Classic Cinema #35: The Miracle Worker (1962) – By Jason S. Lockard

My Name is Jason S. Lockard and I love classic dramas and if it is a biopic even better! Well, this month I’m bringing you a classic biopic that will have your heart breaking and cheering at the same time. This month’s classic 1962’s The Miracle Worker! Starring the girl we will always remember as identical cousins Patty and Cathy…. Patty Duke!

Anna Marie "Patty" Duke was born on December 14, 1946 in Elmhurst, Queens New York to John Patrick Duke a handyman and cab driver and Frances, a cashier. Duke had a hard childhood as her father was an alcoholic and her mother suffered from depression and was prone to violence. At the age of six Frances threw John out and than at the age of eight care of Anna Marie was turned over to John and Ethel Ross who became her managers. Ethel Ross hoping the Duke would duplicate the success of child actress Patty McCormacj said to Duke, "Anna Marie is dead you are Patty Now!"

Duke’s first major role came on the stage playing young Helen Keller alongside Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan in the Broadway Play The Miracle Worker. which ran for nearly two years. Midway through the production-run, her name was placed above the title on the marquee. Than when the time came for the play to be made into a film. Patty Duke almost didn’t get the part. Producers felt Duke, fifteen at the time, was too old to portray a seven-year old girl, but after Bancroft was cast as Annie Sullivan, Duke was chosen to play Helen in the movie.

‘The Miracle Worker’ takes place in Tuscumbia, Alabama where Captain and Mrs. Keller are blessed with the birth of their new baby girl but soon find tragedy has befallen their happy life as an illness renders little Helen blind deaf and consequently mute! They so love their little girl that the pity and spoil her and the child learns no discipline thus by the age of 6 she becomes a “wild animal“. So desperate for help they hire Annie Sullivan to serve as Hellen’s teacher and governess. When Anne arrives at the home she finds she has more than she ever imagined with this child! But through perseverance Ann teaches Helen discipline and sign language.

Despite the fact Anne Bancroft had won the Tony Award for Best Performance in the Play, United Artists executives wanted a bigger name cast as Annie Sullivan in the film adaptation. They offered a $5 million budget for the film if Elizabeth Taylor was cast as Annie Sullivan, but only $500,000 if director Arthur Penn insisted on using Bancroft. Penn, who had directed the stage production, took the $500,000 and made an inspiring film. Anne Bandcroft and Patty Duke would win academy awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively. Finally The Miracle Worker would score the #15 spot on AFI’s 100 years… 100 Cheers: America’s Most Inspiring Movies.

Helen Adams Keller would go on to be a prolific author, well-traveled, and was outspoken in her opposition to war. A member of the Socialist Party of America and the Wobblies, she campaigned for women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, and socialism, as well as many other leftist causes.

One year after this film in 1963, Duke was given her own series titled The Patty Duke Show, in which she played both main characters: Patty Lane, and her ‘prim and proper’ "identical cousin" from Scotland, Cathy Lane. Despite the success of her career, Duke was deeply unhappy during her teenage years. Efforts were taken by the Rosses to portray her as a normal teenager, but Duke later indicated in her memoirs that she was their virtual prisoner and had little control over her own life and earnings. Upon turning 18, Duke legally became free of the Rosses, only to find that they had squandered most of her earnings.

After the cancellation of her show, Duke attempted to begin her adult acting career by playing Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls. While the film was a box office success, audiences and critics couldn’t accept the all-American-teenager as an alcoholic, drug-addicted singing star. At the time it almost ruined her career, but the film has since become a cult classic.

Patty Duke would go on to have a successful singing career, including two Top 40 hits in 1965, and she returned to television in 1970, starring in a made-for-TV movie, My Sweet Charlie. Her sensitive portrayal of a pregnant teenager on the run won Duke her first Emmy Award, but her acceptance speech was rambling, angry, and disjointed, many felt she was abusing drugs. The fact was, she was in the throes of her then-undiagnosed bipolar disorder, which would remain undiagnosed until 1982.

Duke worked primarily in television from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s. She received Emmy awards for the miniseries Captains and the Kings in 1977, and 1980’s The Miracle Worker in which she played Annie Sullivan to Melissa Gilbert’s Helen Keller. Duke also received nominations for TV movies The Women’s Room (1980) and George Washington (1984). In 1985, she played the first female President of the United States in the short-lived TV series Hail to the Chief. Also in 1985 Patty Duke became the second woman to hold the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild, the first being Bette Davis.

In 1990, Duke’s autobiography, Call Me Anna, was adapted for television; she played herself from her mid-30s onward. She would go on to act in television and movies. She would also write another book entitled Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness. Duke received her own star on the Walk of Fame on August 17, 2004 and she was awarded two honorary Doctorate degrees from the University of North Florida for her work in advancing awareness of mental health issues. Patty Duke is a fine actress and should be a inspiration to all!

Until next month this is Jason S. Lockard reminding you that if you want to see a good movie, check out a classic!

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Moral Rating: Nothing Offensive
Audience: Family
Genre: Biographical
Length: 106 min.
Released: 1962
Our Rating: A