Excellent work, with Arthur Penn repeating his Broadway triumph directing Duke and Bancroft, the two stage leads. This remarkable story of Helen Keller began as a book, then became a William Gibson play that premiered on Broadway in 1959. When the time came to make the film, Penn, Gibson, and
producer Coe insisted that Bancroft and Duke be retained, with resulting Oscars for both stars. Duke had riveted Broadway audiences with the role as Keller, and, at age 16, became the youngest recipient of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. (In 1973, Tatum O'Neal eclipsed her by winning the award
at age 10 for PAPER MOON.)
THE MIRACLE WORKER is a powerful picture, even as the credits roll. Keller (Duke) is groping, lost and angry in her silent world when Annie Sullivan (Bancroft) arrives in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on a mission to teach the girl how to communicate through sign language. The task seems impossible, since
Helen is blind as well as deaf. Annie, we learn, was blind at birth and still must wear very thick glasses in order to see images. Her own life had been brutalized by many years in institutions and the loss of the one person she cared about, a crippled brother who died young. Bancroft senses that
the only way she can make any progress with Duke is to separate the child from her doting mother, Swenson, and her overbearing father, Jory.
The film is a harrowing, painfully honest, sometimes violent journey, astonishingly acted and rendered. Penn and cinematographer Caparros use short dissolves to great advantage, and Rosenthal's score heightens every nuance of the drama. The interiors were shot in New York and the exteriors in New
Jersey, which doubled for Alabama. The eight-minute sequence featuring a physical fight between Bancroft and Duke as the teacher attempts to teach the pupil some manners stands as one of the most electrifying and honest ever committed to film.
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