Mel and Anne, Hollywood’s best matched opposites…
Was one of entertainment’s oddest couples – the dramatic actress Anne Bancroft and the wacky comic genius Mel Brooks – all that much a mismatch? That’s a question I pondered at times when I explored her career for my new biography Anne Bancroft: A Life.
The conclusion I reached: I don’t think they were all that different in their personal lives, at least from what we can see from the outside. Professionally, they were miles apart most of the time. But what makes a marriage?
Sure, on its face it would seem that the woman who starred in “The Miracle Worker” on stage and screen and appeared in other movie dramas like “The Pumpkin Eater” and “’night, Mother” wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room as the crazed writer and director of “Blazing Saddles” and “The Producers.” Yet they were together for more than four decades after meeting at a rehearsal for singer Perry Como’s TV show in 1961.
One version Anne told of their “meet cute” begins with her just having left the stage version of “The Miracle Worker” and finding herself between projects. Como’s variety show “Kraft Music Hall” was a rare venue for Anne to show off her vocal skills. As fate would have it, one of her numbers was the song “Married I Can Always Get.” Rehearsing for the February 22 show, Anne had finished her solo number when a member of the audience bounded up to her and said, “I’m Mel Brooks. Hiya, A.”
Mel probably toned it down when he first met Anne.
“Just like that,” she recalled. “He talks that way. I liked him.” Brooks’ career was in the doldrums at that point while Anne’s was riding high. He was married, too, with children, but the marriage was nearing its end. Anne had been divorced from her first husband five years earlier. Their courtship was long – neither was anxious to marry again – and ended at City Hall in 1964. The headline in the New York Times read, “Comedian Weds Anne Bancroft.” It began as a one-star family.
Busted marriages were not the only thing they had in common. Both were native New Yorkers with ethnic backgrounds; the Italian-American girl grew up in the Bronx, the Jewish American boy in Brooklyn. Both were interested in performing at an early age; he played drums as a teenager, she was acting in high school and then attended drama school. Both had worked in live TV and in the theater. Both had intellectual pursuits; hers was in science, his in Russian literature. They preferred evenings out or at home with friends instead of the Hollywood party scene. And both loved to laugh.
Since this blog is about movies, let’s get to those times when Anne and Mel worked together on the big screen. It didn’t happen often. Theirs was not a creative match in the way of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward or Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. “Mel, as you know, does those way-out comedies like ‘Blazing Saddles’ and they don’t usually have big parts in them for women,” she told TV Guide in 1974. “But if he ever came up with something he wanted me to do, I would jump at the chance.”
And jump she did – right into Mel’s arms … and into Dom DeLuise’s and Marty Feldman’s. For Mel’s “Silent Movie” (1976) Anne appeared in a nightclub scene as herself, accompanied by four younger men, a sly nod to her “Graduate” persona. She is one of the big stars director Mel Funn is recruiting for his dream project, Hollywood’s first silent movie in a generation. Their madcap dance showed everyone that Anne had a sense of humor and could make fun of herself.
Years would pass before they would work together like that again. When they did it wasn’t for a cameo but as co-stars. By then Mel’s star had risen and even eclipsed hers. Remaking the World War II-era dark comedy “To Be or Not to Be” had been suggested by a friend of Anne and Mel’s. It took years to get to the screen, arriving in 1983 to generally good notices. The movie might be the most conventional comedy Mel ever made – and one of the few he didn’t direct – and the funniest movie of Anne’s post-‘Graduate’ career. (Look for their son, Max, then around 10 years old, as a member of a refugee family.)
Mel directed his wife on screen one other time, in a comic turn in his late-career movie “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” (1995). Anne played a gypsy woman warning of the terrors of the night, a kind of kooky Maria Ouspenskaya.
Their best work together may have been when Anne was before the cameras and Mel in the production office. His production company was behind the movie “Fatso” (1980), her only film as director – she wrote the script, too, and starred with DeLuise. (Anne later said she didn’t like being in charge and preferred worrying only about her performance, not everyone else’s.)
Brooksfilms also produced “The Elephant Man” (1980), the David Lynch-directed drama in which Anne played a British actress who brought the disfigured recluse John Merrick into high society. I’m told that Mel didn’t force Anne on Lynch and didn’t force her into the project. She joined a fine cast, an American among Brits Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt and John Gielgud.
One of the little gems of Anne’s latter career came by way of Mel. She had loved the book “84, Charing Cross Road” and its story of bibliophiles separated by an ocean. Mel bought the film rights for her as an anniversary present. It was her third film with Anthony Hopkins, though they never shared a scene, given the nature of the story (the other was “Young Winston”).
In researching Anne’s life and career, I didn’t come across anything to suggest that theirs was not a happy marriage. They sounded genuine when they discussed it publicly, not afraid to say they fought at times. Appearing on “Today” in 1983, Mel was asked if they still loved each other after 20 years.
“All we know,” he said, “is that we are a raft in the ocean, and we swim to each other, and cling, because life is … fraught with all kinds of disaster, uncertainty, unhappiness, and at least we have each other.”
That was the comic talking? The supposedly more serious of the two gave the lighter answer: “When he comes home at night, when that key goes in the door, I mean, my heart’s fluttering,” Anne said. “I am so happy he’s home, you know. I mean, it’s like the party’s going to start.”
That was a line – “the party’s going to start” – Anne used again and again when the question of their marriage came up. The image of those opposites attracting, through thick and thin, makes my heart flutter, too.
–Douglass K. Daniel for Classic Movie Hub
A journalist and biographer, Douglass K. Daniel is the author of Anne Bancroft: A Life, just published by the University Press of Kentucky.
Books by Douglass K. Daniel: