27 January 2012

Mrs. Brooks, you're trying to seduce me

I remember how surprised I was when I learned that Anne Bancroft, the tall, sensual, smokey-voiced actress, was married to the short, funny, irreverent Mel Brooks. But looking back on her films, I think she was always full of surprises, somehow managing to defy being categorised in any particular role, but at the same time always bringing the same elegance, passion and strength to whatever character she played.

While nearly everyone always thinks of her role in the ground-breaking film “The Graduate”, the two films that made the biggest impression on me were “The Miracle Worker” and “84 Charing Cross Road”.

I was quite young when I first saw Bancroft in the role of Annie Sullivan, the partially blind and newly graduated student from the Perkins Institution, who managed to illuminate the dark and silent world of her first student: 7 year old Helen Keller. Keller was blind, deaf, mute and entirely undisciplined when Annie first met her. Bancroft's and Duke's scenes together in the film were electric, as their passionate spirits locked against one another in mortal combat. But the wild and unruly Helen was no match for the determined Annie, and when Helen signed her first word—water—you could sense the profound breakthrough of matching language to object, as if it had just happened to you personally. 

“84 Charing Cross Road” was the tender and oftentimes funny recollection of a 20 year long correspondence between Helene Hanf, a well-read and slightly “in your face” woman from NYC who collected rare books, and Frank Doel, a mild-mannered British bookseller in the heart of London, played exquisitely by Anthony Hopkins. Set in an era before cell phones, instant messaging, faxes or email, and when trans-Atlantic telephone calls were cost-prohibitive, the letters that passed over the ocean between Helene and Frank were an endearing record of their cultural differences, their unique personalities, and the historical times they lived through. Although Helene tried on several occasions to visit Frank, something always prevented them from actually meeting and by the time she finally found the resources to journey to England, the deserted Charing Cross store was boarded up and her friend of two decades had passed away.

Both films are based on true stories, and each one allowed Bancroft to plumb the depths of intriguing and sensitive women, doing what I think she did best: moving the viewer to tears as well as laughter.

Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.

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