The Miracle Worker, 1962. Directed by Arthur Penn, written by William Gibson (not the Cyberpunk guy.) Starring Anne Bancroft, Patty Duke, Inga Swenson, Victor Jory, Andrew Prine, and Kathleen Comegys.
I remember when my parents sat us down one night to watch The Miracle Worker. You’ve seen it, right? Helen Keller, champion of the handicapped, in her early years. Brought out of her darkness by the ‘miracle worker’, Annie Sullivan, herself almost totally blind. The fights, the old South of the Reconstruction, where father and son sit at a table and talk about the Civil War while Annie and Helen wrestle for control. You’ve seen it, and you say, “yeah, OK.”
But there’s one problem: my guess is, you saw the tame 1970s version, the Hallmark Hall of Fame version, so novel because Patty Duke, who played young Helen in the original, now took her turn as Annie. Little House’s Melissa Gilbert was the little blind girl. So what? Well, until you’ve seen the original, you don’t know what kind of a war it was to get Helen Keller to see again. In fact, it tore my own family apart.
For starters, The Miracle Worker of 1962 was in black and white, and directed by Arthur Penn. You know, the guy who blew everyone away with Bonnie and Clyde. Damn. You can see it in this one. Annie Sullivan takes no prisoners, and expects no sympathy. She isn’t going to put up with Helen’s rudeness, nor her indignation, not going to let the girl slap her (without slapping back), or let her wander around the dining room table gobbling up food from everyone’s plate. She’ll learn some manners, God Damn it, if she has to throw Helen around the room. Which she does. Frequently.
My folks wanted me to see this crazy movie. They were two teachers in late 1970s Kent, OH. 1979, I think, because I recall being spooked that Three Mile Island was just one state over. “The original was so much better,” Mom said, and Dad agreed. A couple of months later, lo and behold, there’s the original on Channel 3. Well, neither of those high school teachers remembered the brutality. Nor did they remember the feminism.
Look at The Miracle Worker today, and your eyes widen at the women in this film. They’re stronger than the mightiest bitches of All About Eve. More real and rousing than Norma Rae. Annie has a job to do; Helen is an unholy terror. Let no man stand in her way.
Good Lord there was a lot going on here. Young Annie, a Massachusetts Yankee who has never taught anyone in her life, comes into the very Southern home of Captain Keller, whose heart still lies with the Confederate cause. Mrs. Keller loves Helen nearly literally to death–she hasn’t the stomach to discipline the girl, but believes in her heart that Helen has some intelligence, she just doesn’t know how much. Annie knows Helen is as bright as a Southern summer morning, which is in stark contrast to the men, who thinks the girl is an emptyheaded creature who deserves only their holy pity. Furthermore, they wonder, why can’t Annie have some compassion for this fool? Captain Keller (about his daughter): “There are times when she cannot be compelled.” Annie: “I’m that way myself.” You got that right.
Mom loved that line. Dad harumphed. He agreed that Mom “couldn’t be compelled, that she sometimes opened her mouth a bit too much, what about civility?” ‘Shut up!’ was bandied about, ‘watch the movie.’ My sister and I just watched, like a tennis match, the battle between Mom and Dad, then Annie and Helen or Annie and the Keller family. Wow.
The Keller family loves Helen but their love has been warped by fatigue and hardship, and it’s ruining Helen. I happened to notice that the men are fools, and the women don’t suffer them. No way. In the most incredible scene, Annie looks on with disgust as Helen stumbles around the dining room table grabbing handfuls of food off everyone’s plate while Captain Keller (Victor Jory) chats about the Civil War with his arrogant son James (Andrew Prine) and mother (Inga Swanson) looks on. Annie is disgusted. This is not how you treat a child.
A battle ensues. And I don’t mean a minor argument that blows into something huge, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. No, that comes first. What follows, after the verbal war, comes the physical battle, which lasts a good ten minutes. Annie and Helen, fighting, Annie the whole time imparting lessons to Helen even as she’s slapped, kicked, wrestled with, has a pitcher of water tossed in her face a, is hurled bodily beneath the table, had chairs thrown at her, and chased around the room, all the while returning the same.
My family sat there mesmerized. My parents didn’t know if they liked the thought that this was teaching. Mom loved Annie, Dad wasn’t so sure. Little points in the movie started to grow fissures and widen, the cracks opened up to include major troubles in our own family. I remember sitting there watching the two of them shouting over Helen and Annie and knowing that this was a fight about every little problem in our own family, about Mom’s trying to assert herself in a mostly-male high school, and Dad’s support being revealed as conditional, provided she did it his way.
Neither of them understood, at the time, that the movie champions teaching, celebrates the often weird relationship between student and teacher that flits so easily between love and hate, admiration and disappointment, peace and violence. Both of them were Annie in their own way, but they couldn’t see it. Not at all. So it went.
The arguments grew over the years, and the divorce was imminent. They argued before and after The Miracle Worker of course, but that night really drove it home. I should be embittered by the whole thing–after all, I clearly equate the movie with the eventual separation, divorce, custody battles, etc. But they ended up all right, as did we, and perhaps they were better off separate.
The Miracle Worker seems to reflect that to me: the fights you choose to make the world, your marriage, your school, work. Oh, yes, often times they ruin a great deal–like the Civil War–but you can’t get anywhere unless the battle destroys the laziness that so often cloaks itself as love. My folks had stopped listening to each other so long before that. Now they’re happy. Life moves on. But not without the fights, not without the fights.