Book Review--Anne Bancroft: A Life


Anne Bancroft: A Life
Douglass K. Daniel
University Press of Kentucky, 2017

Though she acted for decades, on the stage, screen and television, Anne Bancroft will forever be known as Mrs. Robinson. That role in The Graduate (1967) ensured her immortality. A best actress Oscar for The Miracle Worker (1962) added mainstream respectability to the mix, but there is so much more to the life and career of this unusually dedicated actress. From her screen debut in 1952, Bancroft worked steadily, never becoming a huge star, but nevertheless building a reputation as one of the best actresses of her generation. In her first full-length biography, Douglass Daniel tells the whole story, revealing the professional and personal details of this complex, compassionate and fascinating woman.

Bronx-born Bancroft’s career was filled with near misses. She almost starred on the stage in Funny Girl, she was close to filling the role that Suzanne Pleshette played in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and that pattern continued until she more easily fell into character parts in her later years. While there were various reasons for losing these gigs, including her own high standards, it was often because she didn’t have the box office clout or star image to convince producers she could sell a film. Though Bancroft thrilled Broadway, television and film audiences with Emmy, Tony and Oscar winning performances, she continually found she had to hustle for roles.

Her flashiest triumphs aside, Bancroft wasn’t a major star. She was an actress and a particularly dedicated one at that. If there is any common thread in Daniel’s book, it is that she took her craft seriously and approached it with integrity. Maybe stardom could bring better roles, but the quality of her material and her performance were always more important.

As much as Bancroft craved and thrived living the actor’s life, she valued her family equally, if not more, and often made her personal life a priority. One of the most pleasing elements of the book is the way it explores her relationship with her second husband Mel Brooks. While this pairing of comedian and dramatic actress always seemed to puzzle the public, their marriage is one of the great Hollywood love stories. The pair was steadfastly devoted, living with compassion for each other, working around hectic schedules to be together and celebrating each other’s successes without a hint of jealousy.

The same is true of their son Max. Bancroft loved her much-desired only child to the point of smothering him, though she usually stopped short of such excesses. When she learned that Max had a learning disability, the actress put her career on hold so that she could ensure he got the proper guidance. Judging from the young Brooks’ successful writing career, she was effective. While Max was young, Anne worked little and favored projects that would allow her to return home at night. She even recorded herself reading bedtime stories so that her son would be read to sleep on those nights she couldn’t make it home.

That loyalty and devotion extended to Bancroft’s professional life. She was steadfast in her methods and professional demeanor. The many former co-stars and directors quoted in the book had a similar story to tell: that she had a laser focus on her work and approached each role with serious intensity, that she was not always up for making friends, but that she also never put on the airs of a star and could be counted on to help another actor shape a performance, sometimes saving a co-worker’s job in the process.

As Bancroft avoided the wild side of the Hollywood lifestyle and its pitfalls, she never suffered the effects of living too hard. Free of drugs and alcohol, excessive toxic relationships and poor financial decisions, she had the resources and grounding to be choosy about her work and flourished because of it.

Daniel takes a straightforward approach to telling Bancroft’s story, easily weaving together the personal and the professional. Given the wealth of material he has gotten from his sources, he wisely avoids adding his own analysis of the actress and lets her friends and associates fill out the details of her personality. The result is a rich, authentic portrait which effectively captures her essence.

Many thanks to the University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

Documentary--Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches (2016)


It's long baffled me that Rod Taylor isn't more revered by classic film fans, because as an actor and as a star, he had everything. Handsome, versatile and just as talented as the other top actors of his era, he could have coasted on swoon appeal, but always had a lot more to offer. In the Robert de Young-directed documentary, Pulling No Punches, the actor has his say and is lauded by his peers, biographer, industry associates and filmmakers. The attention is long overdue.

Pulling No Punches is built around a series of interviews with Taylor that the filmmakers conducted in late 2012, less than three years before his death in January 2015. The film could have succeeded solely on the strength of the actor's funny, energetic and bluntly honest reminiscing; he's a great storyteller, always leaving you wanting more. Though he is no longer as pretty as in his heyday, he's still incredibly sexy, because he is confident and witty in that endearingly open way that seems to be a unique trait of Australians.

I like the kinetic energy of the film that was built around these interviews. With retro graphics, smoothly paced editing and a snappy soundtrack, its rhythm interestingly mirrors Taylor's live wire, but suave persona. While it does eventually dig into Taylor's start in the industry, it begins by diving right into Sunday in New York (1963), swooping through film clips and talking head interviews like a reader flipping to the good parts.

That momentum is maintained throughout the film, which covers the basics, but goes at those details in an unconventional way, touching on films here and there, unfolding in an essentially chronological order, but with great focus on keeping the proceedings lively. As Taylor's career was all over the map, I can't think of a better approach to his filmography. It would be very difficult to cover the scope of his many achievements, but by zooming in on a variety of roles and experiences, the film covers a surprising amount of territory in less than an hour and a half.

It's almost comical to see the way Tippi Hedren, Veronica Cartwright and Angela Lansbury still swoon over Taylor in their interviews, decades after working with him. They see the magnetic and manly, but not macho appeal that seems to have been lost on many and, as two-time costar Maggie Smith notes, the seemingly effortless way he was able to work on set and build a character. Maybe Pulling No Punches will broaden the cult of Taylor. Once you join it, your heart never stops palpitating, but I recommend it heartily and this film is a good explanation as to why.

Many thanks to the Inkwell Films for providing access to the film.
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