Saturday, April 12, 2014

Anne Bancroft 84 Charing Cross Road

Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins in 84 Charing Cross Road
As Helene Hanff and Frank Doel an international personal relationship conserved in two decades worth of correspondence

"I dreamed about it for so many years. I used to go to English movies just to
Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff
Original Lobby Card
look at the streets. I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for.

"I said I'd go looking for the England of English literature, and he nodded and said: 'It's there.'"
-- Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft), 84 Charing Cross Road

People watch, and often re-watch movies for different reasons. What's your passion? The travel buff, the teacher, writer or book lover in your circle of friends is apt to really like this movie. Maybe you're a movie buff or an anglophile, with an interest in things British, comedy and drama, film and television, the royal family, the history.

A part of Hanff's book, Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, resonated with me when it came to many things, books, films included. For whatever reason there are some things you want to re-experience rather than jumping on the next bandwagon, adding one more and one more to your list....

“My problem is that while other people are reading fifty books I'm reading one book fifty times. I only stop when at the bottom of page 20, say, I realize I can recite pages 21 and 22 from memory. Then I put the book away for a few years.”
-- Helene Hanff, Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

People who enjoy a smart comedic romantic story and English
The Chinese edition of
the book has the
best photo of the
bookshop as it was
literature fans would enjoy this very much. Watch with younger family members and friends to show the process of acquiring items not that long ago,to show the art of correspondence.

"I can never get interested in thing that didn't happen to people who never lived."
-- Helene Hanff [written in a letter to Frank]

Those who love a biography or artfully crafted documentary will want to see 84 Charing Cross Road

As the spaghetti sauce commercial says, "It's in there." This post will contain some spoilers. If you haven't seen the movie/read the book, I suggest you treat yourself to it now and read this afterward.

As a fan of libraries, I really liked this line...

"I don't browse in bookshops, I browse in libraries, where you can take a book home and read it, and if you like it you go to a bookshop and buy it."
― Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road

Plaque located at 84 Charing Cross Road, UK

84 Charing Cross Road is a 1987 movie based on a true story. It went from an epistolary memoir to plays on BBC television, London's West End and Broadway and later on BBC radio. The memoir of the same name by Helene Hanff, a compilation of letters between herself and Frank Doel the manager and chief buyer of London bookstore Marks & Co., Antiquarian Booksellers from 1949 to 1968. 

Hanff also came to exchange letters with the bookshop staff and Doel's wife Nora. Marks and Co is Marks and Cohen Booksellers. Plaques are located at the sites where the bookshop used to be and also at the location of Hanff's former apartment building in New York City.

About the stars

Anne Bancroft, who went on to star in the film version, said that when she read the book she knew that this was a part for her. Her husband, actor/writer/producer Mel Brooks acquired the film rights for his wife and served as executive producer. It had to be reworked as the play was created for two people and they wanted to expand it for film.

Bancroft won a Tony Award in 1958 for her Broadway debut. It was in William Gibson's two-character play, working opposite Henry Fonda in Two for the Seesaw, directed by Arthur Penn. She won Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play. 

At the 1960 Tony Awards, she would win Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for her role of Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker also directed by Arthur Penn. Penn won a Tony for Best Director and the play itself won for Best Play. Two years later, Ms. Bancroft received an Academy Award for her performance she brought that character onto the big screen.

She won the Best Actress Academy Award. As she was back working on Broadway in Mother Courage and Her Children, Joan Crawford accepted Bancroft's Oscar on her behalf and later presented it to her in New York. Bancroft is one of the very few to have won an Academy Award and Tony Award for the same role. 

She's among a very small group of entertainers to win an Oscar, Emmy and a Tony award.  Mel Brooks is in the exclusive EGOT club, having won the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards.

Though she wasn't able to be there to receive her award in 1962, she had the honor of presenting the Best Actor Oscar to Sidney Poitier in 1963 for his work in the film, Lilies of the Field. It was just a few years later that she and Poitier would costar in The Slender Thread.

She would win the BAFTA Award (the British Academy Film Award) for Best Actress in a Leading Role for 84 Charing Cross Road. The film was a bigger hit in the UK than it was in America.

Seesaw, a dual biography of Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks
Brooks and Bancroft went on to sign prime co-stars Anthony Hopkins as Frank Doel and Judi Dench to play his wife, Nora Doel. All three of these actors have won at least one Academy Award and have been nominated multiple times. Each has won numerous awards, including the BAFTA.

Supporting players include Mercedes Ruehl as Kay. Married to the Mob and The Fisher King). Ian McNeice is Bill Humphries. We know him as Bert Large in the comedy drama series Doc Martin, He was British correspondent Fulton Greenwall, alongside Jim Carrey in 1995's Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.  

In a small but memorable role Connie Booth is "The Lady from Delaware." We know her partly from BBC's Fawlty Towers, in which she co-wrote and starred with former husband, John Cleese.

A little about the story.... 

Seeing the film has made me want to get the book. I know people who've read the book and then want to see the movie. That says good things about both the movie and the book. The book, I'm told has more than they were able to show in the film. By the way, the movie's feline count is one as I recall.

The story spans two decades and as we see their lives, within the layers of contrast, the characters find common ground, first and foremost is their love of books. They share a sense of humor, all enjoy the letters. She lives alone, works from home. In London, in their little bookshop, there are subtle traces of the British class system that we saw at Grace Brothers Department Store in Are You Being Served. 

Helene learns about Frank from the content of the letters of other people rather than him. "Please don't tell Frank I'm writing to you," a clerk who works for him says. Helene is not not so reserved. US and UK, male and female.

In London they are under strict food rationing. Frank and Nora, particularly early on eat off of china at a pristine quiet table. Everything is 'fine.' This isn't how it is in New York, where Helene shares take-out Chinese food with friends.

Anne Bancroft photo
"I liked reading about the nun who ate so dainty with her fingers she never dripped any grease on herself. I've never been able to make that claim and I use a fork."
-- Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road

Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft

Speaking of contrasts of course so-called opposites do attract and it can work if you choose the right mate. Bancroft and her husband Mel Brooks married on August 5, 1964. As an outsider, fans see them, their public personas, their work and see differences but their union was a lasting one. Sadly Ann Bancroft died from cancer in 2005. The couple would have celebrated their 50th anniversary this year.

Their son, Max Brooks, is a writer whose work includes The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z and G.I. Joe: Hearts & Minds. Like his father, he was a tv writer, having written for Saturday Night Live. Sony Pictures recently bought the movie rights to his graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters. Max Brooks has been married since 2003, and his son was born a few months before Anne Bancroft's death.

Helene and Frank's Relationship

Early in the movie, we see her as Hanff in a movie theater. It's the Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard movie, Brief Encounter. A lot of England scenery set amidst the plot of two married people who have "an emotional affair." A woman tempted to cheat on her husband with a man she's met in a railway station.

"Hanff made a pilgrimage to the empty, dusty shop and visited the now-widowed Nora at home. 'She told me how furious she used to be when he brought one of my letters home to read to the family,' Hanff wrote in 1973.
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'I’d say to him, what kind of husband are you, to bring another woman’s letters home!' 'If he hadn’t brought them home,' I said, 'you’d have had cause to worry.' She looked at me and nodded. 'That’s just what Frank used to say.'"
-- The Telegraph, London  June 27, 2011

The relationship may be long-distance but it's still a real friendship and it fills a need beyond just filling Helen's bookshelves. She shares the letters with her friends. He shares them with co-workers who write to Helene. too. 

Frank changes in the course of the film, as does his wife. The performances and characters are full of humor, nuanced. To those who think the story would not be of interest to Americans, just look at the success of well written and acted
programs such as Downton Abbey now in its fifth season.

Is their true goal to meet in person; is that what the viewer is waiting for? The movie reminded me that the relationships experienced over the decades are the important thing. The fact that their lives were enhanced each by the other.

We don't always have to have bells and whistles, steamed up windows, explosions, special effects and monsters. Life isn't like that. The ones who bring heaps of charm and explosions are sometimes in the end the worst of all. 

84 Charing Cross Road Movie Poster
Anne Bancroft Anthony Hopkins Judi Dench Jean De Baer

Having friends, kind souls who consistently care, who are consistently there with good humor and who listen, that is vital. Despite all the contrasts and despite the fact that Frank and Helene did not meet in person their relationship was a rich one. "a deep epistolary friendship" There is a real sadness that they didn't meet in person but a happiness that they still 'knew' each other. "Their love for words turned into a love for each other," the trailer (below) says.

What is a monster to you, anyway?

"I am going to bed. i will have nightmares involving huge monsters in academic robes carrying long bloody butcher knives labeled Excerpt, Selection, Passage, and Abridged."
-- Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road

If you're looking for an action packed story with characters who keep you and one another trembling, keep you on the edge of your seat, a monster under every other bed, this isn't that story. 

"It looks too new and pristine ever to have been read by anyone else, but it has been. It keeps falling open at the most delightful places as the ghost of its former owner points me to things I've never read before."
-- Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road

Relationships across the Atlantic, across time.... Who read this book before you and will read it long after you? Films are like that, when you find one you really love.

"All mankind is of one author and is one volume," John Donne wrote in one of his most beautiful meditations.

"When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another...."
-- Helene Hanff: [reading John Donne]  

In watching the film I kept thinking of how relevant it is today. Any story about correspondence would resonate in our email/video conferencing culture. Internet girlfriends and boyfriends, online dates who sometimes meet to find they aren't as expected. I don't suppose that Helene and Frank could have imagined such means of communication.

Are we able to be more ourselves corresponding with someone we've not met (and do not see on a regular basis) than with someone we see regularly, absence makes the heart grow stronger -- can lead to the Dear John letter tho and can lead to a lot of pretense. In which case are we our best selves? 

Some people suggest we're at our best with those we know the least vs those we see and love the most. Is there a part of ourselves that we hide from those closest to us and why? Part we're more open to share with a stranger? She works from home alone He works in this shop where there is the structure, class structure in the society too. Both Helene and Frank value those close to them. Contrast all around but they connect somehow.

I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.”
― Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road 

Meeting someone from another time. What do the characters represent to one another? Helene Hanff is a woman open to everyone. She's a part of the community of book lovers, those people through whose hands certain volumes have passed. Books will outlive us. Will digital volumes? An iPad or MP3?

"Marks & Co. was especially glamorous because it was in London ...'Between my hand-to-mouth income and my fear of travel, I never really expected to see London ...I thought it would be a lovely consolation prize to hold in my hands books that actually came from there,' reminisces Hanff."
-- The Telegraph, London June 2011

What does she represent to him? Just his need to see himself in a new woman's eyes the midlife crisis thing, a new and 'exotic' woman who is so interested in him, someone who is like and unlike him? Last gasp. That is very relevant to an online relationship especially with a middle-aged man.

"Their love for words became a love for each other. a true story based on a best seller. She's quick to refer to him as Frankie. Finally he says, 'Love, Frank.'"

They took the relationship, such that it was, and they grew from knowing one another. 

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven by William Butler Yeats

Had I the heaven's embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light

I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams

The movie must have been fascinating to make, two halves of a whole. The co-stars did not work together. They couldn't play off of one another. Actors often talk about how helpful it is to have the other actors' reactions when
they're reading their lines. These people were an ocean apart. 

They were also playing real people. Helene Hanff visited the set on at least one occasion and one of Frank Doel's daughters visited the set, too.

You can still find the play in production. There are readathons of the book by one or two people taking the different parts. The characters and the relationship have a timeless quality.

"Through the relentless redundancy of popular culture we are lucky to be remembered for one role, image or idea. Anne Bancroft has become Mrs. Robinson. Near the end of her life she was exasperated by the fickle nature of this popular cultural memory. In a 2003 interview, she confirmed her surprise that 'with all my work and some of it is very very good.... 

"'We're talking about Mrs. Robinson. I understand the world. I'm just a little dismayed that people aren't beyond it yet. Indeed sex has an insistent predictability to it fueled by desires unmet by the lunchroom treadmill or shopping center. 

"Bancroft's wish to move beyond seduction and the supposed controversy of an older woman shagging a younger man is not yet matched by the journalists who wrote her obituaries. My hope is that her death is the trigger not for iPod dipping into Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits but to remember her wider filmic catalogue. 84 Charing Cross Road is a subtle and important presentation of men, women intimacy and ideas. the notion that two adults fall in love with words literature and then each other though they never touch is beyond the grasp of the tabloid grab and grope."
-- Thinking Popular Culture

84 Charing Cross Road
(More recent)
"I tell you, life is extraordinary. A few years ago I couldn’t write anything or sell anything, I’d passed the age where you know all the returns are in, I’d had my chance and done my best and failed. And how was I to know the miracle waiting to happen round the corner in late middle age?  

"84 Charing Cross Road was no best seller, you understand; it didn’t make me rich or famous. It just got me hundreds of letters and phone calls from people I never knew existed; it got me wonderful reviews; it restored a self-confidence and self-esteem I’d lost somewhere along the way, God knows how many years ago. It brought me to England. It changed my life."
-- Helene Hanff, Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

Even when she had money, Hanff had given it away. Sheila Wheeler, Doel's daughter, now a retired school-teacher living in Muswell Hill, north London, tells me the writer made sure they received a share of her royalties following Frank’s death. 

"'We saw her as an American fairy godmother when I was growing up," she says. 'I pictured her as someone tremendously rich and glamorous, looking like Lauren Bacall. It was a shock, when I finally met her, to see how wrong I had been.'"
-- The Telegraph, London June 2011 

Treat yourself to more of Anne Bancroft's movies and Helene Hanff's books, particularly The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street because Duchess contains the back stories of many scenes and more.

Helene Hanff is sometimes confused with actress Helen Hanft (1934–2013). She was in films like Moonstruck and appeared on tv shows such as Law & Order

Quotes throughout, unless otherwise stated, are from the film and or Helene Hanff's books.

Helene Hanff's Amazon author page

Anne Bancroft's Amazon page Anne Bancroft made over 50 films in her lifetime, very different characters and movies for different tastes.

Ergonomic, sturdy suitcases, easy to use Spinner Luggage

Between Silk and Cyanide: A Code Maker's War 1941-45, Leo Marks
Leo Marks began his code-breaking with that used by his father, in noting the prices in his second-hand books. His father Benjamin was a partner in the book shop, Marks & Co at 84 Charing Cross Road. The book contains a story about Frank Doel and a book auction that wasn't all that it seemed.

For more about Mel Brooks (and Anne Bancroft) treat yourself to I Remember Me by Carl Reiner

John Donne: Selections from Divine Poems, Sermons, Devotions and Prayers (Classics of Western Spirituality) 

This article is part of
the Diamonds and Gold Blogathon

Image of 84 Charing Cross Road (more recent) used under Creative Commons from bashereyre (Flickr)

Image of Plaque used under Creative Commons from pedestrian saint  (Flickr)


  1. I have been living in a time when this movie slipped away from me. You have brought it all back beautifully.

    Anne Bancroft always had immense talent and, like her beauty, it grew more fascinating as she matured.

    Thanks you so much for this contribution to the blogathon.

    1. Anne Bancroft is one of my favorite actresses, and I was happy to bring some attention to this movie. Because of its subtlety, wit and intelligence it got some so-so reviews, it's not in your face. This is another one that we watch over and over.

  2. Sounds like a cross between THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE.

    Here in New York, there's been lots of discussion about the future of bookstores. A recent Times article painted a perhaps overly-grim portrait in which Manhattan is becoming less of a literary haven for authors and bookstores due to the rising cost of living there. Indeed, an old and respected midtown bookstore is about to go under, to the dismay of many.

    We're also seeing an evolution of the relationship between bookstores and their patrons, though, thanks to things like social media, the Amazon influence, and the sheer tenacity of small indie stores.

    I believe there will always be a place for bookstores, but that place is being redefined for the 21st century.

    1. It's an interesting time for bookstores, a friend of ours owns a used bookstore where we live. Similar situation. The character in this movie, Helene Hanff, saw the value of the book itself.She liked to hold a book in her hands that was held and read by someone in London, a place she loved. In the end, just getting people to read - on paper or digitally - is a goal. There are vinyl record stores hanging in there. It's a struggle.

  3. I want to thank you very much for participating in the blogathon with your classy article on a wonderful film and it's beautiful and talented star, Anne Bancroft.

    1. Thanks for having the blogathon. The three stars, Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench were all about the same age. Impressive that Dame Judi Dench took this role even early in her film career, it isn't a large role but she made it her own and she made the character come alive.

  4. I haven't heard of this movie before, but now I'm curious. I've become an Anne Bancroft fan lately, and the theme of bookstores in the movie surely attracts this bookworm here. Oh, and thank you for the Sweet Georgia Brown clip - priceless!
    Desenvolva um texto de sua autoria (mínimo 10 linhas e máximo 30 linhas) no qual apresente:

    A. Seu posicionamento final a respeito do que foi debatido em nosso fórum. B. Acrescente ao tema escolhido elementos apresentados e discutidos nos tópicos de leitura selecionados para essa semana.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. Thanks for your comment. In this case, much as I love the performances of the leads and the story itself, the backstory and the behind the scenes is as interesting as the film. Some fans don't know that Mel Brooks produced films like this. Glad that we got to watch it again.


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