Hollywood teems with swollen-lipped actresses, but Angelina Jolie is the only one with the spirit to match her humongous tire-treads. She’s so large a presence that she doesn’t need to pull out the stops. She can underplay dryly, toying with her lines and her co-stars—which is why she was so smashing as a borderline psycho in Girl, Interrupted, in which she devastated her fellow patients to keep from turning her acid gaze inward. (She could be the definitive Hedda Gabler.) Jolie often seems too big for her male co-stars (Colin Farrell’s Alexander the Great was nowhere near great enough), but she meshes surprisingly well with Brad Pitt in the notorious Mr. and Mrs. Smith (20th Century Fox). They’re both unbelievably fit and pretty, and Pitt is canny enough not to get into an acting contest with her. She’s disarmingly direct; he’s an adorable ditherer. She should be able to incinerate him with a stare, but he doesn’t mind falling back on his looks and letting her telepathic torpedos bounce harmlessly off his impenetrable shell of narcissism.
Pitt and Jolie play married hit-persons whose true identities are secrets from each other, and at times the screenplay (a film school master’s thesis by Simon Kinberg) tries to suggest—in its shallow, one-joke way—that this is a metaphor for all marriages. (The movie begins with the couple in marriage counseling.) In their immaculate, upper-middle-class house with the latest in audio-video equipment and kitchen appliances, John and Jane Smith brush their teeth side-by-side, give each other a peck, and head off in opposite directions to kill people. He’s a low-tech guy with a secret room full of artillery under the woodshed. She works beside a bevy of babes in a Manhattan office tower with all the snazziest surveillance gizmos. The movie is about how they end up on opposite sides of a hit, how their trust in each other is shattered, and how their employers assign them to take each other out.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith aims to be a screwball farce of remarriage wedded to a Hong Kong action thriller: Every time the emotions become unmanageable, out come the car chases and artillery. Every time the action gets too tedious, out comes the barbed lovers’ repartee. The movie might have had more kick if the marriage had been a rich and fulfilling one, but Kinberg wrings so many laughs in the first half hour out of the vast chasm between John and Jane (the names testify to their blankness) that nothing of any emotional consequence is at stake.
The producers were smart enough to bring in the director Doug Liman (Go, The BourneIdentity) to give this material a charge. Liman is a fancy-pants, but he has a terrific eye and ear. The cinematography, by Bojan Bazelli, brings out the stars’ sleekness (so do their killer wardrobes, by Michael Kaplan), and Liman and his editor, Michael Tronick, know when to nip off a scene before the joke drags on too long. There’s a car chase that’s more fluid and inventive than the much-touted freeway sequence in The Matrix Reloaded, and the stars are nimble enough to make their acrobatics credible—no matter how many stunt doubles the picture employed.
There are no stunt doubles in the sex scene, which I’m bound to say looks convincing—and comes, amusingly enough, after John and Jane have trashed their house and beaten each other to a pulp. Any signs of extra-cinematic ardor? Well, Jennifer Aniston is a pleasant TV actress and reportedly a very nice woman, but she’s probably a little mooshy and safe for a preening pin-up boy like Pitt, who was obviously delighted to be bashed, hungrily straddled, and ferociously squeezed by a woman who could swallow him like a boa constrictor. He should protect his pretty nose, though—she plays rough.
The death of Anne Bancroft at 73 is especially sad because she still had surprises left in her: Every time she seemed to disappear into her (oddly happy) marriage to Mel Brooks, she’d suddenly pop up in a small character part to remind us of her unflagging will and deft comic timing.
It was also a reminder that she was a casualty of her best role. As Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, she was a scant few years older than Dustin Hoffman (she wasn’t even 35!), but her performance was so indelible that it became difficult for audiences (or studio executives) to see her as anything but “the older woman.” And we all know how plentiful juicy roles are for older women.
The Graduate, removed from its the counterculture context, is a somewhat different film. (It’s worth mentioning that the movie doesn’t appear to be set during the counterculture: There are no hippies or mentions of Vietnam; it’s all very 1962.) Today, Mrs. Robinson emerges—at least in the first two-thirds—as the film’s most complex character. Her dry seduction of the schnook Benjamin, and her brusque, faintly amused manner on the night in which their affair is consummated, only barely conceals the woman’s despair and self-loathing. My favorite moment is her saddest, when, after professing ignorance about (and indifference to) a work of art, she admits, with a faraway look (but no evident self-pity) that her major in college was “art history.” She has so much more stature than the self-centered protagonist.
The director, Mike Nichols, betrays her, though. It’s clear that her rage at Benjamin’s attraction to her daughter is a continuation of that self-loathing: Anyone who’d sleep with her is unworthy of her daughter. But there’s no scene in the last part of The Graduate in which her vulnerability registers. Pandering to the youth market, Nichols turns her into a demon: She even hisses like the Bride of Frankenstein as Benjamin wails for the just-married Elaine. And so one of cinema’s most fascinating characters has no third act.
In later years, her husband gave her a glamorous showcase in his unnecessary remake of To Be or Not To Be, and she was sleek and funny—as sexy, at 50, as she’d ever been. But she was excruciating in what might have been a comeback performance: as the mother in the awful film of ’Night Mother. Her theatrical turn (complete with bogus Southern accent) demolished the kitchen-sink realism that was the work’s chief strength.
One of her least-heralded turns was as Dinsmoor, the Miss Havisham figure in Alfonso Cuarón’s flawed but exciting update of Great Expectations, set in the Florida Keys. The narrator (Ethan Hawke) tells us that Dinsmoor’s room “smelled like dead flowers and cat piss,” and you could smell it when Bancroft sashayed in. She wasn’t the standard-issue, musty Miss Havisham but a flamboyantly posturing, pantsuit-clad dragon-lady with face cream and “chica-boom” slang. She seemed to be having so much fun that it was a huge letdown when the movie didn’t give the character the spontaneous combustion of Dickens’ desiccated Havisham.
But then, Anne Bancroft was often abandoned in the third act.
A side note: It was startling to hear—in an otherwise good piece—an NPR correspondent refer to Mrs. Robinson this morning as an “icon.” I have accepted (with gritted teeth) that the word is now routinely applied to celebrities—but Mrs. Robinson? A symbol, maybe. A new archetype, maybe. But no one would regard her as sacred or worthy of emulating.
Update: Thanks for all the e-mails, but please understand: This appreciation was not meant as a comprehensive overview of Bancroft’s long career. Many wonder why I didn’t mention Home for the Holidays, 84 Charing Cross Road, Malice, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, and even Prisoner of Second Avenue. (It’s weird that no one has written about The Miracle Worker!) And I really don’t think that one tiny mention of the possibility that Benjamin is a Berkeley “agitator” is proof that the counterculture is a part of The Graduate. Now let’s return to Michael Jackson, the Runaway Bride, and all the other things that are more important than the Downing Street memo. .… 8:37 a.m. PT