In a clever bit of stunt casting, the producers of The Miracle Worker, a made-for-TV remake of the celebrated 1962 film, hired Patty Duke to play the leading role of Annie Sullivan, the heroic real-life teacher who taught blind and deaf child Hellen Keller to communicate in the 1880s. Duke, of course, first gained fame by portraying Keller on Broadway in 1959 and then by reprising the role opposite Anne Bancroft (as Sullivan) in the aforementioned 1962 film. Duke won a Tony for the play, an Oscar for the movie, and an Emmy for this telefilm. All three of these versions of The Miracle Worker were written by William Gibson, who extrapolated the material from Keller’s autobiography. Gibson presents Sullivan’s work with Keller as a psychological duel, so the story provides fantastic opportunities for actors—Sullivan and Keller battle mentally and physically as the teacher tries to break through the student’s fear. And if Duke’s work as Sullivan is ultimately more pedestrian than her famous childhood performance as Keller, she generates palpable intensity with her telefilm costar, Little House on the Prairie actress Melissa Gilbert.
The telefilm opens by introducing Sullivan, who was partially cured of blindness during childhood and then devoted her life to teaching the visually impaired. She’s impassioned, strident, and willful. Then the picture introduces the Keller family. Living in a comfortable country house, parents Captain Keller (Charles Siebert) and Kate Keller (Diana Muldaur) treat Helen differently from their other children, resigned to the fact that Helen will never escape the private world of her disabilities. The Kellers hire Sullivan with low expectations, and Sullivan quickly alienates Helen’s parents by accusing them of spoiling Helen. Indeed, Helen gets her way by throwing tantrums. Sullivan pushes back against Helen’s demonstrative behavior, even matching Helen slap for slap when Helen attempts to scare her teacher away with violence. Eventually, Sullivan teaches Helen to use hand movements for communication, the “miracle” of the title.
Gibson’s narrative is so solid that even the perfunctory nature of TV-movie acting and production values cannot diminish the story’s innate power. It’s moving, if unsurprising, whenever Sullivan makes progress with Helen, although the novelty of seeing Duke play opposite what amounts to a younger version of herself ultimately adds very little. In fact, Duke alone isn’t what makes this telefilm work, since interplay is the core of The Miracle Worker. Gilbert relies on commitment whenever her technique is insufficient, just as Duke imbues her characterization with intensity. Therefore, this version of The Miracle Worker may be about the work more than the miracle, but that’s good enough for achieving an acceptable level of quality.
The Miracle Worker: GROOVY