The Miracle Worker is a painfully uninteresting biopic on the early years of Helen Keller (played here by Patty Duke), whose life was far more interesting than what is depicted here. It’s mainly told through the eyes of the young, partially blind Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft), who was a last-ditch tutor for Helen, who was deaf and blind due to a severe case of scarlet fever in infancy. The film was Arthur Penn’s second feature as director after the revisionist western The Left Handed Gun. Penn would go on to being one of the key directors of the New Hollywood era with Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Men and Night Moves.
The film is basically a battle of wills between Anne and Helen, with Anne trying everything possible to get Helen to be “obedient” and take steps to communicate with and understand the outside world. The techniques used by Anne would land her in prison for a very long time in today’s world: beating is a common tactic. The film does take over 120 years ago, but it’s pretty difficult to watch. Penn was one of the first young filmmakers who incorporated European art-house sensibilities Hollywood films, and here there is a heavy Ingmar Bergman influence, especially on the cinematography of Ernesto Caparrós.
The biggest problem with the film is that it’s a story that should be 20 minutes of a much larger biopic on Helen Keller’s life. She overcame her disability and became a pioneering advocate for people with disabilities, plus she was heavily involved with the suffragette movement and other radical politics, She was a member of the IWW, befriended the anarchist Emma Goldman, Mark Twain and even Charles Chaplin. She also had a darker side: she supported eugenics, and would’ve denied others the life-saving procedures that helped her. It sadly wasn’t uncommon for suffragettes to support eugenics, which is whitewashed out of history just much as is Keller’s radicalism. None of the various biopics even goes into her radical politics, including the film The Miracle Continues, the Disney version of The Miracle Worker merely mentions that she became “an activist for social equality.”
The performances in the end are fine, although so completely over the top that they almost become campy, Anne Bancroft beat out Bette Davis for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? for best actress at the Oscars with her turn here. The film is classic Oscar bait, ticks all the boxes and suffers greatly from it. Today’s landscape seems like the ideal time to tell Helen Keller’s true story, and not just how great this tutor was. The disc includes an audio essay from critic Amy Simmons and the theatrical trailer, and the booklet includes some new essays on the film.