The Miracle Worker

The Miracle Worker is a docudrama based on a true story about Helen Keller (Patty Duke), who has been rendered blind, deaf and mute after a bout with scarlet fever. When her parents can no longer cope with the feral girl’s tantrums, they call in inexperienced but innovative teacher Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft). Though Helen perceives sign language as a finger game, Annie’s unflagging tutelage ultimately awakens in her charge the concept of words. Bancroft (Best Actress) and Duke (Supporting Actress) won Oscars for their work. This wonderful film will draw you into the frightening world of Helen Keller and then make you believe in the impossible.  The classic story of deaf and blind Helen Keller (Patty Duke) and her teacher, Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft). Pitied for her handicaps and thought to be retarded, Helen has been indulged and left in ignorance, resulting in a spoiled child without any concept of language. Anne, herself raised in a home for blind and deaf children, must be a ruthless taskmaster in order to use the child’s physical needs as a primer from which to teach her what language is so that communication might follow.  On the surface, this is the struggle of Anne Sullivan to break thru the seemingly impossible barriers of complete silence and darkness that surround a blind-deaf child named Helen Keller. But when the impossible happens (in one of the most powerfully cathartic moments in film history) and that child is able to associate a thing in the outside world with a word (a name), we see and feel a key turn opening a door to an entire world of people, things and ideas. Finally when Helen points to Annie Sullivan to learn the word that signifies her own “miracle worker”, Sullivan signs the word “Teacher”. It is then that the deepest meaning of the film is revealed: that teachers lead all of us out of darkness, shining a light on new worlds, new ideas. It is a potent message, delivered with skill and commitment.  I watched this movie with my 10 and 12 year old daughters, and we loved it. Patty Duke is astounding as the maddeningly desperate Helen, and Anne Bancroft is wonderful as the headstrong, determined Annie. My daughters didn’t expect to like this film, but they loved it, and I felt they learned a lot, about compassion, tough love, the history of our country’s handling of physical handicaps, the advantages of the wealthy, and tenacity/integrity. My only disappointment was that the movie only spanned the very beginning of Annie and Helen’s life-long relationship, starting from when Annie arrived at the Keller household until the breakthrough when she taught Helen how to communicate with sign language. The final scene is a real heart warming tearjerker.  Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke break a number of barriers together in a manner that continues to inspire to this day. The two extremely talented actresses command the lead roles in a film about two very independent women, produced in the early 60s, no less. Bancroft and Duke carry this film on their shoulders and they do a magnificent job. They share many intense, physically exhausting scenes together. The sequence in which Anne grapples with Helen over dinner in order to teach her to follow basic rules of etiquette is a good example-it is unsentimental and the actresses are totally committed to their performances.  Perhaps what sets this film apart is the skill of the actors in portraying two extremely demanding roles. The reason they were so incredibly good is simple, practice makes perfect. Bancroft and Duke had already performed the play on Broadway for more than a year.  Director Arthur Penn and screenwriter William Gibson (who adapted his own stage play) have done remarkable jobs as well to produce an uplifting, inspirational film.  A perfect movie for the whole family and any teacher looking for a pick-me-up. 5 stars for a film any serious movie fan should see.  Docudrama 1962 NR 106 mins.

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