The Miracle Worker
US (1962) Dir. Arthur Penn
We are incredibly fortunate to live in these current times where our understanding of impairments and other health issues is far greater now than it ever was, allowing those affected to still live full lives and get the necessary help to do so. In the 19th century and before, this wasn’t always the case.
1887 and seven year-old Helen Keller (Patty Duke) has been blind and deaf since birth after contracting scarlet fever. Her parents, Captain Arthur (Victor Jory) and Katie (Inga Swenson), are struggling with Helen’s violent outbursts at being unable to communicate and consider putting her in an asylum. In desperation they contact the Perkins School for the Blind for help, who send alumni Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft).
Partially blind herself, Anne has an idea of what kind of help Helen needs but the early going is a battle of wills as her parents have molly coddled her and let her run riot for so long. Anne decides Helen not only needs discipline but also to be away from her parents, moving Helen and herself into a small cabin nearby where Helen is reliant only on what Anne teaches her.
Hopefully you may have heard the name Helen Keller, although you may not know much about her. This isn’t a full biography of her life but is based on the real events from her childhood when the real Anna Sullivan did indeed perform a miracle. Despite a rocky start in life, Keller went on to become an author, lecturer, and political activist, being the first blind and deaf person to earn a Bachelor’s degree and earning her own day in the US.
The Miracle Worker is an adaptation of the play by William Gibson which used Keller’s 1902 biography The Story Of My Life, and in the hands of director Arthur Penn plays out like a Gothic southern drama with an existentialist artistic bent – think Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte directed by Ingmar Bergman by way of a rough comparison.
It opens cold with baby Helen being cleared by a doctor after her scarlet fever but the joy of her recovery is short lived when Katie realises Helen isn’t responding to her. Fast forward seven years and Helen is now a feral, aggressive, and disruptive force around the house, driving her family to distraction. With another baby to think of, as well as the servant’s children, something has to give but only Katie is willing to gut it out unlike her husband and their eldest son Jimmy (Andy Prine).
Anne proves to be as headstrong as Helen is but the difference is in her experience as a visually impaired person, having had many operations to correct her vision, and it is this empathy that helps her make progress with Helen – eventually. The key to Helen is that her handicap is sensory but not mental, in that being blind and deaf doesn’t make her stupid, a shameful misconception the family have been living under.
Straight away, Anne realises Helen is open to learning and knows things by feel but not what they are or what they are called, his inability to understand being the root of her frustration. Through an alphabet using the fingers to make shapes of the letters for her to feel, a sort of tactile sign language, Helen learns some words, though at this stage she is simply mimicking Anne’s actions.
Much of Anne’s approach seems harsh, but she knows what she is doing and achieves results. Debatably the centrepiece of the film is the fight at the breakfast table after Anne sees Helen feeds herself by taking food from the others’ plates, and suggests Helen learns to eat with a spoon. What follows is a superbly choreographed, often funny but very intense and physical, largely single take scene of a battle for supremacy.
Both Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft won Oscars for their superlative performances but I would wager this scene alone justifies these plaudits and it comes barely 30 minutes into the film! Duke is amazing here, like a dog trying to run free from its master yet with the playful tenacity of Harpo Marx, whilst Bancroft must have exhausted herself in keeping up with the non-stop demands of the action.
Yet the key to the film is the chemistry they create between each other, utterly credible and touching despite starting out on an aggressive note and weathering many peaks and troughs. There is additional tension when Anne clashes with the parents, Arthur thinking he knows best and Katie feeling usurped as a mother. It’s an interesting dynamic in that Helen is a sympathetic piggy in the middle but her ferocious demeanour makes it hard to warm to her on occasion.
Ignoring how 16 year-old Duke couldn’t ever pass for seven (nor 31 year-old Bancroft as a 20 year-old), everything she does is a perfect replication of a young child, whilst her stamina and commitment to acting impaired is a flawless and deeply affecting reading. Bancroft’s role is equally challenging, having to be indomitable yet understanding for a woman haunted by her own past, but every facet of Anne’s complexities are covered with flawless humanity and integrity.
With so much of the film’s strength resting on the performances, the presentation is also an intrinsic ingredient in its power. Relying on deep, noir-esque shadows, eerie overlays to depict Anne’s inner turmoil, and non-intrusive camerawork it is visually arresting, but it is the long single takes that give this a sense of reality and detachment from it being a film.
On one of the few occasions I feel inadequate in being unable to discuss a film without breaking my 1000 word limit or do it justice, I’ll simply say that The Miracle Worker was ahead of its time, working as powerful real life story and a dark psychodrama. If not for the performances and sheer emotional impact, it deserves a new audience or reappraisal via this Blu-ray reissue.