“It has a name; the name stands for the thing.”
A young girl (Patty Duke) who became deaf and blind during her infancy is coddled by her well-meaning parents (Victor Jory and Inga Swenson), who are unable to discipline her. When a headstrong teacher named Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) comes to work with Helen (Duke) and teach her language, she finds herself facing an uphill battle.
Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that while “Arthur Penn’s direction of William Gibson’s screen adaptation of his play is a bit stagy”, the film itself is nonetheless “still powerful” — indeed, I found it utterly gripping from start to finish. In his review, Peary argues that this movie “should be more significant to feminist film criticism”, given that it’s ultimately about “one female helping another female” to “rip free from society’s constraints”. Bancroft’s portrayal of Anne Sullivan as a “strong, independent-minded woman” who “refus[es] to be handicapped by her sex”, and “who strives to reach her potential in her profession”, is especially astonishing considering the time period and location in which the story takes place (postbellum Alabama). Her willingness to consistently and relentlessly stand up for what she believes in, even at risk of losing her job, is nothing short of revolutionary; we can’t help but “respect the mettle, the pugnacity, the grit, and the guts of [her] determined character” (as Peary writes in his Alternate Oscars book).
Speaking of Oscars, Bancroft — reprising her role on Broadway — deservedly won one for her work here, and Peary acknowledges the wisdom of this choice in Alternate Oscars, where he similarly offers Bancroft the award. He confesses to liking “Bancroft’s slight smiles, [the] hints that [her] Annie knows she has a touch of madness”, which is “fine with her because, as she tells the Kellers, the madness is part of the strength she developed while growing up in an asylum”; indeed “only a slightly mad woman would speak to her employers as bluntly as she does” (and my, how refreshing this is to witness!). Just as exceptional as Bancroft’s performance, however, is that given by Patty Duke (also reprising her Broadway role), playing Helen Keller with “amazing intelligence and strength”. Duke and Bancroft are remarkably physical and impassioned in their interactions with one another; one feels exhausted simply watching them on-screen, let alone imagining the fortitude it took to execute their “long and complexly choreographed” “knock-about battles”. Peary accurately likens their work to the “skill of great silent comediennes doing wild, intricate slapstick” — though the mood in this case is usually anything but humorous.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan
- Patty Duke as Helen Keller
- Many powerful, memorable scenes
- Strong direction by Penn
- Fine supporting performances by Jory, Swenson, and Andrew Prine as Keller’s family members
Yes, as a powerfully acted, Oscar-winning classic.