47 Great Movie Moments #2 – The Miracle Worker

Continuing with this series of 47 moments in film that I love.  (Why 47?)  Today we hit #2, with one of the moments in the history of film that is most calculated to make me tear up!

The Miracle Worker (1962)

Directed by:  Arthur Penn

Annie Sullivan is hired to be a teacher for the blind & mute Helen Keller, to help the child make connections with the dark and silent world that surrounds her.

The Set-up

For the whole length of the film, teacher Annie Sullivan (who is basically blind herself) has been working arduously to make a connection with the disabled Helen Keller, to help her function in the world, and especially to help her understand the basic concepts of language.  Continually, she uses a series of symbols on Helen’s hands to spell out the names of objects, but even though Helen eventually learns the symbols, she fails to understands that they represent words which in themselves denote actual things.

All the while, Annie must not only contend with Helen’s strong will, but also with the fear and stubbornness of Helen’s weary parents, and their unhelpful approach to training their daughter.  Eventually, this leads them to the extreme measures of separating Helen from her family (while in reality she is just elsewhere on her family property), where Helen learns to dress herself, to eat with a spoon, and other basics niceties–while still not grasping the basics of language-based communication.

At the end of the movie, Helen has returned to her family (against Annie’s recommendations).  But when they sit down around the table for breakfast, Helen rejects her newfound civility and causes a scene at the breakfast table.  Tensions among the family come to a head as Annie drags Helen outside to refill the water jug at the pump…

The Moment

While an frustrated Annie forces Helen to help refill the jug, she continues to spell out words.  Suddenly, a look comes over Helen’s face, and she struggles for the first time to vocalize a word:  “W–w–wa–water.”  In that instant, Annie (and the audience) sees that for the first time, she gets it.  “W, A, T, E, R…water.”  The symbols make a word, and the word is a thing.  A whole world of communication and understanding is opened up for her.

Overcome with emotion, Helen begins to run around, demanding to know the name of all the objects in her world:  ground, step, tree, bell…and then, her emotionally overwhelmed mother and papa, overwhelmed with emotion. Finally, Helen turns to Annie, the woman who has been her caregiver, her guide, and at times her mortal enemy, and asks for the word.  She receives it:  Teacher.

The scene is beautiful and one of the most inspirational and hopeful things I have ever seen.  The visual storytelling is effective but so much of the power comes from the outstanding performances of both Anne Bancroft as Annie and Patty Duke as Helen.  Both actresses won Oscars and certainly they both earned it.  The entire movie is worth watching just for the raw power of what they bring to the screen–indeed, there is a sequence earlier of Helen learning to eat with a spoon that defies belief in its intensity.  But this climactic moment is the culmination of all that work, and serves as fitting climax to both of the characters’ journeys.

The Payoff

That night, or perhaps another, Annie sits on the porch, looking out into the darkness.  Helen appears in the doorway, awkwardly making her way toward her.  She leans into Annie, who is surprised by this display, and kisses her on the cheek.  Annie holds her close and spells out some words for her, speaking them out loud for our benefit in the audience:  “I…love…Helen.”  A lifelong friendship has begun.

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