Whenever I hear of the death of an actor I had admired greatly, I’m always stunned by the fact that I knew little to nothing of their sickness. Of course, it makes sense that this sort of information wouldn’t be at our fingertips in the press. But when I found out last night during a casual dinner on the couch at a friend’s house that Anne Bancroft had died, I sucked in my breath with an alarmed gasp. We’ll undoubtedly be inundated with “Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson” headlines and “Miracle Worker” clips for the next couple of weeks. And her grander, cornier, more emote-heavy later roles (Agnes of God, The Turning Point) have gotten a few shout-outs already.
But the casual Bancroft fan shouldn’t forget that this tough old bird, great New York stage actress and B-movie staple of the 50s, has been elevating movies in the smallest of parts, with the slightest of nuances, for years and years since. Her smokey old card-sharp in the weirdo Harold Becker serial-killer/medical malpractice thing Malice; that lovely-grotesque Miss Havisham in the Hawke-Paltrow Great Expectations. Most distressing of all is not that we won’t be treated to The Graduate: 40 Years Later anytime soon, but that now my dream of a sequel to Jodie Foster’s 1995 masterwork Home for the Holidays is now as good as gone. Like Before Sunset, it would have to take place over the course of one day, as its predecessor, and exist not for financial reasons but because the Larson Family deserves at least another 2 hours of screen time. Bancroft’s bewigged Mrs. Larson was so lived-in, so awash with anxieties, neuroses, and her signature performative grandiosity, that it’s a character I wished one day to return to, to see where life had brought her. An annual watch at my household, Home for the Holidays never ceases to amaze in its grasping of American family mundanities and hypocrisies; in its own microcosmic way, it could be one of the great politicial films of the Clinton era, a rebuttal to conservative “famly values” punditry.
And Bancroft herself brought more compassion and contradiction to her role than could have been on the page. Rent the film, now or at Thanksgiving, and savor each crease of doubt on her forehead, each glimmer of inner warmth as it spreads across her face even while trying to maintain matriarchal fussbudgetry, each overly scripted malapropism expressed with unembarrassing dedication. This year’s viewing of Home for the Holidays will have even more of a tinge of melancholy and bittersweetness than usual: what always seemed like a film gorgeously without closure will now be something more conclusive. I will finally have to say goodbye.