Interview With Anne Bancroft, The Original Cougar
The original cougar Anne Bancroft remains as relevant today as she was progressive in her heyday.
Her iconic role as Mrs. Robinson was an older married woman that tried to seduce the much younger Benjamin Braddock. Her role in The Graduate set the standard for what every cougar would be judged by: sexy, seductive, smart and mature. Although Anne Bancroft starred in dozens of movies throughout her career, the award-winning actress kept to a very private life away from the camera. As one of three sisters in a modest and close-knit Italian family, she centered her world around her family. Up until her death in 2005, Bancroft spent her personal time with her husband–the iconic Mel Brooks–and their son, away from the paparazzi. In a vintage interview with Viva magazine, she opened up about her beliefs, her career and why she decided to stay away from the spotlight after marriage. In the 21st century, age has become more of a perception than reality. Words such as cougar have become terms of endearment for a culture that has an enlightened notion of age and the role it plays in relationships. Anne Bancroft’s progressive view is as relevant today as when she originally spoke to Viva in the mid 1970s.
Viva: You’ve become reluctant in recent years to give interviews or allow yourself to be photographed Why?
Bancroft: Well, I used to give interviews, in the early days, but once I met Mr. Brooks I decided to cut all that out of my life. Having any kind of relationship with another human being in this life is so difficult that I think you have to use every bit of energy and every bit of time that you have for it. I mean, even going to the market is time away from your relationship. I just can’t spare it and one of the first things I cut out was interviews because they do tend to get personal. They are long and tedious. You worry about them. You worry before you give them and you worry when you see there. And they never turn out right It just wasn’t worth the energy and the time away from something that I consider the most important thing-the relationship between you and that person you choose to live with.
This is true about people generally, isn’t it? People don’t take the time to make the important connections these days. Is that what you mean?
Absolutely. The average man goes out early in the morning and doesn’t come home until late at night. Husband and wife have very little time for each other. Im saying that any relationship between any man and woman, and I don’t care what they do or who they are, is difficult. I think it is the most difficult thing-well, not the most difficult thing, really. The most difficult thing in life is bringing up a child. The second most difficult thing in life is having a good, healthy, loving relationship with another person who was an absolute stranger when you first met. Those two things. I think, need all your attention and all of your energies.
There is a tendency today to open up relationships, especially marriages. People seem less concerned about defending their privacy. They are less interested in building an intimate relationship with one other person. We now have so-called “open” marriages. The swinging scene is indulged in more and more by married couples. Most of these couples claim that their marriages have been strengthened. Most people today are trying to satisfy themselves, whether sexually or socially, by opening up the relationship. By having more of an outside life-physical, social, career, or whatever. How do you feel about that?
Well, I say to each his own. If that is what some people want, then they should have it. It is not, however, where I am or what makes me tick.
Is this something that you arrived at by talking with your husband, Mel Brooks, or is it something you arrived at gradually?
It was just something I arrived at gradually. I realized that I would rather be with him and the rest of my family more than anything.
It’s been said that your mother had a very large influence on which of the three girls in her family was going to be an actress. When was that decision made? Were you consulted? Did you approve of it?
From the time I was a tiny child we went on picnics and outings and my uncle always brought his guitar. All the children there, I was the one who wanted to get up and sing with the guitar. Probably all of the others could, and I know that my sister was better at it, but I was the only one who wanted to, and with a passion. I used to get up on the picnic tables and sing and dance, and crowds from the picnic grounds used to come and watch me, so I think the decision had more to do with the desire that my mother saw in me. I guess she just saw a natural inclination. It was just part of me.
At what point did you begin training seriously?
Even when I was a little girl, my mother had me take singing lessons and tap- dancing lessons and all that kind of stuff, but then I got very skinny. So Mother had to take me out of all those lessons because I wasn’t eating properly. It was all too exciting.
When you started in the theater did you do all those things that young actresses do? Make the rounds, join acting workshops, and so on?
No, I never did any of that. While I was still in school, I got my first job on television. I was very lucky. But I’ll tell you something: I don’t think my mother would have let me make the rounds and do all those other things. If I hadn’t been an immediate success, she would have taken me right out and I would have had to be something else. We needed the money and if I couldn’t make a living at acting, my mother would just simply have put a stop to it.
You were all still living at home?
Yes. So my career had a great deal to do with simple economics. Also, remember when we were kids my father had a discussion with some of the family about what their children were going to be: My father said that maybe someday his daughter would be an actress, and my aunt laughed and said, “Some dreams, some pipe dreams, Mike.” I remembered that and something inside of me wanted to prove that my father was right, that I would be something for my father, you know? It’s a childish thing, but it kind of gave me strength.
Did acting do for you what you hoped it would do? Did performing give you satisfaction, an identity? What was it that you really wanted?
In simple terms, all I wanted was what I had seen in the newsreels: being all dressed up in furs and arriving at a premiere-being the center of attention. That was all I wanted. And now that I can do that, I’ve never done it. I’ve never gone to any of my premieres.
Do you think everybody who starts in show business wants to be a star?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a star, but I think that once you get into the business you realize what hard work it is. Nobody told me it would be this hard, they just promised me the rewards.
Is the work itself satisfying?
The amount of actual acting is very little, especially in movies. You get up at six in the morning and sit for two hours in makeup and hairdressing and wardrobe. But the actual time that you’re working in front of a camera is maybe one hour out of every twelve you spend on the set.
What about the theater? Isn’t it different?
Yes, the theater, of course, is something else. The theater is eight hours of rehearsals every day and talking about the character and your time is pretty much spent on acting from beginning to end. That’s good work. That is fun, but not as much fun as some other things in life. Love is fun. Playing baseball is fun. Swimming is fun. But nothing that you do for a living is really fun. It is just too complicated. There are too many responsibilities although I’ve never entered into anything that I didn’t think I wanted to do, that I didn’t love.
In other words, you’ve never been in the position of having to do a part you didn’t want simply because you needed the money?
Never, never! But I have made mistakes. I have chosen things to do and found myself with people who did not allow me to do what it was I wanted to do or what it was that made me fall in love with the part or the script. So sometimes I wound up in very unpleasant and uncomfortable situations. Every time that happened, whatever I was in was not a success. For instance, one of the most interesting things I ever did was Brecht’s Mother Courage, but it was an unpleasant situation and it ran only a couple of months. But what the play says is simply magnificent and I’d like to do it again sometime.
In addition to Brecht, is there any other writer who has excited you or whose work you would really like to do?
Anything that Bill Gibson writes, I would do. If he writes a poem, I’d like to do it. There is something about the way he creates a woman that makes me automatically know what that woman is going to be. When I first read Seesaw, I never had to read the stage directions because by the time a stage direction came I just knew what the character was thinking and feeling. Every time he writes a woman’s part, I feel that way. With his women I know almost exactly what they are going to do and say.
Some people say our theater discourages writers, even those who have achieved enormous success, like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. They all at some point in their careers get kicked in the teeth once too often and they back off. Lately it’s been happening to Edward Albee.
You know what I think? I think it’s because all the critics are writers. They are all disappointed writers who end up being critics instead of becoming the great writers they wanted to be. So when a writer gets up there and writes something, boy, he puts himself right in the line of fire, because the critics are waiting to shoot him down. I don’t think that they mean to, really-it’s a subconscious thing. They won’t forgive the real writer who, they think, has failed them.
Isn’t that really an American phenomenon-the star syndrome? You are either a star or you are nothing.
I know what you mean. I think that somewhere along the line I sensed that in myself and that’s one of the things that made me back away, because I just wouldn’t, I just couldn’t, get into all that. There was something about what the European actors did that appealed to me. They would play a leading role in something and then you would suddenly see them in small movie parts. I thought that was the way to do it. I was very young then. I think it was during the run of The Miracle Worker, I decided I’d do the same. It’s very hard for me to talk about this, but I’m going to try and wade through my thoughts. I don’t know when I made the decision, but somewhere along the line I decided that I did not want constantly to have the burden of the play or the movie or whatever I was doing on me all the time. I would have been an absolute neurotic wreck if I had let that happen. I never would have had time for anything else in my life. I didn’t know that I was getting out of the fame and glamour game. What I thought I was getting out of was work. Now I see it was something else-I wanted to be an actress in the European sense, though I don’t see them doing it much anymore. I mean, if Glenda Jackson is in something now, she is the star of it. If Vanessa Redgrave is in something, she is the star.
Let’s consider Sir Laurence Olivier’s career, which is one we all know about. He has, throughout the years, taken smaller parts in poor movies that he has ennobled by his presence.
Yes, but we don’t know why he has done it. He may have done it for money, but that’s alright. I once read a marvelous story about Charles Dickens. He wrote A Christmas Carol for money and he was so ashamed that he was writing it for money that he said he was going to make it the best he could. So he worked harder and longer on A Christmas Carol than he did on anything else just because he was doing it for money. And what came out was maybe not the best, but certainly the longest-lasting and most popular of all his works. Isn’t that amazing? You see, the art we are in isn’t divorced from either money or the game. I wish it was, but it isn’t and it never can be because of the publicity everything receives today. If, for instance, the glamour of the business is so over-publicized, then the art of the craft, if you like, will always receive less attention. It’s the wrong atmosphere for good work.
Does the publicity create that atmosphere or vice versa?
The publicity creates it, and since television came it has gotten so much worse. At least. I think it has. I’m not putting down the business, but I think that television coverage of certain episodes or certain disasters is so enormous that it reaches everybody. People never had time to read newspapers. They sat around talking and got the news many days later. Now it’s all right there in front of them and it makes an indelible mark in people’s minds. But it’s not a question of black and white. Certainly there’s good and bad in most things. I’m just worried about the negative result of all this publicity. And I don’t want any part of it for myself. I had to make that decision because that’s where my values are. I want a person near me whom I love and who loves me. I want to have a relationship with him and to have a family with him. It’s so much more important. I grew up on family relations, people relating to each other as a family, and we’re all still very close. This was the normal decision for me to make. For me to have made the other one would have been brave.
The game, as you call it, has wrecked a lot of lives, hasn’t it?
That’s another thing that scares the hell out of me. I once heard a story about Marilyn Monroe, about her last picture, just before she died. She always showed up late and did all the other things she had been doing all along, such as not knowing her lines or anything. And when they fired her she said to a friend of mine, “What did I do? What did I do? I haven’t done anything!” What I’m saying is that they created this kind of a person; they let her get away with this kind of stuff for years–being late, not knowing her lines, whatever–because she was this sensational star and she was bringing them a lot of money. No one wanted to anger her or step on her until finally they couldn’t afford it anymore. The studio was shaky and they fired her. I don’t know all the facts, but this was the most interesting aspect of it to me-that the girl was absolutely dismayed that she wasn’t being allowed to do what they’d always encouraged her to do, because it was part of her public image. The publicity machinery had built that image and now. Suddenly, they were punishing her for living up to it. It must have been very mystifying for her.
Have you read Norman Mailer‘s book about Monroe? He equates himself with her and in a way it makes sense, insofar as Mailer himself is a victim of the same kind of treatment.
I’m interested in reading it just because of that. He would have some interesting insights. They may not be insights into Marilyn, but they certainly must be insights into himself. I wonder if he understands the implications of the book as far as he’s concerned,
Mailer has the reputation of being someone who puts himself very much on the line in all of his books.
But we don’t know that, because we don’t really know what he knows about himself.
Both he and Monroe have been victims, haven’t they, of the publicity they’ve both received as public personalities? It must be very hard to resist. Standing up in front of an audience and being the object of mass adulation must have an extraordinarily euphoric effect, especially the first few times it happens. When you took your first curtain calls, for instance, how did you feel? What effect did all that applause and adulation have on you?
Look, all my life I grew up with that in mind, so when it happened to me it didn’t seem that extraordinary. I felt the audience was reacting the way it was supposed to react. I was psychologically prepared for it, but not for its possible consequences.
What do you want from your career now? You’re about to start work in a picture. Neil Simon‘s The Prisoner of Second Avenue. After that, do you think you might, go into a play?
I’ll go on just the way I always have. When there’s something I like that tickles me or moves me and I feel, ‘Oh, I want to do this,' then I’ll do it, whether it’s for the stage or the movies or television. No matter what, I’ll do it.
You received a lot of acclaim for your TV special last year. How did that come about?
It came about because, as usual, I wanted to keep my family together. My husband was going to Yugoslavia to do a picture and, of course, I didn’t want to be separated from him for the entire length of time that he would be there, maybe eight months. I also didn’t want to be stuck in Yugoslavia for eight months with nothing to do, so I wanted to be involved in something I could more or less control-I couldn’t do either a movie or a play. But I knew there must be something I could do. A friend of mine had been coming to me, I think, every two weeks and saying. “Do you want to do a TV special?” And I would say, “No, no, no.” When he asked me again and I knew Mel would be in Yugoslavia, my mind immediately began to click. I thought, “That’s it!” Then we started work on the format for the show and the idea that really got me was that wonderful one of doing all these different kinds of women in a man’s life. It worked out marvelously. I got the material, the sketches, all the songs, then I went to Yugoslavia, where I rehearsed while Mel was working. I’d work in the room on the songs and all that and then I’d come back to the United States and we would rehearse all those things I’d been working on by myself. Then I’d go back to Yugoslavia with more material and I’d rehearse all that and come back again to the United States and rehearse with all the people and finally we filmed it. It was absolutely perfect. It worked out fine and it kept my marriage together. I was very happy.
Was it tied in at all, even tangentially in your mind, with the women’s liberation movement?
Well, I’ll tell you: I’ve been in women’s lib since I was a child, only I never knew it-they didn’t have a name for it then. I was determined that I would be the equal, if not better, of any man and that my entire life would be devoted to that. But it was always an unconscious thing with me.
Have you been directly involved in the women’s movement since?
No, just emotionally. I haven’t spoken out for it or anything because I really haven’t read that much about it and I don’t know what they’re really asking for, If what they want is that I should be called Ms. instead of Mrs. or Miss, I don’t value that-it means nothing to me. I mean, if a man holds a door open for me. It doesn’t make me feel feminine or that he is masculine or anything at all. What the hell is that? I can hold a door open for myself but I have no objection to his holding the door open for me. If it makes him feel good, fine. Those things really don’t mean that much to me.
During the past ten years we’ve had all sorts of small revolutions in this country-civil rights, with the kids, the women’s movement. Have you taken an active part in any of them?
No. I just don’t have the time or the energy to do the job.
But do you have private feelings about all those things?
I’m sure I do.
Are you interested in public events?
Yes, a little. Some things interest me more than others. Watergate, for instance, didn’t interest me all that much. But this new obscenity law the Supreme Court came up with-now that interests me. I see that as much more of a threat to our freedoms than Watergate. And that series of sex murders in Texas really horrified me.
As an individual act, or because you feel it has larger implications?
That a society like ours could grow such a moister and allow such a crime to happen without anybody being aware of it, that it could go on for three years, that this man could grow up to be 33 years old and involve two other young men-that’s what horrifies me. What it means that he and I live in the same society, that he could be living next door to me and not be recognized. Its more incredible to me than anything that has been happening in Washington. It scares me. Thousands of children disappear in this country every week and nobody knows where they are or what’s happening to them. Does anyone care? Can anything be done? Such a thing couldn’t happen in Europe because the family is a much more solid unit over there. People keep track of each other. They keep in touch. They don’t just disappear.
Author Luigi Barzini, in his book, The Italians, writes about the family unit as the only one that matters to an Italian because Italians have always distrusted and feared the society they live in. Perhaps, since you’re of Italian origin, it’s in your blood.
Oh, yes! Exactly, absolutely. I’ve always felt that way, always. I never knew anyone else did. I’m so glad you told me-I always thought I was a little strange.
You said you were worried about the Supreme Court’s recent rulings on pornography and obscenity. Are you upset because you feel we are losing our freedoms?
I’m for freedom for everybody.
But hasn’t there been an abuse of freedom in recent years? Hasn’t freedom come to mean license?
I was just thinking about that today. I don’t think you can have freedom for anybody or any I living thing unless you also have safety and security, because if we’re talking about absolute freedom, we’re also talking about freedom from commitment, freedom from love. We don’t want to go that far, do we? I mean, where do we draw the line?
Where do you draw the line?
Well. I think each individual has to go his own way. Everybody has to be free to draw his own line. Just because somebody has the freedom to do something doesn’t mean he has to take it. One should be free to choose which freedoms one wants for oneself.
There was a small story in the newspaper recently about an experiment in Switzerland in which someone started a summer camp for children aged six to ten. The kids were given total freedom to organize their own society. The project ended in disaster. Left entirely to their own devices, the children had reverted to an animal state. Wouldn’t you say that such examples are an abuse of freedom?
Not really an abuse. Freedom can simply be carried too far.
But who should make that decision?
Basically, every individual has to make it for himself, We have to hope we have all been taught correctly, that sane, healthy people are all working toward the same goal, which, is a safe civilization for everyone.
And the pursuit of happiness?
This whole thing about happiness-who cares? Why should it be a major goal in life? I don’t really think it should be. Happiness is a reward we might get if we live according to our needs. One fleeting moment of pure happiness is a gift from God. The important thing, in acting and in life, too, is the moment-to-moment. That’s where the ordinary happiness comes in, in the getting there. Once you get there, it’s done, it’s over. Nobody, I don’t think, had any better glimpse of all that-the glamour, the money, and everything-than I did. I remember when opened in Seesaw, I certainly got a good whiff of what could happen to me. They came to me with offers to play Las Vegas. I’d get something like fifty thousand dollars a night in this nightclub tour. It was incredible the way they wanted to capitalize on the success I had had in Seesaw. The things that were offered me were outrageous. When I think about them today, I could just laugh. I don’t know what gave me the sense then-maybe it wasn’t sense, maybe it was just simplicity-that made me say. “No, I don’t want to do that, I don’t think I’d like that.” It wasn’t my intelligence that said no. just a naive instinctual thing in me that told me I wouldn’t enjoy it. Anyway, I always think that people wind up doing what they want. They can never blame anybody else for what they do with their lives. They wind up satisfying whatever their real needs are, hope I know what mine are now, I love my life. I wouldn’t want it any other way.