On the Seesaw

The role of Madame Trentoni in Clyde Fitch’s Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines gave Ethel Barrymore the first (likely best) star showcase of her stage career, a triumph of 1901 that boasted her unique comedic register as a compliment, not a distraction, to her natural, demure grace. This role would immortalize her as a first lady of the American stage, a star who was never entirely allowed to grow up and out of such charming roles, but it is also a role like Madame Trentoni (and an ambitious young performer like Barrymore), that admirably reminds one of the great Anne Bancroft in her first stage role. The good faith of playwright William Gibson, director Arthur Penn, and producer Fred Coe saw that she would be their lead in their two-person corker Two for the Seesaw, because they saw nobody else better-suited for the role of a woman “fresh and crazy and timid as a colt” than Anne Bancroft, who had just uprooted her entire life for the singular chance to become her own actress, on her own terms.


At a time in American film history where selling female star personas meant a decent amount of stability for a major studio’s interests, not having an identity as an actress meant little opportunity to develop inside of a typecast, and even less of an opportunity to develop outside of one. With an education at one of the nation’s finest acting schools and a sizeable television portfolio under her belt, a twenty-year-old Anne Bancroft signed her first film contract with Twentieth Century-Fox on October 12, 1951. Her luck in finding acting work right out of school (American Academy of Dramatic Arts, class of 1950) and a chance screentest manipulated in her favor might have promised Bancroft a long, enduring career in the movies with a running start; only, in 1951, major Hollywood studios, especially the “Big Five” studio she had just signed with, were beginning to buckle under the financial pressure of producing and releasing only a select few movies a year (after block booking was made illegal and Century-Fox was forced to sell their theater chains), and her star-making campaign was of little concern to studio brass. For Bancroft and any actor or actress signed to the studio around that time (to name one: Farley Granger, with whom Bancroft bonded over such thankless luck during the filming of the 1955 film The Naked Street), a diversity in (quality) roles were only reserved for established stars who maintained consistent, positive reception at the box office. After her two-year contract with Century-Fox, freelancing, too, presented its own host of challenges: job instability was crippling for an actress without a name or a niche anybody was familiar with at a time when making a movie for a major studio was a risk, an expensive one at that.

20-year-old Anne Bancroft approving her first film contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, Nov. 1951. Bancroft had initially signed the contract the previous month while watching the Italian Heritage Parade in her home state of New York.

In tandem, an uneven palette of roles in thankless films (the patient wife of an impresario in Tonight We Sing, second to a man in a gorilla suit in Gorilla at Large, a disturbed murderess in The Girl in Black Stockings) kept Bancroft at a career plateau, devastating for an actress who showed early signs of earnest ability and elasticity in craft: Bancroft soon learned that her formal education and a diversity of experience in television before she had even reached Hollywood meant next to nothing for an industry whose investment choices were as fickle as their audiences, and whose preoccupations in restoring business interests sidelined some of its greatest potential talents. Much too rare a case for a woman to exercise movement in her own acting personality and have major studios protect her best interests to ruminate on in respect to Anne Bancroft, what is worth consideration is the fact that Hollywood could not even manage assigning her a type to perfect, which proved to fail the interests of both its internal industry (who would see her greatest merits refined and restored in the coming years, both on stage and back in film) as well as a promising, adaptive young actress. Louella Parsons once made note of Bancroft in those years as “just another pretty girl with high movie hopes, not too distinguishable from hundreds of similar young actresses playing routine leading lady roles”; though this might have been the case, and though Bancroft did eventually prove this observation erroneous, none of how Hollywood treated a young woman with the temperament and skill of a giant, is to be called the fault of her own. There were women in Hollywood who were able to operate under a typecast, to manipulate their circumstance to inform people of the woman behind the persona (Judy Holliday and Carole Lombard come to mind), but there were also those who were never given the chance to evolve in the first place, such was the case with Anne Bancroft. 


In early 1957, Anne Bancroft was twenty-five, out of work and an unhappy marriage (to studying lawyer Martin May, a union that officially lasted from 1953 to 1957, though the couple separated in 1955), and Hollywood. Though she might not have intended her first career pivot to be so close to home, an unlikely team of three had a role, “the key to unlock a lifetime of talent,” waiting for her in New York. The opportunity to become a better actress, Anne Bancroft, and a better version of herself, Anna Italiano, came on a subway ride to Fred Coe’s office, who was then looking for a female lead in the play he was currently producing: Two for the Seesaw.

A three-act, two-character play, Two for the Seesaw, centers the May-December romance between divorced, middle-aged attorney Jerry Ryan and earthy, eccentric, hemorrhage-prone dancer Gittel Mosca (short for Moscowitz): it’s a sweet, smoldering, unorthodox love affair. Both people learn something about what it means to give and take in love, maturing both parties into better, fuller people by the end of their fleeting romance. Seesaw is a smart, adult play that has the unique appeal of playing to the sympathies of the woman over the man; sure enough, from its out of town try-outs to its modest 750 performance run, the most frequent critique of the play was how the writing very obviously favored the female character, underdeveloped on the man’s side (this fact was also an ardent issue for Henry Fonda, but more on that later). With a fresh, twenty-first century pair of eyes, it’s obvious that the man is not as underdeveloped as much as he is purposefully the blank canvas, the joke setter-upper of Seesaw, who is not much a personality compared to the woman, who does not need to be her every match or competition, because the modern feel of the play begs of its audience to consider that unbalanced seesaw for what it is. (One might even suggest that Gibson was ahead of his time for this.) Seesaw’s hard-won success as a two-character play, its favor of the woman over the man (Annie over Hank), its ultimate estrangement from its author and the peace to be made by that, inform us about a changing theater landscape, and more, the beginning of a beautiful friendship: Anne Bancroft and the American stage.

Bancroft received word of Seesaw from Richard Basehart, with whom she had recently played opposite in the Playhouse 90 program “So Soon to Die”, and read over the script as she arrived in New York for her sister Phyllis’s wedding. Basehart had read for the part of Jerry Ryan, too, and was the strongest lead the part had at that point in time; he put in a good word for Bancroft and Coe agreed to see her first, as the television adaptation of Gibson’s The Miracle Worker (to be directed by Penn) took them both to California. Beyond the family obligation that had brought Bancroft back east, though, her state of career-wise discontent encouraged her to take this role seriously, and she was in town, after all. On her first interaction with Coe, Bancroft recalled: “I made sure he found me with one shoe off, scratching my foot, and when I got inside of his office, the first thing I said was, ‘Where’s the john?’ It was just the sort of thing Gittel would have said. I didn’t have to go, really, but I went. He asked me to come back the next day.” To a thinly-spread producer who, with his writer and director, had spent the previous several months sending scripts to actresses across the country only to receive little in the way of prospects, the spitting-image of Gittel Mosca blowing in to his office on a whim likely seemed to him nothing short of a miracle. Gibson too came to hold similar reservations about this obscure little actress—‘the best Gittel yet’—once she auditioned for them, too. In his words: “She was a dark, quick, not pretty but vitally attractive girl with a sidewalk voice that greeted me instantly with, ‘How was the coast, lousy, huh?’ and my mind blinked; she could have walked off my pages.” Though Coe and Gibson had made up their minds about Bancroft, their decision went to bed with Penn, the last to see her; Bancroft dazzled, and Penn not only phoned in his opinion on her as ‘Gittel on the hoof,’ but he hired her for his next Playhouse 90 program on the spot. Bancroft would continue to tease up that line between Gittel and the real Anne to impress and awe, to stay afloat in her own development as an actress and person. It seemed that this seesaw, if you will, between character and actress was already obvious to William Gibson when Bancroft first made his acquaintance, recalling, “I felt we had fallen into a diamond-in-the-rough mine. But telling a story minutes later she slid into an elegant characterization, and I perceived she was not a type, but a talent.” Gibson, and also Penn and Coe, seemed to understand that Bancroft was starting completely from square one, and they humored her as she humored them, scrambling to make a small, out-of-favor show work in earnest. If she was willing to pour her all into being and becoming Gittel Mosca, then they were willing to endow her with the greatest gift any friendship in the industry could buy: an audience.


Compelling and clear-minded in prose, playwright William Gibson is always on-the-level about the human experience. As one reads The Seesaw Log, the published production notes on his original play Two for the Seesaw, they might expect to be equal parts inspired and nauseated; the amount of rewrites, working on “the man” as he would recall too many times over to count, and rebuffs from his team are enough to dishearten those of us who would be content writing even half as good at half his pace. The beauty of The Seesaw Log is that it really brings you to the level of anxiety, heavy stress and discord that Gibson was imaginably operating under during the time in which these notes were being written (as in chicken scratch on whatever paper source was available). The process of writing and rewriting was just the half of it though—nobody ever told Gibson that in his Broadway debut as a playwright, most of the heavy lifting on his side would have to do with human relations. A lot of The Seesaw Log chronicles Gibson’s difficulty in trying to reach or please Henry Fonda, without whom there would be no play; notably, though, his notes are never pointed or hostile towards any given person (which might be owed to his self-censorship, apparently the truth was “much worse”), they are just symptomatic of the larger pressures of mid-twentieth century Broadway networking and star politics. Gibson is figuring out just how taxing and convoluted a job writing a play and seeing it to Broadway fame is at the same time we are, and it’s that very intimacy that allows for a completely honest insight into a business that’s foreign to most of us. Gibson’s account of Seesaw from its inception to opening night gives the impression of a writer at his wit’s end, who couldn’t care less about his words disturbing Broadway mythos: this is the American theatre at its best and worst, and you don’t have to love how Gibson puts it in order to get the picture.

In the way of show business, Henry Fonda was the reason why Seesaw went into production. When Bancroft auditioned and landed the role of Gittel almost immediately, Gibson, Penn, and Coe were settling on Richard Basehart for the role of Jerry Ryan. Basehart, however a commendable addition to Seesaw’s history both as an actor and one of the only few men sent the script who actually expressed interest in reading, did not carry a name like Henry Fonda. Only Henry Fonda held that honor. And he also happened to be one of the only other men who liked the script enough to agree to a read-through. In mid-June of 1957, Gibson met in Fonda’s home in New York’s east seventies to supervise a read of the first act between Bancroft and Fonda. The two performed on the seesaw that afternoon, reading through the entire three acts of the play, to which Gibson recalled in grimace: “Nothing could have borne in upon me so uncomfortably the inequality of the roles as hanging this on the spectacle of this renowned star, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and lankily slumped on his couch, waiting patiently all afternoon for his next line, and each time coming up with a monosyllable.” Throughout the rest of that summer and into its August, Gibson, Penn, Coe—once referred to in a 1959 Time magazine article as “like three bears, but platonic” a moniker which will be used to describe them hereafter—and Bancroft awaited Fonda’s response while making themselves comfortable with Basehart’s absence (whose elusivity had since distanced him from the production); Fonda’s words, which came by cable—“Start it rolling, I am yours”—were the harbinger of Seesaw’s production, and from that point on, the play would continue to fall out of Gibson’s humor, to a detriment that might be owed to the omnipresent struggle of trying to please everyone all at once.

From TIME magazine (Dec. 21, 1959): “Who is Stanislavsky?”

It must be said that Henry Fonda’s sense of tradition in his profession (that it was just that, a profession, a man reading the lines someone gave him to a camera or to a live audience), never allowed him to give an inch. Anne Bancroft, who was just learning the ropes of the Actors Studio, Stanislavsky and Berghof, was all giving; she confessed to and relished in knowing nothing, and from this, approached Seesaw and the whole of acting with such passion and verve that Fonda seemed not only out of place in her wake, but entirely alien. The parallels between Bancroft and Fonda and their Seesaw characters is perhaps what gives this play an abundant, living feeling that endures as both a work of fiction and a meditation on the crossroads of acting parlance in the mid-twentieth century. These were two people completely at odds with each other, whose clashes of varied exposures to American theatre and acting at large inform the characters in which they were playing: A woman who gives everything and a man who gives only a little, enough to fade into something grand in memory. What’s more is that Fonda and Bancroft never spoke much to each other during the production or of each other after, regardless of how much it appears the two provided such a perfect contrast of each other with the power to reveal some real truths of craft and character. Two people who once came together with such vital purpose, like Gittel and Jerry, were able to depart and disappear from each other’s lives just the same. 

Anne Bancroft and Henry Fonda during a rehearsal for Two for the Seesaw. This photograph by Arthur Cantor is from my personal collection.

With Fonda in the production, the requirement to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite the part of the man, while not always demanded of Gibson, was always there. During that first mid-June read in 1957, Gibson made one key insight—“If we got Fonda all other difficulties would vanish, and getting him now depended on no one but me. It meant dropping the novel, it meant drowning again in the collaborative gluepot of the theater, and worst of all, it meant rewriting once more to capture what had eluded me for two and a half years, a full-bodied character in the man”—that would act as a specter for the duration of the play’s production: Gibson would never go on to write a version of the man that Fonda was pleased with, and Fonda would never perform a version of the man that Gibson was contented by. The only sure thing to the three bears was their investment in Anne Bancroft, who had since been evolving under their tutelage and responding remarkably in the form of a perfect Gittel, one who Bancroft even started to breathe a life of her own into. It would be too convenient a truth to say that Fonda was jealous of the attention poured into Bancroft during Seesaw’s production (and of its reception); the truth was likely closer to that of a pair of mismatched forces, an anxiety-ridden, aiming-to-please writer with no Broadway experience and a seasoned star, who needed his part to be a hero or nothing at all, who just didn’t and couldn’t understand each other. This is not to say that Fonda was a detriment to the play or that he was in any way incapable of delivering what some critics at the time considered to be a career best performance. In all transparency, he took a big financial and professional risk lending himself to the production, one obligation that he remained good on until his six-month contract expired. Then he was gone. But Gibson might have told you that he was gone long before that. 


In the film Stage Struck, released the same year as Seesaw opened on Broadway and by an incredible coincidence also starring Henry Fonda, one bold young actress makes of a singular opportunity to act on the Broadway stage a lifetime worth of applause. The climactic moment of the film sees this actress, played by Susan Strasberg, delivering an off-screen performance that dazzles all of those who dared to believe in her and engages all in that irrepressible human desire—rarely felt but often pined after—to watch lightning strike. On January 16, 1958 at the Booth Theatre in New York, this actress was Anne Bancroft, who had just given the first performance of the rest of her life. Wrote critic Walter Kerr: “Arriving in Broadway with no very impressive television or Hollywood credits, this straggle-haired, slightly moon-faced urchin clattered down a couple of steps in a green sweater and black cotton stockings, let her mouth hang open as she gaped at the unnecessary problems men make for themselves, rolled her eyes upward as though they were floating question marks, flung her right hand to the heavens in baffled dismissal of everything in sight, and just plain conquered.” Conquer she did, and until she began her unforgettable crusade in The Miracle Worker in the fall of 1959, Anne Bancroft was professionally (and personally) known as Gittel Mosca.

The character’s personal brand of admirable slobbishness, a kind of “take me or leave me” earnestness, came to be synonymous with Bancroft, whose one key role on Broadway did what Hollywood had failed to do all those years before: she finally had a “type.” Around the zenith of Seesaw’s success, Bancroft gave interviews which leaned into this character, a personal crutch that might have been used to brace any possible fall from public favor (which never happened, at least not to Bancroft, but surely to many an actress in any comparable kind of limelight). It is also worth noting how Gittel Mosca was written as a Jewish woman, while Bancroft was herself not Jewish, but Italian. William Gibson himself wasn’t even sure of her ethnic background when she landed the role—“We had the one actress in captivity who had been born—a mile from me in the Bronx, and surely Jewish, though she turned out Italian—to play this girl”—and this confusion of identity between Gittel and the real Bancroft endured. Such descriptions that favor her appearance, surroundings, and mood—“Dark hair tousled, as it is in the play, and wearing a pale-green smock, Miss Bancroft finished tucking in the sheets and blankets, poured herself some coffee…” by Douglas Watt of the Daily News ; “Miss Bancroft, nee Anna Maria Italiano, is a dark-haired, brown-eyed woman of 27 whose quick speech and manner hint of an inner restlessness. Her personality is, in a way, reflected in her clothes, which are obviously chosen for comfort all the way. Her tastes run to sweaters, skirts, and black woolen stockings” by Don Nelson of the Daily News—refer more to Gittel than her, a credit to the uncreative and unwilling minds from a time where women were meant to exist only in convenient spaces with convenient personalities. 

A desire to conflate Bancroft to her character gives way to a bigger, much more dubious trend in the world of American film and theatre alike: a type, for a woman, is who they are, both in the public and in private, but a type for a man is only a decorative term for limited range. Women with types, referring back to the earlier mentioned Judy Holliday and Carole Lombard, were not the dizzy, vacuous women they often portrayed on screen, but those types still endure to this day. This is all to say that Anne Bancroft, who received her first “type”, a Tony award-winning one at that, with Gittel Mosca, by her own admission was too new to the nuances of method acting that she folded all of who she was into this one character, which created for her a sense of false identity in which she never should have needed to maintain in order for her talents to have been accepted. Bancroft herself, and those three bears that saw who she was and what she was capable of from the start, might have been all too precious for an industry that makes and disposes of female identities at the turn of every season.


Interestingly, the film adaptation of Two for the Seesaw, released in 1962, four years after the play had opened on Broadway, actually engages well with its subject matter, making its New York spaces, both personal and of the public plenty, complimentary to the love story it houses within its walls. Much more interesting a discussion to be had about the film adaptation, though, is its place in this mid-century intersection of film and theatre, where it performs a version of its misogynistic custom to a different audience, one who went to the movies instead of the theater.

As it goes: The Mirisch Company paid $350,000 for the rights the play in 1959, as Elizabeth Taylor had expressed early interest in the role of Gittel Mosca; in the context of The Seesaw Log, Gibson was likely perfectly content selling the rights of the play to Mirisch and never contributing creatively to the story ever again. If one is versed in Hollywood history at this point in time, another Taylor production might have come to mind; Cleopatra, Twentieth Century-Fox’s mammoth studio blow-out, went into negotiations in 1958, and by 1961, was still in an overrun, over-expensed, infamously painful production. Elizabeth Taylor bowed out of her wayward commitment to Seesaw, and a much different star-on-the-rise was ushered into the part. Shirley MacLaine, who had met her greatest career triumph thus far just a year prior in The Apartment, might have seemed almost too perfect for the role of a punchy, overly-giving young bohemian, but the role was hers. Anne Bancroft was hardly a consideration for the role in the film adaptation because, as time has told, stage success often exists in a New York microcosm; what is the toast of Broadway is the smoke of Hollywood. Bancroft, as evidenced by her thankless fifteen-film run in Hollywood, lacked the star power to carry a film that she carried on Broadway, and Shirley MacLaine checked all the right boxes that Bancroft had yet to even be made aware of in California. As creative control lapsed into the hands of people who couldn’t understand the power of novelty that made the play the original triumph it was, missing was the key to unlock the story’s greatest virtues: Anne Bancroft.


Shirley MacLaine is a wonderfully gifted actress, but on her own merits; I once described her unique and perceptive knack for tragicomedy with “her funny is always heartwarming, her heartwarming is always funny.” Though what she aims to do as Gittel Mosca is not without earnest, MacLaine suffered the horrible ill of being cast in a role that did nothing to play to her strengths. One of the most serious blows that the film adaptation takes is, unfortunately, due to the casting of Shirley MacLaine in a role that, to the untrained eye, so closely mirrors her previous, unforgettable triumph in The Apartment. As aforementioned, indeed the similarities are there: spunky young city girl gets involved in a long, somewhat agonizing relationship with an older man, and she takes sick in bed for a good amount of the screentime in both films. Because the similarities are so obvious, all of the weaknesses of Seesaw are more noticeable through her character, and it’s easy to mark The Apartment as the superior Shirley MacLaine film (which, yes, that’s the correct position to take. Most films pale in comparison to The Apartment.) The film’s problems (which share most of the problems of the play: the part of the man, staginess, etc.) are not the fault of MacLaine, rather the fault of an industry that fails to see women as more complicated and able than the type of roles they play, but they are more obvious through her character, because we know MacLaine, we know what she is capable of, and Seesaw just isn’t the best case for that. I hardly think that the problems with the film would be solved entirely if Anne Bancroft resumed her role as Gittel Mosca, they would just be eclipsed by her take on the character much more efficiently; that is perhaps the one thing that might have been true on both the stage and in film.

Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine during the production of Robert Wise’s Two for the Seesaw (1962).

Robert Mitchum, who plays Jerry Ryan in the film, takes a thoughtful approach to the character, considering his flaws and playing up to them, offering an insight into what perfect casting might have looked like for the part of the man. To his credit, Mitchum played flawed men with all the seasoned grace that Henry Fonda played heroes of the collective American consciousness. His Jerry Ryan is stiff but sexy, brooding but loving, and to all the virtues of this character that Gibson tried to help Fonda see, never cowers in the face of his own worst qualities: he embraces them, and even tries to change. Gittel Mosca is a wonderfully complex character, and Jerry Ryan is a stuffed shirt trying to figure out his new role as a freshly-divorced middle-aged man in a new city. Both of these characters are, ultimately, touchingly human, but bringing the man’s role to life wasn’t as difficult as the woman’s, though Henry Fonda might have begged to differ. This said, it is much easier for the man to be celebrated than the woman, simply because his job is much harder to nitpick to the average viewer, and the woman’s job is not just to act a part, but to perform up to a collective public opinion that ceaselessly aims to judge and put her into a box. 


By the time Bancroft finished her obligation to Two for the Seesaw in mid-1959 rehearsals for The Miracle Worker began; older with experience, she focused on breaking down that Gittel headspace so that could best sink into a new character, one who she refused to become completely (though that didn’t stop the media from refining that abrasive Gittel Mosca charm into that of a “serious” and “intense” type with the likes of Annie Sullivan). Bancroft would continue to refuse this patronization for the rest of her career, especially after her winning turn as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate when she refused any projects that saw her to this typecast, resulting in a five-year break from films completely.

In an interview with Lydia Lane from 1960, at twenty-nine years old, Bancroft expressed a breadth of understanding regarding the course of her career thus far: “In becoming an individual, you have to find out what you enjoy, not what you think you enjoy. All kinds of conflicts arise from not really knowing what you want. You have to train yourself to be aware, to examine the activity in your life and eliminate as much as possible what does not bring you joy. Getting to know yourself, facing yourself with honesty, means you have to adjust to reality.” At a time where women were given and expected to maintain personas if not to be completely at the mercy of a landscape that was never made to benefit them, Anne Bancroft recognized and began to reject these statutes; in turn, she arrived at a better version of herself. This role of Gittel Mosca in Two for the Seesaw, while not existing on the same cultural plane as her turns in The Miracle Worker and The Graduate, was a watershed moment in Bancroft’s development as a self-preserving actress, one who dedicated an entire career thereafter to the art of balance.


Daniel, Douglass K. Anne Bancroft: A Life. University Press of Kentucky, 2017.

Gibson, William. The Seesaw Log with the text of ‘Two for the Seesaw’. A. A. Knopf, 1959.

Kerr, Walter. “Broadway Hails Lively ‘Seesaw.’” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 26 January 1958, p. 59.

Lane, Lydia. “Anne Bancroft Tells Her Secret.” The Spokesman-Review, 18 December 1960, p. 40.

Nelson, Don. “One the Serious Side.” Daily News, 20 April 1958, p. 816.

Parsons, Louella. “Anne Bancroft: Aiming for Opera.” San Francisco Examiner, 17 June 1962, p. 126.

Peters, Margot. The House of Barrymore. A. A. Knopf, 1990.

“‘Two for the Seesaw’ for United Artists.” Brooklyn Daily, 23 November 1959, p. 17.

Watt, Douglas. “New Girl in Town and She’s Got a Village Flat.” Daily News, 18 March 1958, p. 486.

“Who is Stanislavsky?” Time, 21 December 1959, pp. 46-52.

Featured Image: Two for the Seesaw by William Auerbach-Levy, 1958. Accessed from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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