Looking at Patty Duke, the obvious starting point for a retrospective has to begin with The Miracle Worker. Before she did the film in 1962, she spent years mastering the role of Helen Keller on Broadway. When she got the Broadway play role, she was a relatively unknown child actress with her only real experience being a fair share of TV commercials along with some odd (but unsuccessful) theatrical ventures in small parts, but the standout role of a young Hellen Keller in The Miracle Worker is something that would have made any actress stand out if they were allowed the chance to do it. For Patty Duke, the only difference is that when casting came to transition from the play to the film version, she was still in the cast even though she was not a headline name at all. Between Mary Poppins, West Side Story and The Sound of Music, the tactic of Broadway to Hollywood in the 1960s was to find new actors and actresses to bring general audience interest into the stories.
Many reasons can factor into why Patty Duke was allowed to stay on. Since the role is so physically demanding, it is unlikely any young Hollywood actress could have just stepped into the role and make it a serious performance. The performance is similar to other physical roles from the 1950s that came out of the Actor’s Studio generation in New York that forced actors to look inside when interpreting characters. It made for new methods of realism and allowed the likes of Marlon Brando to shine. There even were actors and roles which were stipulated on how an actor handled themselves in a physically daunting role that had no relaxation or moments of soft glimmer. A somewhat comparable role could be Joanne Woodward’s work in The Three Faces of Eve which forced Woodward to continually change character because she was playing a schizophrenic who had multiple personality disorder. Even though three variations of character in the same performance may seem like peddling three performances only, the continuation aspect of constantly having to change character and re-focus on new personality aspects had to be punishing physically. In consideration of her task, the Academy Awards gave her a Best Actress award that year (1957) .
Patty Duke’s performance is the more standard in physically challenging. Like Dustin Hoffmann in Rain Man or Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, Duke has to align herself to a new reality based on handicaps that affect every major part of her communication skills. Not only does she have to act blindly to objects around her, but she has to show a history of being physically blind by constantly wavering her eyesight at the same levels of non-understanding for the whole film. Even when she is distressed by other people, she still wavers to the same physical ignorance of the world around her. There has to be a development of the muscle to not break with these patterns and Duke gets so precise that her eye focus, hand movements and walking all has a deliberate tell to the kind of the person they would belong to and these tells stay consistent throughout the entire film. The only deviation is when Helen begins to slowly understand and a light starts to shine in her eyes and the muscles in her body slowly relax and show some comfort with the world around her. The way Duke does not turn on a light switch but slowly opens it like a flower coming to blossom is a both a degree of talent and maturity in her performance.
Another part of the film that allows Duke to shine is the writing of the script. The story is about Helen Keller’s coming of age, specifically the time when she gets beyond her physical handicaps. It only focuses on a short time period when she goes from unschooled handicap to expedient student and willing to learn how to become a new version of herself. Time-wise, the story only takes place over the course of a few weeks. This spares the film of lengthy diatribes on her history. Instead, the film gets close parameter viewing of her mentality at close range. The choices the story makes about what to highlight foreshadow later realist efforts in American cinema. The lengthiest scene in the film is a fiery breakfast scene when Annie Sullivan feels compelled to make Helen learn how to properly eat at the dinner table. Since Helen is allowed to roam around the room and eat with her hands at free will, the forcing of utensils and napkins on her is a small thing but a major challenge to her sense of security. When her parents do not reaffirm her old habits, she lets loose by throwing anything handed to her way and violently punching at her new teacher. The film compliments Duke’s performance by barely ever cutting away from her performance so it lets the audience know she did not perform the tough scene in segments. She takes the bull of the emotions by the horns and goes the full distance. It is similar to Gena Rowland’s breakdown scene in A Woman Under the Influence (also set at a dinner table) and how the camera never relents from showing us her performance. The documentation of every morsel of it is what makes the character feel so unhinged from reality. It is also what allows the performance to escape just a simple method acting of mimicry and make the character feel like a whole human who is being challenged at every level of her core. Duke has to add a lot of her own talent in between the gestures to make a human being out of the performance.
This is an excellent element of realism in the film and it allows Duke’s performance to escape any major cliches. Because Anne Bancroft’s Annie Sullivan character is given the time to combat and educate Keller, she is also given the time to make the performance breathe. When she feels the strain of looking into Helen, there is a sense she sees her self when she was younger and also dealing with blindness. In some ways, she is fighting problems that were difficult to expel from her as well. This quality gives the performance an added dimension. The other performances by other members of Helen’s family do not come off so well. They react in standard cautionary ways to the radical education so the actors make believe the characters with a lot of heightened exasperation that came to be well known in Hollywood dramas in the early 1960s and before.