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The Miracle Worker

The Miracle Worker(1962)

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teaser The Miracle Worker (1962)

Helen Keller penned her autobiography titled, The Story of My Life in 1902, but it wasn't until 1959 that it was adapted for the stage. The Broadway production was directed by Arthur Penn and written by William Gibson. Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft, little known actresses at the time, played the leading roles of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan and received rave reviews for their performances.

Despite those positive reviews, United Artists made it clear to Penn and Gibson that they preferred bigger names in the proposed film version of the story. Reportedly, the studio made the following offer: " We'll give you $5 million if you do it with Liz Taylor, $500,000 if you make it with Bancroft." The choice to keep Bancroft in the leading role speaks to the way in which the creative team viewed Bancroft's performance. They remained committed to their original cast members and the studio acquiesced.

During the filming of The Miracle Worker (1962), both Bancroft and Duke became so immersed in their roles, they put their health at risk. For the famous dining room battle scene, which required three cameras for a nine-minute sequence and took five days to film, both actresses wore pads beneath their clothing. At one point during the filming, Bancroft started laughing from sheer exhaustion and her reaction was left in the film. In fact, Bancroft was hospitalized with pneumonia just after filming was complete. As for Duke, she later admitted she dreaded the final wrap-up of the film because it meant her final separation from a role that had become such an important part of her life.

The Miracle Worker was responsible for launching the careers of both stars. Bancroft, who up until that point had been cast in mediocre movies, such as Treasure of the Golden Condor (1953) and Gorilla at Large (1954) went on to starring roles in The Graduate (1967) and The Turning Point (1978). Patty Duke, just 15 at the time the movie was made, went on to star in her own sitcom, The Patty Duke Show (1963-66).

That same year, Bette Davis was also nominated for Best Actress for her role in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. However, her co-star in the movie and longtime rival, Joan Crawford, was passed over by the Academy. In an effort to upstage her nemesis, Crawford wrote congratulatory letters to each of the other nominees - Katharine Hepburn for Long Day's Journey into Night, Geraldine Page for Sweet Bird of Youth, Lee Remick for Days of Wine and Roses - in addition to Anne Bancroft. In Crawford's letter, she extended an offer to accept the award on the actresses' behalf, if for some reason they were unable to attend the ceremony.

Bancroft, who was in New York working on Broadway in the production of Mother Courage at the time, was torn about leaving the play for the Oscar® ceremony. She sought advice from Mel Brooks, who she was dating at the time (They married in 1964). When he saw the list of the other nominees, he advised her to stay at work. So, Bancroft accepted Joan Crawford's offer to accept her award - just in case.

On the night of the awards, when Anne Bancroft was declared the Best Actress winner, Bette Davis stood waiting in the wings. Suddenly, Joan Crawford brushed by her saying, "Pardon me, but I have an Oscar® to accept."

Meanwhile, Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks were watching TV at their home in New York. When her name was called, Bancroft and Brooks were elated. Then, Anne watched as an equally excited Crawford accepted her award. Struck by Crawford's appearance, Bancroft said, "My God! Joan Crawford looks like me!"

For the record, The Miracle Worker was nominated for five Academy Awards® including Best Actress (Bancroft), Best Supporting Actress (Duke), Best Director (Arthur Penn) and Best Screenplay (William Gibson).

Director: Arthur Penn
Producer: Fred Coe
Screenwriter: William Gibson
Composer: Laurence Rosenthal
Editor: Aram Avakian
Art Director: Mel Bourne, George Jenkins
Costume Designer: Ruth Morley
Cast: Anne Bancroft (Annie Sullivan), Patty Duke (Helen Keller), Victor Jory (Capt. Keller), Inga Swenson (Kate Keller), Andrew Prine (James Keller)
BW-107m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.

by Mary Anne Melear

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