THE MIRACLE WORKER (Arthur Penn, 1962)

Recently I corrected an error that is repeated throughout the Internet: the character that eulogizes Zola in William Dieterle’s The Life of Emile Zola (1937) is not Paul Cezanne but Anatole France. (Perhaps it is a sign that all Jewish actors look alike to some people that they could mistake composed, elegant Morris Carnovsky’s France for quintessential schlemiel Vladimir Sokoloff’s Cezanne.) Well, I’m about to correct another error: William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker did not originate as a stage play starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. It originated as a hugely successful 1957 teleplay, on the series Playhouse 90, starring Teresa Wright and Patty McCormack, who had played the evil child in The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956). The play, which arrived in 1959, starred Bancroft and Duke. The 1962 film returned them to the roles of teacher Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, the deaf, mute and blind child who would become Sullivan’s most famous pupil. (Foolishly, Inga Swenson was substituted for Patricia Neal, who had played Helen’s mother on Broadway.) Gibson wrote and Arthur Penn directed all three versions.
     As a child, I recall being stunned by the television production; I haven’t seen it since, and who knows how I would react to it today. The film, however, I have seen a couple of times. It is a cheap, stiff, coldly sentimental, ostentatiously theatrical thing. It is hysterical and histrionic.
     Bancroft, who had won the Tony for her Sullivan, and Duke both won ridiculous Oscars. I thought of Bancroft’s performance when my brother informed me that Matt Damon has said that he found his Africaaner accent in Invictus (Clint Eastwood, 2009) the aspect of his role that was most difficult for him. One can easily believe this because Damon’s accent comes and goes; but it doesn’t matter, because Damon’s performance is otherwise wonderful. The difference with Bancroft, whose Irish accent even more broadly comes and goes, is that I don’t like anything else about her performance either. It reeks of artificiality.
     Among the film’s many disappointments is its failure to find fundamental resonance in the collision between the Kellers’ Protestantism and Sullivan’s Roman Catholicism as each has been imprinted by her or his religious faith. But why even bring this up, when there is nothing whatsoever sensitive or intelligent in any regard about Penn’s film? (Hey, man, I like Alice’s Restaurant, 1969!)
     A far, far better film than The Miracle Worker, one also showing someone’s arduous attempts to educate and “civilize” a child, is François Truffaut’s darkly ironical, fully contextualized L’enfant sauvage (1969).

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