A tour-de-force battle of the wills soars in a powerfully moving biopic that helped propel the American New Wave
Sometimes performances are so powerful they can carry a film. And when there are two such performances in the same film, it is a major coup. Add to that an emotionally charged story based on truth, grippingly presented in a no holds barred manner, and you have one extraordinarily entertaining classic. Such is the case with this week’s film, “The Miracle Worker”. Two tour-de-force performances (by Anne Bancroft as "Annie Sullivan" and Patty Duke as "Helen Keller") led both actresses to Academy Award wins, the film earned three additional Oscar nominations, and it has been named the 15th Most Inspiring Film of All-Time by the American Film Institute. I’ve loved this movie ever since I saw it as a kid, and its performances are so honest and raw they still have the power to stop me in my tracks should it appear on TV while switching channels. If you want to be moved and entertained, this film is for you.
“The Miracle Worker” is based on actual people – Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. Famous for her courage in overcoming handicaps, Helen Keller is perhaps the world’s most famous blind and deaf person. In spite of her limitations, she went on to author fourteen books, hundreds of speeches and essays, became a lecturer, was an activist for people with disabilities, civil rights and other social causes, helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and more. The film focuses on a period in her life when she first met Anne Sullivan, who was employed by her parents to teach her. Strong-willed like Helen, Anne had the patience and dedication of a saint, and realized that Helen needed to discover language to communicate and understand the world. Helen and Anne remained life-long friends and companions, even after Sullivan stopped teaching her. In 1903, Helen wrote her highly inspirational autobiography, “The Story of My Life”, and 1957, playwright William Gibson adapted portions of it into a “Playhouse 90” TV production starring Teresa Wright (as “Annie”) and Patty McCormack (as “Helen”), directed by Arthur Penn, which earned Gibson an Emmy Award nomination. Gibson then adapted it into a 1959 Tony Award winning Broadway play starring Bancroft and Duke, also directed by Penn (which won Gibson, Penn, and Bancroft Tony Awards). And then Gibson adapted it into the screenplay for this film and earned one the film’s five Academy Award nominations (for Best Adapted Screenplay).
“The Miracle Worker” opens with “Helen” at 19 months old, as her parents (“Kate” and “Captain Arthur Keller”) realize she has become blind and deaf from an illness. It then jumps to “Helen” as an undisciplined, uncontrollable, unkempt savage of a girl who rips buttons off dresses, overturns her baby sister’s cradle, and slaps people at will, not knowing what she’s doing. “Kate” senses "Helen" wants to speak and be like everyone else. She remembers how bright she was before becoming blind, deaf and mute and recalls that “Helen” knew what “water” meant at just six months old, calling it “wa wa”. Clueless on what to do, "Kate" smothers “Helen” with love, pity, and zero discipline. On the other hand, “Captain Keller” wants to discipline her but won’t. Also at a loss for how to help “Helen”, he thinks of sending her off to a mental asylum. Out of desperation, the family contacts a school for the blind who in turn send “Annie” to teach “Helen”. Virtually blind herself, “Annie” refuses to let “Helen” get away with anything she wants just because she has disabilities. Unlike “Helen’s” parents, she treats her as if she were a seeing, hearing child. When “Captain Keller” says to “Annie”, “God may not have meant Helen to have the eyes you speak of”, she replies, “I mean her to”. The bulk of the film becomes “Annie’s” quest to get “Helen” to discover that language exists by getting her to understand just one word.
This film exposes a profound aspect of humanity most of us probably take for granted – language. We have created millions of words with which to express, share, and understand the most nuanced concepts, feelings, and thoughts. Words give us access to abstractions, imagination, hypothetical events, and let us relive the past and try to steer the future, and it is language that separates us from all other creatures (and even makes us mistakenly feel superior). Watching "Helen's" behavior, this film illustrates the power of language as clearly as I've ever seen. As "Annie" tries over and over to get “Helen” to comprehend her first word, she sheds light on the potency of language as she says to the unhearing “Helen”, “one word, and I can put the world in your hand”.
The haunting, moody, raw quality and displays of emotion in “The Miracle Worker” were part of a trend that was leading the way towards a new period in cinema often referred to as the American New Wave or American Renaissance. With the studios and studio system in decline and the Motion Picture Production Code losing its ground, there was a noticeable shift in American films. From the 1960s through the 1970s, they began to switch from star-driven studio vehicles to director-driven explorations reflecting the visions, ideas and styles of directors who were expanding the boundaries of cinema with experimentation and edgy subject matters. A new breed of film director emerged, including Robert Mulligan, John Frankenheimer, Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Norman Jewison, Mike Nichols, Steven Spielberg, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Bob Fosse, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, David Lynch, and John Cassavetes. One of the leading directors of the American New Wave was the director of “The Miracle Worker”, Arthur Penn.
Though he became world-famous in 1967 from his groundbreaking classic, “Bonnie and Clyde”, one can see Arthur Penn’s style ever-present in “The Miracle Worker”. The mature approach, astute performances, brazen yet plausible violence, subject matter about an outsider, and a personal quality are all characteristic of why Penn became a major cinematic influence. In this film he additionally employs an expressionistic tone, filling the screen with dramatic use of foreground, middle and background objects, unusual dissolves, out of focus flashbacks, and even occasionally showing a character in silhouette. He brilliantly uses a neutral position from which to tell the story of the clash between “Helen” and “Annie”. A stellar example is the film’s famous nearly nine-minute dining room scene in which “Annie” tries to get “Helen” to sit and eat with a spoon. The scene becomes a physical battle akin to a barroom brawl. Penn mostly shows them sharing the frame, giving each equal time in close-ups without bias, and its extended length smartly lets us share the exhaustion felt by both “Annie” and "Helen”. It is riveting entertainment. That particular scene took five days to shoot, and both Duke and Bancroft wore padding under their costumes to prevent injury. “The Miracle Worker” was Penn’s second film, and for it he earned his first of three Best Director Academy Award nominations.
As a teenager, Philadelphia-born Arthur Penn began acting in school productions and on local radio. While serving in WWII, he set up a theater group and began to direct and act, and he continued staging productions after the war. Becoming interested in films after seeing "Citizen Kane" (you can clearly see that film's influence in this one), Penn went to New York and studied at the famed Actors Studio. By 1953 he began directing TV, followed by Broadway in 1956. The second Broadway show he directed was "Two for the Seesaw", written by Gibson and starring Bancroft, for which he earned his first Best Director Tony Award nomination. In 1958 he directed the teleplay of "The Miracle Worker", earning him the first of two Emmy Award nominations (his second was as executive producer for a 2001 episode of "Law & Order"). He then directed the 1959 Broadway version of "The Miracle Worker", earning a Tony Award. After five very successful years directing TV, he made his film directing debut with "The Left Handed Gun" in 1958. His second film was "The Miracle Worker", and after a couple more films came "Bonnie and Clyde". Pushing the limits of sex and violence in Hollywood at the time, that film is the one most often credited with launching the American New Wave and established Penn as one of the world's most innovative and influential directors. He directed just over a dozen films, including "The Chase", "Little Big Man", "Night Moves", "The Missouri Breaks", and "Alices' Restaurant" in 1969 (earning him a third and final Oscar nomination). Penn continued to sporadically direct on Broadway, earning a third Tony Award nomination for 1961's, "All the Way Home". He was married once, to actress Peggy Maurer for over fifty years until his death, and one of his two children is TV director Matthew Penn. His brother was renowned photographer Irving Penn. Arthur Penn died in 2010 at the age of 88.
When Penn was set to direct the film version of "The Miracle Worker", United Artists wanted Elizabeth Taylor to play "Annie", offering a budget of $5,000,000 if he agreed. Having worked with Bancroft in the role on Broadway, he insisted this virtually unknown actress star in the film and subsequently United Artists reduced the budget to $1,3000,000. Penn's instincts paid off. Anne Bancroft gives an inspired performance as"Helen's" teacher, “Annie Sullivan”. “Annie” had a horrific childhood growing up in a mental asylum alongside her younger brother, among rats, disease, and mental patients. She survived through sheer strength with an unbreakable will and desire to be taught how to read and write despite her near blindness – all of which she put to use when working with “Helen”. Bancroft exquisitely shows compassion and occasional humor with an emboldened might in a performance flowing with honesty. You can see it all throughout the film, whether she’s speaking with “Captain Keller” or being stern or tender with “Helen”. And she and Patty Duke are electrifying together. When preparing for the role, Bancroft learned the manual alphabet, lived in simulated blindness, and observed disabled children. For her performance, Bancroft won multiple awards, including a Best Actress Academy Award, a Best Foreign Actress BAFTA Award, and the National Board of Review.
Anne Bancroft was born in the Bronx, New York to Italian immigrants. She began studying acting early on at prestigious schools such as HB Studios, The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and the Actors Studio (with Lee Strasberg). She began working in television in 1951 (appearing in 50 TV shows in two years), and landed her first film role in 1952's "Don't Bother to Knock" (which starred Marilyn Monroe and Richard Widmark). After doing over a dozen low-budget B-movies and a couple of TV shows, feeling stuck, she turned to Broadway and made her debut in Gibson's "Two for the Seesaw" (directed by Penn), which earned her Tony and Theatre World Awards. Next came her Broadway appearance in "The Miracle Worker", earning her a second Tony Award. This film established her in films, and quality films and film roles followed, including her next, 1964’s “The Pumpkin Eaters”, for which she garnered a second Oscar nomination. Her most iconic role came shortly after, as "Mrs. Robinson” in the classic 1967 film, "The Graduate”, for which she earned yet another Oscar nomination. In 1964, she married writer, director, producer Mel Brooks, and appeared in several of his films, including "Silent Movie" and "To Be or Not to Be”. Other notable films from her 87 film and TV credits include, "The Elephant Man", "Torch Song Trilogy", "Honeymoon in Vegas", and "'night, Mother". She earned the final two of her five Best Actress Oscar nominations for "The Turning Point" in 1977, and "Agnes of God" in 1985. Bancroft also voiced the animated characters of "Queen" in “Antz", and "Sedessa" in her final film, 2008's “Diego". She appeared in eight Broadway productions, and earned a third Tony Award nomination playing Golda Meir in 1977's "Golda", written by Gibson and directed by Penn. Among Bancroft’s other honors are six Emmy Award nominations (winning two), seven BAFTA Award nominations (winning three, including the one for "The Miracle Worker"), and eight Golden Globe nominations (winning two). She married twice, including her second marriage to Brooks, which lasted just over forty years, until her death. They had one child together, actor and writer Max Brooks. Anne Bancroft died in 2005 at the age of 73.
Patty Duke is mesmerizing as "Helen Keller”, a young girl who can’t see, hear, or speak. I can’t think of a more believable seeing actress playing blind than Duke in this film. She really lives the part and it seems as though she’s not using her eyes at all, even in her close-ups. There’s not one false note in her performance as she inhabits this frustrated, angry, and headstrong young girl lost in her own world. Watch how genuinely she reacts to her mother’s touch, or how she runs from “Annie”, such as when she encounters her at the top of the stairs. There are so many subtleties in her work, perhaps most easily seen in her face during the famous, emotional scene by the water pump. Duke played “Helen” in the Broadway version, and by the time this film came around she was fifteen years old. United Artists wanted someone younger, but just as he did for Bancroft, Penn fought for Duke to reprise her role. Thank goodness. Duke won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her portrayal, becoming the first juvenile star to win a competitive Oscar (honorary Oscars were previously given to a few child performers). Duke also earned a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe nomination and won the Golden Globe that year for Most Promising Newcomer.
New York City born Patty Duke had a tumultuous childhood with an alcoholic father and mother who suffered from depression with bouts of violence. At eight years old she was put under the care of two unscrupulous and abusive talent managers (who also managed her brother), and she soon began appearing in TV commercials, print ads, and on television and in films in 1958. After a slew of TV appearances, she made her Broadway debut in "The Miracle Worker", for which she won a Theatre World award. After more TV and a handful of films, the film version of "The Miracle Worker” launched her career. It was followed starring roles on television and the in the film "Billie", and in 1963 a TV show was created for her titled, "The Patty Duke" show, in which she played identical cousins with opposite personalities. The show was a hit, ran for three seasons, and earned her the first of ten Emmy Award nominations (she would win three Emmy Awards for "My Sweet Charlie", "Captains and Kings", and for the 1979 TV movie version of "The Miracle Worker", in which she played "Anne Sullivan"). After her TV series, she began appearing in adult roles, beginning with the cult camp classic, "Valley of the Dolls" in 1967 (which nearly ruined her career). After that, she worked almost exclusively on TV, appearing in just ten more films, including "Prelude to a Kiss", "The Swarm", "Me, Natalie", and 2018's "Power of the Air", which was her last appearance. Her 120 or so TV credits include appearances on "The Love Boat", "George Washington" miniseries (on which I appear as an extra), "Glee", "Hawaii Five-0", and recurring roles on "Touched by an Angel" and "Amazing Grace”. In addition to her Oscar and Emmy Award wins and nominations, Duke was also nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award, and four Golden Globes (winning two). She also had a successful singing career with a top-10 hit "Don't Just Stand There", and a top-40 hit "Say Something Funny”. Duke was married four times, including marriages to TV director Harry Falk and actor John Astin. One of her three children is actor Sean Astin. As a teenager Duke suffered from anorexia, and at one point attempted suicide. In 1982, she was diagnosed with manic-depressive illness (bipolar disorder), and with medications was able to stabilize her moods. A mental-health activist, she worked with the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She wrote three books, her autobiography, "Call Me Anna", "Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness", and "In the Presence of Greatness – My Sixty Year Journey as an Actress". Patty Duke died in 2016 at the age of 69. A bit of trivia: the birth names of both Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft were Anna Marie.
Victor Jory plays “Captain Arthur Keller”, “Helen’s” father. Jory flawlessly plays the role, displaying just enough caring under his stern exterior to believe this stern Captain of the Confederate army is devoted to his family. Born in Canada to American parents, Victor Jory was a wrestling and boxing champion in the US Coast Guard during his military service. He started acting in theater and then began appearing in films in 1930. Starting in leading man roles, he soon found himself mostly playing heavies, some feel due to his coal black eyes. A prolific career in films and TV, he accrued 201 credits which include "A Midsummer Night's Dream", "Dodge City", the title role in "The Shadow", "Cheyenne Autumn", "The Fugitive Kind", and perhaps his most famous role, as "Jonas Wilkerson" in "Gone with the Wind". In the early 1940s, Jory co-starred in seven of the "Hop-a-long Cassidy" Westerns, almost exclusively playing a villain. He also appeared on Broadway throughout the 1940s. He was married to actress Jean Inness for fifty years until her death. Victor Jory died in 1982 at the age of 79.
Inga Swenson plays “Kate Keller”, “Helen’s” mother. Knowing there’s a smart girl in there somewhere, “Kate” believes her uncontrollable daughter can be helped but has no idea how, and Swenson is marvelous as a concerned, loving, and helpless mother. Nebraska-born Inga Swenson studied drama at Northwestern University. A lyric soprano, she made her way to Broadway, debuting in 1956's "New Faces of 1956". That led to a successful part in "The First Gentlemen" in 1957, which earned her a Theatre World Award. She began on television in 1957, and after nearly a dozen appearances, made her film debut in the classic 1962 film, "Advise & Consent" immediately followed by "The Miracle Worker". Swenson went back to Broadway four more times in the 1960s, earning two Tony Award nominations (for the musicals "110 in the Shade" and "Baker Street"). Her Hollywood career was spent mostly on television, and she is perhaps best remembered for the seven years she portrayed "Miss Gretchen Wilomena Kraus" on the TV sitcom "Benson", earning her three Emmy Award nominations and one Golden Globe nomination. To date, Swenson only appeared in five films (the other three being "Lipstick", "The Betsy", and as a singer in "The Mountain Men"). Her 40 TV credits include recurring roles in shows such as "Soap", "Bonanza", "Doctor Doctor", and the miniseries "North & South". Swenson retired from acting in 2000. She's been married once since 1953. Inga Swenson will turn 89 years old on December 29.
Although not well seen in the film, I want to point out Beah Richards in an uncredited role as “Viney”, the “Keller’s” cook, maid, and nanny. Like Bancroft and Duke, Richards appeared in the original Broadway production, which was her Broadway debut. She appeared in a handful of films, including "In the Heat of the Night" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", for which she earned a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination. I'll write more about her in an upcoming post.
This week’s classic never fails to move me every time I watch it. It is a prime example of the power of great performances masterfully captured on the silver screen. Helen Keller is credited with my favorite quote of all-time, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing”, and this film itself is certainly a daring adventure. Enjoy “The Miracle Worker”!
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