Sunday, November 18, 2007


Puttering around doing chores this afternoon, I put on the t.v. for company and found The Miracle Worker in progress on TCM. How many times have I seen that, anyway? I continued cleaning out the refrigerator (ugh), but I kept drifting back in for the highlights, including that tour-de-force breakfast table scene. Man. One or another TCM host gives you the little trivia bullet, after the movie, so I now know that the sequence runs about nine minutes...but took them five days to shoot, the actresses well-padded under their clothing but clearly going for broke as they tear the room apart. Something I noticed without being told is that there's no soundtrack score for that scene: all you hear is Bancroft and Duke, panting and grunting and essentially beating the crap out of each other. Even padded, that had to be some workout. And they did it for two years straight on Broadway, too...smacking each other in the face, night after night. I read somewhere about how they both sustained injuries over the course of the show, worked up to, and through, moments of hating each other, of deliberately inflicting real pain and harboring real resentment. It all comes through onscreen, certainly.

And then of course the scene at the pump, which is completely woven into the cultural consciousness at this point, overblown and with violins swooning underneath...but it gets me. Annie, grabbing both Helen's hands in hers, holding them to her face to feel her vigorous, emphatic nodding, yes! Yes, for the love of God! Anne Bancroft says it, "YES!" in a gutteral snarl that makes me start sobbing openly every single time. Whew.

Helen Keller! When I was in about third grade, Helen Keller was the shit, man. I remember several different kid-oriented biographies of her, scattered in the metal spinning book racks in the back of the classroom, where we chose our "free reading." We played at being her: reeling around the playground with our eyes squeezed shut. My mother was first studying to be an interpreter for the deaf, at the time, and I think I played this as a distinct advantage: I could fingerspell! When we were all assigned a research paper on a Famous Woman of History or whatever, we fought bitterly over Helen Keller. (I desperately coveted either her, or Laura Ingalls Wilder; I vividly remember the severe disgruntlement I felt upon getting Margaret frigging Mead instead.) Did anyone want to write about--or to be--Annie Sullivan? I don't remember...but Helen Keller was like a rock star to the girls in my class, on a level that sort of stumps me now. We were obsessed.

There's a fairy-tale quality to the story that I notice, now: the wild child, the savage little beast laboring under some enchantment, locked inside her own mind...needing to be unbewitched, needing a wise-woman guide to lead her through trials and lift the spell. Maybe it's similar to the way little kids go through the dinosaur obsession: there's nothing under the bed, but once there were real monsters, thundering around more than willing to squash you underfoot or eat you in one gulp. They were real, but safely gone. Helen Keller died before me and my third-grade classmates were born, but I think we--well, I know at least I--somehow thought of her as still and always a little girl, like us. She was both celebrity and ambassador, to this ultimately ordinary wonder: they poured words upon words into her, and suddenly the world poured back out.

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