Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Thirty-Eight

#38 — The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn, 1962)
Much as I can exult in films that are edgy and daring, bending the very parameters of cinematic narrative–and these were in no short supply in the nineteen-sixties, thanks largely to the French New Wave and all that in influenced–I also admire it when a work effectively employs tried and true methods to resonant impact. Indeed, there’s almost something more impressive about a film that engenders a strong emotional response through familiar means. It’s not stirring the viewer through technique trickery, dazzling with sheer audacity. Instead, it’s setting hearts aquiver or tugging out tears by hitting beats that are as familiar as the rhythm of a favorite song. I certainly wouldn’t hold Arthur Penn’s film version of The Miracle Worker as revolutionary filmmaking, but damned if it doesn’t swell with hard-earned emotion.

Penn had directed the original Broadway production of The Miracle Worker, written by William Gibson after he had first tried the story out on television’s Playhouse 90 a few months earlier (Penn directed that too). Taking from the memoir written by Helen Keller, the play recounted her Alabama youth when she was pulled from her coddled petulance as a blind, deaf and mute girl by the arrival of a new teacher, Annie Sullivan, herself severely visually impaired. It is the stuff of firm inspiration, delivered with a meticulous attention to dramaturgical craft and just enough ragged toughness to elevate it above condescending pablum. It was a smash on Broadway and production on the film version followed within a couple of years, with Penn wisely insisting on bringing his two primary stage stars with him. Though Penn’s directing job is excellent–tight, focused and knowing precisely when to let a scene play out with a minimum of fuss–it’s the presence of those two actresses that really locks the film on the proper path.

Anne Bancroft played Annie, and Patty Duke played Helen. Both have a vital lived-in quality to their acting here, lending a strident naturalism to the proceedings that ran somewhat counter to the other performances in the film. This slight disconnect only served to set the central relationship apart, which is precisely what was needed. In the story, Sullivan is the first person to edge Helen away from the darkness she has willingly remained ensconced within, in part because it gave her license to misbehave. By instilling manners, discipline and respect, she also leads Helen to a place of greater self-worth. There are bits of the script that hew towards overt sentiment–as it almost must given the subject matter–but the elegant, uncompromising, shockingly physical acting of Bancroft and Duke prevents it from becoming a precious thing etched in brass. The Miracle Worker may be inspiring, but it is also ferocious, charging forward with a thrilling contentment in its own value. Manipulation isn’t needed when the power is built right into the work, and the people involved–bolstered by their experience with the material–know, almost by instinct, exactly how to draw that power out.

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