‘The Miracle Worker’ still powerful
June 6th, 2012
By Kurt Jensen
NEW YORK – This year a number of significant Hollywood movies reach their 50th anniversary milestone, not the least of which is “The Miracle Worker.” It recounts the true story of disabilities pioneer Helen Keller.
Though left deaf and blind by an illness she suffered in infancy, at age 7 Keller learned to communicate through the devoted work of her teacher, Annie Sullivan.
With a screenplay by William Gibson, who wrote the hit Broadway play of 1959, and directed by Arthur Penn, who also helmed the stage version, “The Miracle Worker” was filmed in what’s sometimes called “glorious black and white.” It has been available on DVD since 2001, but without the kind of added features that would enhance perspective and enlighten viewers unfamiliar with Keller’s life.
The drama’s original impact, nonetheless, is still fresh.
Born in 1880 and an inspirational speaker from her 20s, Keller was an advocate for unions and spoke against the use of child labor. But she also was a member of the Socialist Party who supported birth control.
Nor did she adhere to any mainstream Christian denomination. Instead, she was a follower of the 18th-century Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who taught, among other things, that the second coming of Christ took place in 1757. In 1927, Keller even published a book about her faith, “My Religion.” Her beliefs might best be described as eclectic.
Keller’s left-of-center views were far less prominent in the years following World War II, when the influx of blinded veterans made her a beloved spokeswoman for the physically challenged.
Gibson’s long-running play, which began as a live TV presentation in 1957, dramatized a single epoch in Keller’s long chronology, focusing on the changes that came about once Sullivan, a graduate of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, arrived at Keller’s home in Alabama.
Keller had been left sightless and deprived of her hearing by an ailment that may have been either meningitis or scarlet fever – both treatable by antibiotics decades later. The film doesn’t flinch from the horror of this.
By 1962, polio, with its chilling imagery of iron lungs, was on its way to being eradicated in the United States. But the new terror was thalidomide, a drug prescribed briefly for morning sickness, which created deformed limbs in the unborn.
Keller never has been played by a 7-year-old actress. In “The Miracle Worker,” she’s portrayed by Patty Duke, who was 15 at the time of filming, and had played Keller to great acclaim on Broadway, along with Anne Bancroft as Sullivan. (Like Duke, Bancroft reprised her role for the movie.)
The physical struggles between the two are spellbinding. Keller, imprisoned by her afflictions and with her family unable to handle her outbursts, was essentially feral, and faced the possibility of being sent to an asylum for “mental defectives.”
Teaching always has conveyed particularly well on film. Sullivan, in the manner of all great instructors, pushes ahead with both Helen and her compassionate, if confused, family. Her famous line (often misquoted) is, “It’s my idea of original sin – giving up!”
The climactic moment in which Keller finally makes the connection to language through the impact of water flowing from a pump is today commemorated by a statue in Keller’s hometown of Tuscumbia, Ala. Keller received the National Medal of Freedom in 1964 and her funeral in 1968 was held at the National Cathedral in Washington.
Jensen reviews films for Catholic News Service.
From June 8, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.