“Wah wah” as “Eureka.”
Scarlet fever wrecks Alabama toddler Helen Keller, leaving her permanently blind and deaf. Years later, Helen (Patty Duke) is locked in her own head, nearly feral, and her desperate family asks specialist Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) to reach her. Teacher and unwilling student go to war over simple tasks like holding a spoon, but just as Helen seems poised to win the conflict, a breakthrough at the water pump sparks her connection to the rest of the world.
The Miracle Worker was only Arthur Penn’s second film, but the director had worked on the project for years. The story began as a teleplay written by William Gibson (no, not that William Gibson) and directed by Penn as a 1957 episode of anthology TV series Playhouse 90, a success that led to a Broadway version in 1959, also guided by Penn. It was on stage that Penn first cast Bancroft and Duke into their iconic roles and, like the episode, the production was a runaway hit.
Smelling money, Hollywood began to circle the story. United Artists, seeing a film version as a potential vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor, snatched up the rights, and hired Penn to recreate his Broadway experience for the movies. Surprisingly, Penn’s first major decision was to dump Taylor. Penn vowed to retain Bancroft as the lead and held firm through months of negotiation until UA eventually caved, but with one major concession: the planned $2 million shooting budget was slashed to under $700k.
Penn’s gamble paid off huge, both for UA, who cashed in when the film hit big, and for Bancroft, who made her career on the role. The Miracle Worker earned five Oscar nominations, including the first of three Best Director nods for Penn, and won two for Bancroft and Duke’s performances. Ironically, the only one dissatisfied with the film was Penn, who felt he relied too heavily on the play and sometimes spoke of a remake. That never happened, but he did direct a sequel play in 1982 about Helen’s college years entitled Monday after the Miracle.
The Miracle Worker is arguably Arthur Penn’s most popular film and, not coincidentally, his least political. Helen’s true story is compelling enough on its own, leaving little room for social commentary. I’ve always found it interesting, however, how Penn takes the time to bring the Kellers’ poor, black servants into the shot, if only to observe Helen’s wild behavior. These characters don’t affect the narrative, but they stand as silent reminders that Helen is a child of privilege. If a black child had been so afflicted, Anne Sullivan would have never been called.
The Miracle Worker spends much of its running time teetering back and forth between cinema and stage, transposing moving and haunting images with static shots of people screaming at each other. While the film’s tone can be uneven, the infamous “breakfast scene” is one moment where the recipe is exactly right. The scene’s single location and lack of cutaway shots betray its stage origins, but the struggle—one of the best in the movies, if you ask me—is told entirely through movement, and through facial expressions that run from rage to exasperation.
Note how the frantic camera movements add to the tension of the scene, rather than distract from it. Penn told his camera operators to keep the angle wide, but to point the camera at whatever interested them, which most of the time was Duke. She pulls the camera with her like a magnet, becoming the scene’s focus. We know Anne has won when there’s change at the center.
It’s not unusual for the public to disagree with an artist’s perception of his work, but The Miracle Worker is a special case. Usually, this kind of pop reexamination works against the artist, who ends up wondering where all the rotten apples came from. It’s rarer for the world to totally embrace a film that the artist can’t stand. Arthur Penn spent a long career looking down his nose at The Miracle Worker, which he regarded as a stylistic hodgepodge, a failure to adapt to the medium. Primarily, he believed he wasted time on Helen’s screeching parents who vocalize (and vocalize) Anne’s challenge. Penn felt the audience would get the point with a simple closeup of Helen, and he could therefore dial the melodrama down a few notches on the burner.
This strikes me as failing to see the well for the water. Penn is correct that The Miracle Worker could use much less of the Kellers. They’re flat characters who exist only to add an artificial obstacle to Anne. Why do they invite Anne to their home at great expense, only to spend the rest of the movie ordering her not to interfere? Because, in the play, Anne needs someone to talk to who can talk back. In film, a medium about showing, this becomes much less urgent.
But the Kellers (and the cringe-inducing earnestness of the big “wah wah” moment) are minor annoyances in a film that’s at times eerie, artful, and slyly unconventional. The easy way to tell the story would be to tell it flat; the plot is certainly compelling enough without bells and whistles. But Penn, still experimenting with an artistic style that he’d fully embrace for Mickey One, frames the plot as a true-life horror tale, and casts Helen as the monster, wandering, arms outstretched, clutching at whatever crosses her path as a means to keep sane. Rather than draft a historical pamphlet, a movie-of-the-week in period garb, Penn makes the story about our fears, fear of losing our senses, of losing control, of losing society and returning to an animal state. When Anne breaks through to Helen, it isn’t just communication. Anne’s “miracle” restores Helen’s humanity, and the moment is deeply cathartic.
The film is anchored by Bancroft and Duke’s tremendous performances. They give and take from each other with ease, and they share a kinship and a chemistry that can only come from over 700 Broadway performances together. It’s the combination of their talents and Penn’s instincts that give the film its oomph. “Wah wah” aside, Penn’s version of the final pump scene has an uncommon and unusual strength that revivals—such as the dim 1979 TV remake which cast Duke in the elder role and Melissa Gilbert as Helen—misses by an Alabama mile. Part of this is performance. Duke, in particular, is unrestrained joy as she bounces from object to object, learning its name. But Penn assists by adding delicate insert shots, such as a close up of the water drops glistening on Helen’s hand that gives us that tiny moment of realization, of feeling as Helen feels, and making the connection ourselves.
Arthur Penn was right. The Miracle Worker could be better. But, hey, what Penn made is still pretty damn good. In a career filled with stories about misfits striking out on their own, Penn found a unique power in filming the story of a misfit being brought back to the fold. As a result, his film connected with audiences and he found himself with his one, unabashed, bonafide hit. He spent the rest of his career trying to live it down.
The Arthur Penn Project
14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
13. Four Friends (1981)
12. Target (1985)
11. Dead of Winter (1987)
10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)
9. Inside (1996)
8. Alice’s Restaurant (1969)
7. The Chase (1966)
6. The Left Handed Gun (1958)
4. Mickey One (1965)
3. The Miracle Worker (1962)