By Lynn Venhaus
During the month of March, PopLifeSTL.com will recognize significant female contributions in filmmaking.
Below, you will find a link to the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ list of Real Reel Women, which we published in 2019, after whittling down a nominated list of 150 to 50 deserving candidates whose remarkable life was adapted into a film. All worth checking out this month.
I was privileged to write about Billie Jean King and Annie Sullivan.
On this day, March 3, in 1887, Helen Keller met Annie Sullivan, her “Miracle Worker.”
The following excerpt is what I wrote about Sullivan’s impact on Keller and the film for the AWFJ website.
Annie Sullivan (April 14, 1866 – Oct. 20, 1936)
Without the creative communication skills of Annie Sullivan, neither she nor her star pupil, blind and deaf Helen Keller, would be significant.
But their painful and uplifting struggles, as shown in “The Miracle Worker,” helped advance education.
William Gibson wrote it for TV’s “Playhouse 90” in 1957, then a stage adaptation in 1959, winning Tony Awards for Best Play and Anne Bancroft as Best Actress. For the 1962 film, director Arthur Penn was adamant, despite the studio wanting a bigger “name” than Bancroft and someone younger than 15-year-old Patty Duke to play Keller at age 7, the Broadway duo would recreate their physically demanding roles.
The pairing was dynamic on screen too, both winning Oscars for their honest, heart-wrenching performances.
Born Johanna Mansfield Sullivan, Annie overcame many obstacles and graduated valedictorian from the life-changing Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. Hired by Helen’s parents to avoid institutionalizing her, that ultimately successful journey in Alabama illuminated understanding.
The women became lifelong friends, living together even when Sullivan was married to John Macy for nine years.
They improved the quality of life for so many, it’s fitting they are together in eternity, interred at the Washington National Cathedral. Sullivan was the first woman so honored, in 1936.
“The Miracle Worker”
Released on July 28, 1962, the film was a critical success and modest box office hit. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Director for Arthur Penn, who had also directed the Broadway play, Best Screenplay Adapted from another medium for playwright William Gibson, Best Actress for Anne Bancroft and Best Supporting Actress for Patty Duke. The women won, and Duke, at age 16, became the youngest competitive Oscar winner at that time.
The film ranked 15 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Cheers: America’s Most Inspiring Movies in 2006. Currently, the film has a 96% score on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie critics site (Note: this writer is on the Tomatometer).
The film focuses on young Helen as a wild, stubborn child, prone to violent outbursts, and her frustrated, exasperated parents — Victor Jory as Captain Arthur Keller, a former Confederate office, and Inga Swenson as his wife Kate — hire a young teacher to help. A battle of wills ensues, but she gets through Helen’s wall of silence and darkness.
The 1962 movie was remade for television in 1979 with Patty Duke as Anne and Melissa Gilbert as Helen as well as in 2000 with Alison Elliott and Hallie Kate Eisenberg in the lead roles.
More on Helen and Annie
Anne Sullivan was hired to teach Helen Keller, then 6, who had lost her sight and hearing after a severe illness — they think it was either a bacterial meningitis or scarlet fever– when she was 1 year and seven months old. She could not hear, speak or see. Her parents contacted the Perkins Institution for the Blind, and they recommended Sullivan as a teacher. They lived on an estate, Ivy Green, in Tuscumbia, Alabama.
Sullivan pioneered a “touch teaching” technique, and because of her help, Keller had a breakthrough when she felt water from a pump and Sullivan spelled w-a-t-e-r in her palm. Keller learned how to read, write and speak. She attended Radcliffe College and graduated with honors in 1904.She became an activist, public speaker and published her first book, “The Story of My Life” in 1902.
Sullivan was born in 1866 in Massachusetts and had suffered loss of vision as a child because of an infection. She attended the Perkins Institution for the Blind, where she learned the manual alphabet. She eventually had several operations on her eyes, improving her sight.
Until her death in 1936, she was a companion and interpreter for Helen. At age 87, Helen Keller died on June 1, 1968, at her home in Connecticut.
Where to Find:
The 1962 film “The Miracle Worker” is available on the subscription streaming service Amazon Prime and for rental on multiple digital/video on demand platforms.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.