Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker

Patty Duke received her first and only Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Helen Keller in Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker. It's been more than a week since I've seen The Miracle Worker, and the reason why I've waited so long before writing about it is because the film, and Patty Duke's performance in particular, is one that I think deserves some time for my mind to process. It's such a visceral and intimate film that left me in a state of awe. The film works on so many levels, it's an incredibly engaging and emotional experience, but not one that leaves you devastated or depressed afterwards. Bancroft and Duke work well together, giving almost completely opposite performances in terms of their focus (Bancroft's is emotional, Duke's physical). However, what really makes the film work is the way the two actresses work together well without really having complete chemistry, because there is supposed to be something of a barrier between Helen and everyone else in the movie that Annie is trying to break down.

The role of Helen Keller is one that is almost impossibly difficult on paper. How do you make a deaf and blind character convincing and not over the top or unrealistic? Somehow at the age of 16, Patty Duke makes her Helen Keller startlingly real. At the beginning of the film, Helen is treated by the rest of her family at times like a horror movie monster (particularly the shot where Annie pulls up on the carriage and Helen is sitting on the porch sticks out in my mind), and at times like a pet. However, no matter what the rest of the cast is doing, Duke does an amazing job at keeping Helen's actions consistent and never once breaking character. Every single time she thrashes around Duke looks as if she's a newborn chick trying to get it's bearings in a way that is endearing and natural. It's always like that, which is tough for an actress to maintain as flawlessly as Duke does.

An integral part of the film and this performance in general is the emotional distance that the character is supposed to have. Duke never really has to go difficult places emotionally, and instead handles two basic emotions: Happiness and Anger. It's not a criticism, part of the point of the film is getting Helen to realize the complexities of life. She's not a character who is quite at the emotional level she should be at for her age. Quite possibly the most fascinating and entertaining part of the film is the epic 8-minute fight scene between Annie and Helen over dinner that is more brutal than most modern day blockbuster action sequences (certainly more than any in Pirates 4). Patty Duke hits every single note in the film perfectly, diving into her performance wholly. She has an animalistic quality throughout the film mixed with the perfect amount of innocence to make a fascinating character.

When it comes down to it, Patty Duke's performance is one-note because in many ways that is the only thing it really can be. She nails every single aspect of the character without attempting to over complicate the performance or add any extra unneeded depth to Helen. She plays it straight and beautifully. It's a great performance that is in it's own league among other Oscar-winning roles. 5/5 Thelmas.

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