescence in the late sixties and early seventies, Mrs. Robinson made a profound impression on me. Mike Nichols’ film The Graduate was a touchstone of my youth. I identified with the rootless, young college graduate played by Dustin Hoffman – the naïve innocent who wasn’t sure who he wanted to be, but who knew very well who he didn’t want to be, and who could see through the phony, superficial lifestyle of his suburban parents and their friends. And I, uh, identified with, or at least tried mightily to imagine, what it would have been like to encounter someone like Mrs. Robinson, assuming, of course, that I was the Dustin Hoffman character. Would I have followed the same corrupt path as Benjamin Braddock? With Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson? You’re damned right I would have. Of course, I was twelve years old when The Graduate was released, 4 feet eleven inches and 140 pounds. The closest I got to wild, deviant behavior was a breakfast of chocolate milk and donuts. But those bedrooms scenes were burned into my psyche.
Anne Bancroft, who played Mrs. Robinson, and who died yesterday at age 73, spent years trying to live down that role. In the movie, she was simultaneously alluring and pathetic, a boozing, chain-smoking, bored suburban housewife looking for something, anything to make her feel alive. She had seen the future, and it was plastics, and she wasn’t interested. I re-watched The Graduate a couple years ago. And for all the sexual tension she brought to the role, there was an underlying desperation that I totally missed at age 12. Maybe you need to be 50, and not an adolescent, to get it. But for the first time I saw the vulnerability and the fear, the manic pursuit of thrills as a defense against the golden sham of an idyllic, vacant life. And I began to think, for the first time, that Anne Bancroft was a great actress.
I’m not a film aficionado. I don’t keep track of actors and actresses and their roles. But I know that every time I saw Anne Bancroft, she was riveting. She lit up the screen. Ten years after The Graduate she played Mary Magdalene in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, the only Jesus movie I can stand to watch, and the only Jesus movie where the Son of Man doesn’t come across as half Buddhist monk, half zombie. But Anne Bancroft was all woman in that movie as she was in every movie, fully alive and believable as a conflicted prostitute whose life was changed by an encounter with Jesus. She wasn’t holy, but she was lit from within, scarred and scared and on the verge of a new life. She was the most convincing Christian I’ve ever seen on screen.
Late in her life she played the insane Miss Havisham role in Alfonso Cuaron’s modern-day adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations. It is a role that a lesser actress would have played with over-the-top, scene-chewing abandon – cackling maniacally, shrieking out commands to her servants as she presided over a crumbling, gothic ruin of a mansion. But Anne Bancroft was simply reprising an earlier role, and she found the soul and pathos and infinite sadness that others would have missed. She was Mrs. Robinson thirty years down the line, old and cynical and broken, out of dreams, no longer capable of sustaining even the illusion of escape. It was one of the most moving, most harrowing performances I’ve ever witnessed.
So now she’s gone, this object of my childhood fantasy, this wondrous actress. I feel ashamed for viewing her as I once did. What I see now, and what I will miss the most, is her unflagging humanity, the way she brought real, human, three-dimensional complexity to every role she played. She was complicated. She was loveable. She was a bitch. I don’t know what Anne Bancroft was like in real life, but I know she was married to Mel Brooks for forty-one years. Apparently miracles still occur in Hollywood, even outside of Franco Zeffirelli movies. But I miss her, and I’m thankful for her life, and for the marvelous characters she created on screen.