Hello, Ms. Bancroft…
Anne Bancroft was, of course, a busy lady of both stage and screen, and every once in a while those two planes collided, such as in the BBC production of Paddy Chayefsky’s The Mother. The play is set in the Bronx, New York in 1954 and deals with family, aging, and accepting reality.
Annie (Joan Cusack) is worried about her headstrong mother, Mrs. Fanning (Anne Bancroft), who wants to find a job, but whose fainting spells make the idea of her working problematic. She fainted on the subway while going to her job interview at a garment factory. Mrs. Fanning, however, is so determined to do for herself that she won’t even let her daughter make her a cup of coffee. Or get the saccharine out of the cabinet for the coffee. It doesn’t matter that she hasn’t held a job in forty years or that she’s not highly skilled. She’s fine. She can make it.
Mrs. Fanning sometimes spends her mornings sitting on a park bench with two of her friends, each of whom regales her with how they fill their time now that their kids are grown and their husbands have passed on. A neighbor lady has fallen down the stairs and broken her hip. Visiting her will take an hour. Going to Mass and staying for confession and the current novena will pass a lot of time. Afternoon TV is wonderful. It just eats up the day. Mrs; Fanning listens to all of this and looks like she wants to bolt. She’s not ready to while away her hours in the same ways.
Fortunately, she has her job at the garment factory. There are a lot of older people and some of them are friendly, but most of them keep their heads down because the supervisor is a big jerk. He watches Mrs. Fanning at the sewing machine and chides her for not working fast enough. She’s not even allowed to go into the next room to lay off her coat and purse. In the end, though, Mrs. Fanning gets fired for something stupid and, to a reasonable person, a non-event, but either way, she’s out.
Annie wants her mother to move in with she and her family even though they don’t have enough room for her. Mrs. Fanning only agrees to a night with them after dropping a carton of eggs on the floor, but following an uncomfortable attempt at sleeping in a grandkid’s bed, she decides to go out and look for another job. Is she resigned to her new time of life? Or is she still unwilling to let her children help her?
This teleplay is very brief, only about an hour long, and I honestly wish they could have added a few more minutes to it just so we can have more time with these characters. On the other hand, it gets its point across very effectively. Mrs. Fanning wants to stay in control, and that’s how we’re allowed to perceive her. We might see her riding a train at an important point in the play, but she doesn’t want us to know. She could be looking for a job, or riding to the end of the line. She could be going to Coney Island for all we know. Either way, it’s none of our business. Mrs. Fanning’s smile says it all.
We don’t know a lot about these characters; the first names of most of them are incidental. Mrs. Fanning doesn’t have a first name and neither do her friends or her co-workers at the garment factory, and if they do have them they don’t generally stick in the mind. It’s as if one of the hallmarks of aging is losing one’s identity bit by bit, and maybe this is a reason Mrs. Fanning fights so hard to keep on making her own way despite her lack of skills and waning physical abilities.
There’s not much information out there about The Mother, but we do know author Paddy Chayefsky was a prolific television, screen and stage writer who won three Academy Awards for his screenplays. He’s best-known for Marty, which began life as an episode of the Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1953 before being adapted into the 1955 feature film starring Ernest Borgnine.
We also know The Mother first premiered on April 4, 1954 as another episode of the Philco Playhouse and starred Cathleen Nesbitt as the title character. It’s not known why the BBC chose to revisit the play, but it aired on October 24, 1995 as part of its Great Performances series.
As is typical of BBC productions, The Mother is filmed very simply, with no unusual camera angles; there are very few cuts in each scene beyond inserts, and for the most part everything is allowed to play out at masters. The music is minimal, mostly to bookend scenes but it never gets in the way of the dialogue.
The performances in the play are fantastic, especially Anne Bancroft, whose Mrs. Fanning is feisty while pitiful, stubbornly full of life while fading. She’s a delight to see, and she shares the bulk of her scenes with Joan Cusack, whose Annie is believable as Mrs. Fanning’s daughter. Even though the behind the scenes particulars may be a bit shadowy, The Mother is a wonderful way to spend an hour.
For more of the wonderful Anne Bancroft, please see Crystal and Jarrahn at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Thanks for hosting this event, guys–it was a blast as always. It stinks that you’re back in hospital, Crystal. Get well soon! Thanks for reading, everyone, and hope to see you Tuesday for a new Reading Rarity…
The Mother is free to stream on Amazon for Prime customers.
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