Saturday, August 26, 2006

Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (1962)

Other young actresses have taken on the Helen Keller role over the years. But none have come even remotely close to achieving Patty Duke's astonishing level of primitivism. The energy, the stillness, the sense of lightning-fast calculations and re-adjustments made in the profoundest of darkness - they're all something to behold. She pulls ugly/beautiful faces you're simply not going to see anywhere else - and the gamble, if that's what you call it - pays off, illuminating Helen's identity as a strange, fascinating exile. Duke nails Keller's tenacious will. She's simultaneously greedy tyrant and desperate cornered animal. "The Miracle Worker" never loses sight of the tragic waste that seems to be Helen's inevitable lot. And even Keller's ultimate triumph resonates with the tragedy of all the Helens who never found their Annie Sullivan. Has there ever been such a powerful and well-earned celebration of the teacher-student relationship? Anne Bancroft is luminous as education's standard-bearer. But it's Duke who movingly personifies its challenges and rewards. In her brave performance there's never any doubt that something -something enormous - is at stake. All you little Hallie Eisenbergs and Melissa Gilberts, not to mention all future portrayers of young Helen Keller. Be warned. Patty Duke owns this part - and I suspect always will. So in spite of all the qualifiers and asterisks, this performance - fearless and definitive - stands tall on its own incredible merits.

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