Monday, January 28, 2019

Reeling Backward: "The Miracle Worker" (1962)

"The Miracle Worker" is one of those works that has become a staple of popular culture even though many people today haven't actually seen the movie or the play that originated it... including me.

I knew the film mostly through its various spoofs and references. I seem to recall a "South Park" segment in which teacher Annie Sullivan repeats the line, "Water, Helen, water!" to blind-and-deaf student Helen Keller as she magically makes the connection between objects in her world and the words that have been spelled out by hand to her, and then the student chorus picks it up for a kicky musical number.

But like many lines from the movies that have become immortal, Annie (Anne Bancroft) never actually says those words in the film -- at least not in that sequence and context. For the record: Bogie never actually says "Play it again, Sam" in "Casablanca," either.

Keller became famous in the early 1900s for her scholarship and writings, especially her 1902 autobiography, "The Story of My Life." (Less well remembered these days is her political activism and embrace of socialism.) She and Annie became lifelong companions, and her autobiography chronicles their journey from the time they met when Helen was 7 until about age 22, when she became the first deaf-blind person in America to graduate from college.

William Gibson turned it into a television play in 1957, and then a smash Broadway hit in 1959 that won Tony Awards for Gibson, Bancroft and director Arthur Penn. This provided the impetus for a film version, though at first the studio wanted a bigger star than Bancroft, suggestion Elizabeth Taylor instead. But Penn stuck with his leading lady, as well as Patty Duke reprising the role of Helen, even though she was 15 years old by then.

It turned out well, launching the film careers of Bancroft and Duke, who won the Academy Awards for best actress and supporting actress, respectively. It also revived the Hollywood viability of Penn, whose only film to that point, 1958's "The Left Handed Gun," was re-edited against his wishes and ended up a flop. He had a rather short but vibrant heyday with "The Chase," "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Little Big Man."

If it were coming out today, I think "The Miracle Worker" would be quickly pegged as an "Oscar bait" kind of movie. It's a period costume drama set in the South -- the sort of thing where men wear three-piece suits to dinner and black people occupy the background as live-in servants, seen but not heard. It's got a lot of quotable lines and emotional scenes that would serve nicely as the clip during the Academy Awards ceremony.

In today's lights it's a finely crafted film, well-acted, a bit stiff.

In 1962, though, my guess it was seen as a powerhouse movie with a lot of dynamic rule-breaking. Annie is hardly gentle in imparting her lessons to Helen, manhandling her and even slapping her in a way that would probably land a teacher in jail these days. At one point she effectively keeps Helen hostage for two weeks, ensconced in a dilapidated old cottage so she can exert her will on her stubborn pupil without intrusion or contact from the parents.

The 10-minute scene where they wrestle around the dining room, smashing everything in sight as Annie forces Helen to eat from her own plate rather than just grabbing what she wants from others', is notable for its sweaty physicality.

You didn't see too many movies back then where women work themselves into a lather. (We still don't.)

Bancroft's Annie is a strong proto-feminist figure, an independent woman with limited sight herself who was raised in hellish conditions inside an institution for orphans, the elderly and the unwanted. The scene where she recounts her and her little brother playing with the bodies of babies stacked in the "dead room," as if they were broken dolls, will make you catch your breath.

Duke, of course, does not speak in the film, other than trying to utter the word "water" during the pinnacle scene. She does I think a decent job portraying a sightless person who also cannot hear. There are several times in the movie where she's reaching around a room with her hands and comes within a hair's breadth of knocking something over that's outside her peripheral vision. I wonder what sort of training she did for the role.

The other three notable characters are her mother, Kate (Inga Swenson); her father, Arthur (Victor Jory), a Civil War veteran whom everyone addresses as "Captain," even his wife; and her brother, James, (Andrew Prine), a snotty man/boy who loves playing the contrarian, even expressing an attraction to Annie that he would never act upon since his type sees hers as below his station.

(I should note the movie excises three other real-life siblings of Helen's for expediency.)

Annie finds that she needs to craft a way to relate to each family member. To Kate, she adopts a bit more of a matronly attitude, though careful not to intrude about her motherly domain. Annie sees James for what he is, a self-important prig, and gives him just enough attention to propel him to unload his verbal droppings and then go about his business.

The relationship with the Captain is the most interesting of the bunch. Annie manages to ingratiate herself through embracing her own sternness and using martial allegories to compare her rough teaching tactics to his own deeds during the war. When he objects to Annie refusing to let Helen have her food after misbehavior, she guesses that he was not above cutting off the enemy's supply chain when necessary.

Jory was 30 years older than Swenson, in a May-November onscreen pairing that was not all that unusual for the time. Nearly 60 when they shot the film and not a large man, the actor has one scene where he's required to carry Bancroft over his shoulder while climbing down a ladder, and another where he picks up and carries the teenage Duke, and clearly struggles to do so.

I should mention that Duke starred in a 1979 television remake, this time playing the Annie role to Melissa Gilbert's Helen.

I respected "The Miracle Worker" more than I enjoyed it. Some old movies still seem vibrant and alive; others are like moldering artifacts stuck behind glass for us to pass by, glimpse and move in. This movie is closer to the latter.

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