The Miracle Worker is a wonderful film because it so deftly demonstrates the humanity behind its characters, based of course on the deafblind author and activist Helen Keller, and her indefatigable teacher Anne Sullivan. These were two women who didn't want to be around each other, but stayed the course because they knew and accepted what the other was hoping to achieve. The mutual respect came later.
I was casually browsing Foxtel's selection last night and chanced upon this film on the Fox Classics channel. I hadn't seen it before but it came highly recommended by my mum, who for as long as I can recall has been gently shoving it into my crosshair. I let it run, not thinking I'd finish it, but there was something about the cheeky defiance in Patty Duke's eyes that rather ironically prevented me from looking away.
Hers is surely one of the all-time great performances, requiring much effort in aggressiveness and subtlety. Duke is saddled with the unwanted task of making a young girl -- who cannot see or hear (she can also barely speak) -- petulant in the eyes of her audience but also sympathetic enough that we deeply want her to learn her manners and fold her napkins and come out a better person.
The story begins with Helen as a baby, fully formed and chubby, but soon falling victim to an illness that steals her key senses and abandons her to the doting whim of her mother Kate (Inga Swenson), who sees her child's handicap as less of an infliction and more as an incurable happenstance. Helen grows, accustomed to her situation, but capitalises on her mother's leniency to develop neither manners nor obedience.
This is where Anne Sullivan comes in, played with cool determination by Anne Bancroft. Anne herself was a child of blindness, but miraculously had her sight regenerated by nine separate operations. She is hired by the Kellers to primarily be a teacher. They forget the most vital of questions: How can one be taught if one cannot communicate?
Anne determines that Helen must be sculpted from the ground up, and insists she have the child alone in her care for as long a time as her family will permit. There is a spectacularly exhausting nine-minute scene in which Anne locks herself in the dining hall with Helen and the two engage in a physical joust that one would rightly compare to a skirmish. Helen wants her mommy. Anne wants to teach Helen how to eat from a spoon and not out of her hands. It must be said Anne's goal is the more pragmatic. The loser of the battle, though, is certainly the dining hall.
Both Duke and Bancroft were awarded Oscars for their contributions to The Miracle Worker, and in this age of feminist uprising, many would certainly yearn for the feat to be repeated.
It is a movie that looks inward at perseverance just as readily as it looks outward at sign language and the realisation that arbitrary words actually belong to existing, tangible objects. The word "grass" is not just g-r-a-s-s put together; it represents something green and hardy. It could be argued that Helen always knew this, somewhere deep down inside her brilliant mind, but was never at peace with herself to discern it. In this respect, Anne Sullivan indeed worked a miracle, and in the process unlocked an intelligence that went on to change the way the world viewed physical disadvantages.