Although better known for his comedies, many of them parodies of movie genres, Mel Brooks has also been executive producer of a number of acclaimed dramas. 84 Charing Cross Road (1987), which he produced for his wife Anne Bancroft, was one such project. Brooks had bought the rights to the story for her as a birthday present. Cast opposite her was Anthony Hopkins, who had already played opposite Bancroft in her cameo in The Elephant Man (1980), which was produced by Brooks. They had also acted together, again briefly, in Young Winston (1972), in which she played the title character’s famous mother, Lady Jennie Churchill, and he appeared as British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Hopkins “adored” the 84 Charing Cross Road screenplay by Hugh Whitemore and was eager to make the movie.
The story is based on the 1970 autobiographical book of the same name by New Yorker Helene Hanff, a playwright, magazine author, and scripter of many early television dramas. The book detailed the 20-year correspondence between her and Frank Doel, staff member of the antiquarian bookshop Marks & Co. Hanff, in search of long out-of-print classics and obscure British titles unavailable in the States, contacted the company at the titular London address in 1949 after seeing an ad for it in the Saturday Review of Literature. (Charing Cross Road, in fact, is known for its many booksellers.)
Doel’s correspondence with Hanff was at first formal and related strictly to literature and the book business, but there soon developed a warm friendship, and their frequent letters took on subjects as diverse as cooking, sports, and their own personal lives, and occasionally included an exchange of gifts. Hanff and Doel never met face-to-face; he died in 1968 before she had a chance to visit. The bookstore closed not long after, and Hanff wrote about her 1971 visit to the empty but still-standing shop in a subsequent book, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.
84 Charing Cross Road was first adapted into a play by James Roose-Evans, which ran on Broadway for 96 performances between December 1982 and February 1983. It starred Ellen Burstyn as Helene and Joseph Maher as Frank and took place in her New York apartment and his bookstore. Whitemore, an old hand at turning books and plays into movies and television shows, opened up the action and also added another character not in the play, that of Frank Doel’s wife Nora. She was played by Judi Dench, already a significant actor in British film, theater, and television. She has since gone on to great international success, winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar® for Shakespeare in Love (1998) and nominated another five times. She was created Dame of the Order of the British Empire in 1988.
Ironically, Dench and her husband Michael Williams had turned down an offer to play the roles of Hanff and Doel on the British stage “because we thought it smacked of a recital eveningwhich goes to show what my judgment is!” Dench almost turned down the role of Nora, too. At the time, she did not enjoy film work (and insists she still will not watch herself on screen). Dench got on well with Hopkins, enjoying his witty humor and instinctual approach to characterization. It was only later, when they worked together on stage in Antony and Cleopatra, that she became aware of what she characterized as his volatile, intense temperament.
84 Charing Cross Road brought Bancroft a Best Actress Award from the British Academy (BAFTA). It also received BAFTA nominations for Dench and Whitemore and won Hopkins Best Actor at the Moscow International Film Festival.
The real Marks & Co. bookstore was most recently a wine bar but bears a plaque commemorating its connection to the book and film. There is also a plaque on the apartment building where Hanff lived at 305 E. 72nd St. in New York, which has been dubbed “Charing Cross House” in honor of the story. Hanff died in 1997 at the age of 80.
Director: David Hugh Jones
Producer: Mel Brooks
Screenplay: Hugh Whitemore, based on the play by James Roose-Evans and the book by Helene Hanff
Cinematography: Brian West
Editing: Chris Wimble
Original Music: George Fenton
Cast: Anne Bancroft (Helene Hanff), Anthony Hopkins (Frank P. Doel), Judi Dench (Nora Doel), Maurice Denham (George Martin), Mercedes Ruehl (Kay).
C-96m. Closed captioning.