Most know actress Patty Duke as Helen Keller, in the famous water pump scene from the 1962 screen adaptation of “The Miracle Worker”, but few have seen the movie in its entirety.
For a role where she hardly said a word, making mostly sounds (cries, moans, and the word “water”) – this character had a profound effect on me, since I was quite young. Of course, the effect had a lot to do with Anne Bancroft (Anne Sullivan) and the other characters with more of the speaking roles, but as a blind child watching the movie, I felt Duke’s determination to portray Keller as authentically as possible.
I held the VHS case in my hands. I remember the iconic picture on the front, the one from the end of the film where Helen (Duke) spelled out the word “teacher” into Anne’s hand. I stared at that black and white image again and again, as I probably checked the video out from my local library dozens of times.
After learning about who Helen Keller was, when I was read a book about her by someone when I was eight years old, I became fascinated by the story. When that same someone informed me there was a film based on the story, I proceeded to rush right out and find it in the movie section of the library. This was my first introduction to old movies and I liked them, this one in particular.
She was an actress, a singer, author, and advocate. I don’t know Patty Duke from anything else, not from “The Patty Duke Show”. I really can’t even picture what she sounded like, as I said, I hardly heard her speak in the film or afterword. I did not know her in any other roles, but she did something great for me.
People who are blind are not represented, in great numbers, in society or the media. Helen Keller became famous for several reasons, but finally I saw her story shown in the most moving and beautiful of ways, Oscar worthy performances all around in my opinion, but Patty Duke was at the centre of what gave me something, in the world of others with disabilities, in history, to look up to. I would never get to see Helen Keller, as she passed away around the same time “The Miracle Worker” was made. However, there existed an amazing representation of the girl she must have been.
I wish I could have been around to witness the original portrayal of “The Miracle Worker” and Patty and Anne’s portrayals of Helen and Anne on Broadway, in the late 1950s. Though Duke went on to switch roles in later years, playing Anne Sullivan in a later version of the film, her iconic role, played with skill, this will be a special one to me always.
Finally, years after I held that VHS and stared at the cover, imagining that relationship between student and teacher, although fictionalized, I held my very own DVD copy. This was the first DVD I ever owned.
A few years later, upon stumbling on a new film obsession (Lord of the Rings), I learned one of the main characters of the trilogy (Sean Astin) was Duke’s son.
Patty Duke was the youngest person to win an Academy Award, at the age of just sixteen and she went on to speak up for mental illness awareness, after being finally diagnosed, after years of turmoil, living with bipolar disorder.
On this second last day of Women’s History Month, I wanted to pay my respects to Patty Duke, a woman who brought awareness to mental illness when it was just beginning to truly be understood, the one who took on a role that must have been a difficult one, hard to live up to in her performance of a once living person who stood for so much in the disabled community, over the last one hundred years. That must have been a mighty big pair of shoes to fill, a difficult task to take on, but she did a marvellous job. She managed to make me feel, so deeply, and to find a relatable personality, brought to life for me, on screen.
RIP Patty, (1946-2016).