Tuesday, June 07, 2005

In lieu of flowers

Sad news about Annie Bancroft. We were very good friends when we were young, though I never had any idea she was young, too, as she had already conquered Broadway with "Two for the Seesaw" and "The Miracle Worker," when we met, so I thought she was a real Grown-Up. She was dating Mel Brooks when I was first dating Don, and Mel said "Isn't it wonderful that people can be with each other and not feel they have to get married," as it was still THOSE days. Then Don and I got married and Mel stopped speaking to us; then they got married so he spoke to us again.
I remember walking down the street with her and her telling me that sometimes when Mel was sleeping she would lean over to make sure he was breathing, because she couldn't believe she could be that happy. At least she was spared the pain of losing him.
I loved her very much, as anyone would have who was stagestruck as I was, who'd seen her in those plays, and also played 'Dictionary' with her and Mel, and a game called 'Camouflage' which was always hilarious in their company, if very intense. I thought she should really be doing another comedy, so I told her I was writing a play for her. But when I finished it and called her to tell her, she said she was going to do 'The Devils.' I asked her why, and she said "I've never played a hunchbacked nun before." Then she added, "and who knew you would finish it in three weeks?!!"
So my play was cast with a much lesser light, who faded fast, and was replaced with someone not very good, and it failed in increments, out of towns-- Philly and New Haven. Mel came to Philadelphia to give us his ideas, which made us fall down laughing till we read the notes about what he'd suggested, and they made absolutely no sense.
My daughter Madeleine was born just before the play opened, so I wasn't there to protect it, and they brought in a director the last minute who destroyed what comedy had worked. My obstetrician wanted to go to the opening night party so he let me out of the hospital-- you still stayed in for several days then-- and I arrived at the theater in time for the curtain laugh, only it wasn't there, so I knew it had been a disaster. After the party, (really a Wake,)Mel and Annie drove me back to the hospital. Mel said "You had two things happen this week-- if one of them had to be less than perfect-- if your daughter had been born with six toes and two noses, -- that would have been okay. What mattered was the show."
When the reviews came out, Annie read them aloud in our living room, and spit at them. "You're never as good as they say," she said. "And you;re never as bad." She was, for that moment at least, as good a friend as I'd ever had.
But that was a moment. She did 'The Graduate' and became a gigantic star, and Mel started putting his movies together, starting with 'The Producers' which he'd followed Don around our kitchen spinning. When we saw them in LA after we'd moved there, we were both very intimidated, because they told us how busy they were, and were, in our view, clearly becoming too important to pick up the friendship as it had been in those early days. I went back to NY and saw her in The Little Foxes at Lincoln Center, and afterwards at O'Neal's bumped into Frank Langella, a very close friend of theirs, who used to play 'Dictionary' with us. About two o'clock in the morning my phone rang-- i was staying at a hotel-- and fire came out of the receiver when I picked it up. It was Annie. "You came to the play and afterwards you didn't come backstage!" she dragoned. I tried to explain I thought she was too busy. She repeated that sentence-- 'You came to the play and afterwards you didn't come backstage!" four times, with increasing fury, until I was crying as I tried to explain. But she would not be mollified. I sent her flowers and letters, but she did not respond. I bumped into her about ten years later in Saks in LA, and she told me she was going back to Broadway to play Golda Meir. I said I'd like to see that, and she said "Good. And afterwards, you can come backstage. "
But I didn't go. When Don got sick, Norman Cousins counseled that laughter healed, so I called Mel and he sent over tapes of all his movies, and some Marx Brothers besides. After Don died, I was living in San Francisco at the time of the '89 quake. My phone rang, and a woman;s voice said "Who is this?" I said "Who is this?" and she said "Anne Bancroft. I'm calling everyone in my address book with a 415 area code to see if they're all right." It was a darling thing for her to be doing, so I loved her again. We chatted, and she told me she was doing the new play by the man who wrote 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' and I said I would come to LA to see it. And she said "Afterwards, you can come backstage." I saw it and thought she was really terrible, but afterwardsI went backstage. I brought her a new play I'd written for her, but she never read it.
She did, however, read a screenplay I wrote with her in mind for the mother, and Michelle Pfeiffer for her daughter-- they had the same mouth, did anyone ever notice? She loved it and wanted to do it but the producer I'd written it for couldn't get it going. Still, we had a couple of pleasant moments around it-- I had lunch meetings at Fox with Mel and she turned up as a surprise guest.
The last time I saw her was at Kate Mantelini's, a restaurant where she was eating with Mel and his gang. She was very cold. She told me she was having a hard time with aging, and I repeated that to my beloved friend Gena Rowlands, who said "Who isn't?"
I am sad for Annie that she had such an ending--- when Don had cancer she wouldn't even let me mention the word to Mel, it made her so fearful. I am happy for her that she had forty years with Mel, twenty more than I had with Don. I am hoping that the vision some of us have of what comes next-- if anything does-- is true, in which case Don will be there to greet her, and make her laugh as he ushers her in. He was always such a gracious host.

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