1962 / Best Director

Film #592: The Miracle Worker (1962)

Usually, when studying the work of a specific director its easy to find distinctive features that link all of their films. Examples relating to recent films I’ve explored here include the exploration of sexuality in Schlesinger’s movies, the lustful nature of Ken Russell’s work or the artful free-form nature of Fellini’s pictures. However finding links between the work of Arthur Penn has been quite tricky with his two appearances on Every Nominee be two films that have very little in common those being Bonnie and Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant. In turn those two movies share few similarities with the second part of this Penn double bill; The Miracle Worker which is possibly the most traditional of all of the trio of his films I’ve explored.

The Miracle Worker started life as a teleplay written by William Gibson who adapted Helen Keller’s ‘The Story of my Life’ to be part of the Playhouse 90 strand in 1957. Gibson then would go on to adapt his teleplay into a stage play for a production that ran in 1959 and finally adapted into the screenplay for this 1962 movie. Penn himself had been the director of the stage play and therefore it made sense for him to helm what would be only his second film after the 1958 Paul Newman western The Left-Handed Gun. The film of The Miracle Worker also reunited Penn with the theatrical production’s leading lady Anne Bancroft who reprised her role of Anne Sullivan; a teacher from the school for the blind who was previously a student there herself. Sullivan is drafted in by the Kellers, whose daughter Helen has been deaf and blind since infancy after contracting scarlet fever and has numerous violent outbursts that arise from frustration over her condition. Sullivan clashes with Helen’s father Captain Sullivan over the way she treats his daughter namely not going easy on her just because of her condition and teaching her how to properly eat and dress herself. The violent clashes at the Keller house lead Sullivan to suggest that she and Helen go to a small house just on the edge of the property where they can work together and potentially help her learn to spell out and understand a number of words. Although she achieves some sort of progress, Sullivan is unhappy that she hasn’t truly got through the meaning of some of the words that she has taught to Helen. However, rather predictably, there is a surprise for the teacher at the end of the film which makes it all feel rather life-affirming.

Although I had a brief smattering of knowledge over the basic story of The Miracle Worker I didn’t know how the film tackled it and how far they would go into the relationship between Anne and Helen. The first ten minutes of The Miracle Worker were a little hard to take as they focused on the Keller family namely Helen’s parents who were that melodramatic I felt as if they were in a different film. It’s only when Anne Bancroft arrived on screen as the titular miracle worker that the film picked up the pace which only accelerated once Anne met Helen for the first time. Bancroft’s performance in the movie is absolutely wonderful as is her chemistry with Patty Duke, who played Helen both on the stage and in the film. Apparently Bancroft wasn’t a bankable enough star for the studio executives who wanted a bigger name to lead the picture but Penn stuck to his guns despite being offered a smaller budget if he were to retain the actresses’ service. Duke’s casting was equally controversial primarily due to her age as certain people involved with the film didn’t think the now fifteen-year-old actress could convincingly portray the seven-year-old Helen. However I believe she did a fantastic job with her wordless scenes opposite Bancroft being the film’s best especially the nine minute dialogue-free sequence in which Anne tries to teach Helen proper table manners. I personally would’ve preferred just the two of them on screen throughout as the other actors were far too over-the-top for my liking especially Andrew Prine as Helen’s half-brother James. Thankfully we were spared the potential romance that was teased between Anne and James as I felt she was far too good for this arrogant know-it-all.

Despite working on a limited budget, I felt that Penn did a great job making The Miracle Worker into a properly formed film. I’ve recently been critical about films adapted from plays but there were enough cinematic elements in The Miracle Worker that justified its move to the big screen. Penn’s relationship with the story meant that he probably had ideas that he could realise now he wasn’t limited to the stage. The film used exterior locations to positively improve the story namely the sequences involving Anne’s initial journey to the Keller house and later her journey with Helen to the house where she would teach her. However the moments that best exemplified Penn’s directorial flare were when we saw Anne flashing back to her own childhood and in particular her relationship with her own brother Jimmy. I think that Penn more than justified his inclusion into the best director category here as I found The Miracle Worker to be a much more compelling movie than Alice’s Restaurant. Penn’s casting decisions also paid off at the Oscars with both Bancroft and Duke scooping awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively with both honours being more than deserved. Whilst I do think The Miracle Worker deserved a Best Picture nod, I’ve got one more Best Director film from 1962 to review before I make that decision. What I can say is The Miracle Worker was a compelling feature for the most part thanks to some great work from Penn, Bancroft and Duke however it feels completely different from both Alice’s Restaurant and my personal favourite movie from the director; Bonnie and Clyde.

Next time we look at another film from 1969 that was nominated for almost every Oscar apart from Best Picture.

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