Anne Bancroft (The Graduate and Agnes of God) plays teacher Anne Sullivan, who is hired by a wealthy Southern family to teach their deaf, blind, and mute daughter, Helen Keller (Patty Duke, Valley of Dolls), how to communicate with the outside world.
Reaction & Thoughts:
True greatness is very hard to define. It can’t be quantified in an ordinary manner, nor can it be attributed lightly. Some people are so mysteriously great that no book, movie, or play could fail in capturing a little bit of their magic. Such a person is Helen Keller, the remarkable woman who, regardless of never gaining her sight and hearing, eventually graduated from college with honors and dedicated her life supporting the handicapped community. She is one of the most extraordinary people of the 20th century.
Based upon William Gibson’s play of the same name, The Miracle Worker is a dramatization of Keller’s first encounter with the woman who changed her life. In choosing to concentrate on this particular moment in her life, the movie also showcases the pillar in which the greatest accomplishments stand on: perseverance. Anne Sullivan, lifelong teacher and companion to Keller, represents exactly that. Her tenacity is the driving force of the story. In attempting to remove Keller from the world of darkness and teach her to be self-sufficient, Sullivan managed to achieve the impossible — she was indeed a miracle worker.
The Miracle Worker, adapted to the screen by Gibson, and beautifully directed by Arthur Penn, is an absorbing, inspirational tale that, despite its stage origins, manages to generate a cinematic force of its own. Director Penn should get the most praise for succeeding in creating a movie rather than just filming a play. Penn, and cinematographer Ernest Caparros, use an interesting game of shadows and lights to illustrate (literally and figuratively) the world of darkness in which Keller lives.
The freshness displayed on many emotionally charged scenes betrays the fact that Bancroft and Duke had been playing their roles for almost two years on Broadway. Their combined acting forces are something that needs to be seen to be believed, and they deservedly won Oscars for their superb performances. The film established Bancroft as a bona fide star and made Duke, at 16, the youngest person (up to that point) to have ever won the award. Also starring Inga Swenson (Miss Gretchen, TV’s Benson) as Helen’s mother, Andrew Prine (The Town That Dreaded Sundown) as Helen’s half-brother, and Beah Richards (In the Heat of the Night) as a maid.
There is an interesting feminist subtext here. It’s subtle and so cleverly integrated into the narrative that it feels totally organic. Sullivan tells Helen’s father, Captain Keller (Victor Jory, Gone With The Wind), that “obedience without understanding is a form of blindness.” Sullivan refuses to “blindly” obey his employer, an attitude that rattles Mr. Keller because he’s a man and a man is supposed to know best. Sullivan realizes, soon enough, that she can’t fight for her pupil’s rights unless she’s willing to stand up for her own rights. Sullivan inadvertently makes the point that human civil rights are interchangeable with the term feminism.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The Miracle Worker is a powerful story about commitment, patience, endurance. I’ve seen the play on stage, but this movie version of the play remains unbeatable; it has two amazing performances, and Penn’s perceptive direction. Remade in 1979, with Patty Duke as Sullivan, and Melissa Gilbert as Helen, and yet again, in 2000. There is also a sequel of sorts titled The Miracle Continues (1984), with Blythe Danner as Sullivan, and Mare Winningham as Helen. B&W, 106 minutes, Not Rated.