With Jack Clayton, no less, “in charge of production” (whatever that means), The Story of Esther Costello hails from the United Kingdom and boasts (in small roles) Sid James and Denis O’Dea. The stars, however, are Joan Crawford, Rossano Brazzi and Heather Sears, the last of whom, one year before her so-so appearance in Clayton’s own Room at the Top, won the best actress prize from the British film academy, just why being anybody’s guess—perhaps because she is marginally better than our Pepsi-promoting, ridiculously glamorous Joan. This is a terrible film, but a thoroughly engrossing one, much in the Hollywood manner.
Sears plays the title role, an orphaned blind-deaf-mute teenager living in filth and poverty in an Irish village, left to fend for herself by her guardian, an alcoholic aunt cartoonishly written though vividly played by Maureen Delaney. Hers is the only performance in the film I halfway believed.
Esther’s trebly handicapped condition, which doctors pronounce largely psychosomatic (to prepare us for a last-act instantaneous cure once Esther is raped: an odiously ironical outcome), derives from exploding gunpowder left over from the Rebellion: a ghastly trivialization of tortured Irish history. The explosion also kills Esther’s mother. It keeps proclaiming how heartfelt it is, but this is a heartless film.
Crawford, stunning in Jean-Louis gowns, plays Margaret Landi, “permanently separated” from her spouse and visiting her birthplace, where she discovers Esther and, prodded by the village priest, informally adopts her. Margaret is also “filthy”: filthy rich. Back home in Boston, Esther becomes a whiz kid at learning to decipher speech through touch and reading Braille. Margaret and she hit the inspirational lecture circuit, raising more and more money for their charitable foundation. This brings Margaret’s estranged husband, Carlo (Brazzi), out of the woodwork to take over Margaret’s life, including her foundation, and to skim generously from contributions. Esther, her lust for Carlo revived, mostly turns a blind eye, deaf ear and mute mouth; but when Carlo rapes Esther, she packs heat with murderous intent. This is a Joan Crawford-picture, you know.
Meanwhile, Esther’s boyfriend, a young reporter, is investigating the foundation’s finances. Good grief! Isn’t the freak show-exploitation of the girl he presumably loves bad enough whether the American public is being cheated and robbed?
Well, maybe the boy’s love for Esther is less steadfast than it seems. The future of their relationship is oddly left in doubt at the end.
Crawford fanatics will ignore that her acting here is phony-baloney as the star strains to appear “nice,” kind, restrained, gung-ho maternal. Several times her “acting” triggers in us a fit of the giggles, much as Tom Cruise’s does when he “gets serious.” (I’m no basher; two years hence, Crawford is efficient and even electric in The Best of Everything.) But, really, another actress—Geraldine Fitzgerald, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell come immediately to mind—would have been much better as Margaret.
Some see a resemblance between this film and Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker, about teacher Annie Sullivan’s struggles to educate and civilize Helen Keller, which, starring Teresa Wright and Patty McCormack, debuted on television’s Playhouse 90 the same year. Indeed, Carlo sufficiently suggested Sullivan’s actual spouse that the novel by Nicholas Monsarrat, upon which Charles Kaufman’s script for Esther Costello was based, was nearly sued for libel
David Miller, who had directed Crawford to an Oscar nomination in Sudden Fear (1952), directed The Story of Esther Costello..
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