Blind, deaf, and mute, wild child Helen Keller was shut out from communication and terrorized her affluent Southern family, until willful teacher Annie Sullivan brought structure and discipline to Helen’s life and through teaching communication offered Helen something entirely new- a way to speak, and a voice of her own. “The Miracle Worker” tells the true story of Keller’s childhood, with a special touch of sensitivity and minimal sentimentality.
Helen, who became a respected feminist and disability rights advocate, owes her success in no small part to Annie Sullivan, her teacher and friend. But it didn’t start out that way. When Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft,) she is entangled almost immediately in a battle of wills with Helen (Patty Duke,) an unkempt girl seething with frustration and coddled by her exhausted family.
Helen’s family deals with the pressure of her upkeep in different ways- Captain Arthur Keller (Victor Killer) postures and demands respect and obedience from his beleaguered family, while Kate Keller (Inga Swenson) maintains the dutiful ‘whatever you think is best’ attitude of old-world Southern manners. Meanwhile older brother James (Andrew Prine) goofs off and mouths off, while tensions between him and his domineering father simmer.
There are no ‘bad guys’ here- no monsters in the closet who want to exploit Helen, no boogeymen who want to make the wretched girl suffer. Helen is not a saccharine movie character- she kicks, screams, and bites, and at one point quite deliberately stabs her teacher with a needle- but she is never reprehensible or unlikable, and we never lose sight of her unbearable frustration and anger.
Patty Duke gives what is surely one of the best child performances of all time. Not once does she break character- we believe she is this wild, nearly feral deaf, blind, and mute girl. She excels beyond the portrayals most adult performers deliver of the disabled. The entire cast turn in excellent acting jobs.
It is impossible not to feel enormous respect for Annie Sullivan, as she refuses to take the easy way out (letting the child have her way) in the long, grueling process of educating Helen. When I saw the stage version of this at our local theater, the audience tittered and laughed at the scene where Annie tries to force her pupil to eat with a fork. In the film adaptation, nothing funny about it. Just pure grit.
“The Miracle Worker” is a touching true story that is still effective years later, and can be enjoyed by the whole family. No blood guts n’ sex, no infantile humor pandering the younger set, just powerful storytelling. It is a true classic that can be enjoyed for years to come.