Anne Bancroft is one of those actors whom I truly have no memory of not knowing. I don’t remember what movie or performance introduced me to her – as far as I can tell, I have simply always known and loved her. She is such an astonishing presence on screen, even in relatively small roles. So, I was thrilled to see that there was a celebration of her talent taking place in the Movie Blogosphere.
(On a personal note, this is also a wonderful opportunity for me to get back in gear with writing on this blog, something I have let slide since around early 2020 (some stuff happened around that time, you guys might have heard about it).)
For this blog-a-thon, I decided to write about one film I was familiar with and one I was not. I also chose two movies far afield in genre and style, because I wanted to discuss (and enjoy) Bancroft’s versatility and range. I chose two movies, purely by coincidence, that deal in some way with mental health. The Slender Thread, a drama from 1965, is about a woman named Inga Dyson (Bancroft) who calls a crisis hotline after having intentionally overdosed on barbiturates. My second choice was The Prisoner of Second Avenue, which features Bancroft as the harried wife of a man in the midst of a comedic-but-stressful mental breakdown following the loss of his job. The Slender Thread was new to me, while I’ve seen Prisoner several times out of my love for Bancroft, Lemmon, and Neil Simon (and is this ever a Neil Simon script). Let’s go!
The Slender Thread
I found The Slender Thread to be uneven but compelling. The most interesting elements to me were its cinematic structure. Its two stars, Bancroft and Sidney Poitier, did not share one second of screen time. Poitier’s entire performance, save his arrival to the crisis center by bicycle, is in one room. This gives a large chunk of the movie the feel of a stage play. Bancroft’s screentime takes place mostly in flashbacks that explain how she got to the point of suicide. Her performance in the movie’s “present” is almost entirely vocal, on the phone with Poitier.
The movie is also interesting in its tackling of somewhat taboo material. Bancroft’s character, Inga, has been found out by her husband as having had an affair just before their marriage – an affair that resulted in a pregnancy. Inga’s son is not the son of her husband. Her fear for her marriage and her consuming guilt lead her to attempt to end her life. Infidelity, premarital sex, and suicide are heavy issues that a film industry still technically (if not practically) under the constraints of a “code” was often hesitant to take on. This weighty material is made even more impressive by the fact that The Slender Thread was the directorial debut of Sydney Pollack.
The entire film was based on an article about the real-life suicide attempt – and prevention – of a woman a few years prior to the film’s release. It operates as much as a message against suicide as a dramatic vehicle for its cast, but it has moments of genuine suspense. The work done by the police to track down where Inga is calling from in order to prevent her death is intense and effective, and the movie provides an exposé on what went into tracing a call in the 1960s (hint: it was a lot).
There is also a lot of heart to the film. In a particularly interesting flashback of the events leading up to Inga’s decision to end her life, she is walking the beach by herself, mulling over how best to fix the schism in her marriage, when she comes across a group of children crowded around an injured bird. She asks the children to stay with the bird while she rushes off to buy some brandy for it (how this would help the bird, I do not know). When she returns, however, the children have gone and bird has died. At the sight of the burial mound the children built for the bird, Inga has a brief breakdown, and her devastation speaks to her sense of helplessness and inability to solve her – or any – problems.
The movie is deliberately limited in scope, an interesting choice that fits its basis on an article and its ultimate message. The story begins with Inga’s call to the crisis center and ends with her rescue by police and paramedics. There is no grand resolution regarding her marriage. Her problems are not solved, and her life is no less messy than it was before. But that is not and never was the point. The point is that her life quite literally goes on. Her survival is the happy ending.
Overall, I found the film entertaining if not stunning. Bancroft does a (predictably) good job infusing a flawed and tormented character with sympathy and making the audience tense and concerned on Inga’s behalf, especially given that half of her performance is off-screen. Poitier provides a good half character-half chorus in his efforts to save Inga and convince her that suicide is not the solution to anything. The film is well-acted and has passages of genuine tension that are well worth watching.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue
Now for a very different brand of dysfunction, filmed a decade later. Bancroft takes a turn as an eternally put upon and deeply lovable wife in Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue. She plays Edna, wife of Mel (Jack Lemmon) who suffers a mental breakdown as a result of losing his job – a final straw in a series of gradually building stresses in his middle-aged, New York City life.
Bancroft is a wonderful foil to Lemmon – each contributing their own specific brand of mania to the film. Lemmon, of course, was old hat at performing intense neurosis for Neil Simon, and he more than delivers here, providing Bancroft plenty of material to react to and bounce her own gifts off of. The whole movie is a slow progression into deeply understandable lunacy, with both the lead actors giving wonderful performances of emotional duress and comedic on-the-edgeness (Lemmon ultimately walking right over that edge). The dialogue is full of wonderful Neil-Simonisms: in a late-night conversation in which Mel is complaining about the myriad of problems with their apartment, the couple discuss their “toilet that never stops flushing.”
“It stops flushing if you jiggle it,” Edna offers helpfully.
“Why should I have to jiggle it?” protests Mel. “With the money that I’m paying around here do I have to stand over a toilet in the middle of the night and jiggle every time I go to the bathroom?”
“When you’re through, get back into bed, tell me, and I’ll jiggle it,” says Edna, losing her patience.
“You go to bed, Edna,” returns Mel. “I don’t wanna talk about jiggling anymore.”
Bancroft’s main job in this movie at first glance is mostly to react to Lemmon. It’s a testament to her that these reactions are as memorable as Lemmon’s actions and that Edna is as central a figure to the story as Mel. The way she delivers her responses to Mel’s increasingly erratic behavior and packs her nonverbal moments with comedic punches helps carry the film every bit as much as Lemmon’s slo-mo detachment from sanity.
Behold the Many Faces of Edna that manifest over the course of this film:
My favorite thing about this movie, however, is not the comedic insanity that both the leads deliver. It’s that Edna and Mel ultimately exist very much as one entity. Even in their arguments, in their struggles, and in their near-mutual meltdowns, they’re a fantastic couple. Edna is there, pushed to the limit but a solid, dependable presence, as Mel spirals downward. And Mel, as he works his way back to stability and Edna nears her breaking point toward the end of the film, assures her that he is once again ready to be a source of support to her. (Edna’s doubt and incredulity at this proclamation is hilarious, but it is a touching scene all the same.) As much as this is a movie about a man’s comedic but sympathetic mental break, it is equally the story of a strong marriage between two loving people. They’re such complete equals in the movie and in the relationship that we’re left to wonder which one is truly the “prisoner” referred to in the title – it’s likely both, though out of mutual respect for one another they politely take turns going insane.
I cannot imagine a better Edna than Anne Bancroft (or a better Mel than Jack Lemmon, for that matter). Prisoner is a wonderful dissection of the way the pressures of life, when they come just a bit too fast and a bit too close to each other, can lead us down some slippery pathways. It is also an exposé of the way sturdy relationships can lead us back to solid ground. It’s a relatable story and a thoroughly enjoyable one, and as good a testament as any to Bancroft’s comedic chops. It comes off to me as its own brand of romantic comedy, ending not in a proposal but in renewed promise of devotion, come what (else) may.
I am so, so glad to be participating in this blog-a-thon honoring one of the all-time greats and one of my all-time faves. I don’t need an excuse to settle in for an Anne Bancroft marathon, but I will always take one anyway. Thank you so much to the organizer of this Bancroft Fest, and to Gill on Twitter for tagging me in it! Please enjoy this gif of the final shot of Prisoner, in which the two leads pose for a modern-day American Gothic and promptly break character (and God bless the filmmakers for leaving this in the final cut).