Tuesday, August 18, 2015

1962: Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker

Reprising her Tony-winning Broadway role, Anne Bancroft plays Helen Keller's teacher Annie Sullivan, fighting with all her might to bring comprehension into the dark, silent world in which her pupil resides.

I've been sitting here for about 20 minutes trying to figure out how to start this. No words can fully do justice to the performance I just witnessed - ironic, since the whole point of the movie is to show the importance of words. Actually, I should say performances, since both Bancroft and Patty Duke, who plays Helen, embody their characters perfectly and work together tremendously well. It's like they were born to portray these people. It's no wonder the writer and director insisted on both of them recreating their Broadway roles in the film, even though Duke was too old for her part (she was supposed to be about seven but was actually 16), and the studio offered a much greater budget if they would cast a more famous star as Annie. There is no way anyone else could have played these roles nearly this well. It was nice of the Academy to consider the part of Helen Keller a "supporting" role so they could both win Oscars. And yes, I know, I'm supposed to be focusing just on Bancroft's performance, but to me the most impressive thing about it is how well it fits with Duke's performance. Given the complexity of their characters, it would have been easy for either of them to try to hog the spotlight, but they share it, playing off each other to make their characters believable. If either performance had been lacking, the other would not have worked. Fortunately, they were both darn near perfect. Someday I'll probably end up blogging about Best Supporting Actress winners, and then I'll get to talk more about Patty Duke's incredible performance. For now, let's focus on the Anne Bancroft part.

Annie Sullivan is probably one of the most difficult characters to portray. It feels weird to call her a character, since she was a real person, but she's essentially become a legend. She has to be relentless, strict, and even mean, but at the same time caring and compassionate, with a quick wit and a good sense of humor. That would be quite enough in and of itself, but then she also has to wrestle with a spoiled oversize toddler with no concept of language, trying to teach her something besides "if I throw a tantrum, I can do whatever I want." Add in the Irish accent and the almost-blindness and you get one of the most complicated roles an actress could ever hope to play. There are so many easy ways to go wrong, but as far as I could tell Bancroft falls prey to none of them. Every gesture, every facial expression, the way she says every line is perfect. You can practically feel how much she wants to get through to Helen. She breaks down this majorly complex character and makes her so accessible to the audience that I didn't completely realize how complex she was until I started writing this paragraph. Even though my life has been very different from hers, I found myself relating to her a lot more than I would have anticipated. Before watching this movie, I knew who Annie Sullivan was, and had heard the story of her teaching Helen Keller to finally understand that the word "water" represented the thing itself, but it's one thing to hear the story. It's another to see it brought to life in front of you. Bancroft makes Annie Sullivan seem less of a legend and more of a person, which makes for an incredibly moving film.

This was Anne Bancroft's first of five Best Actress nominations, and her only win. She was also nominated for 1964's The Pumpkin Eater, 1967's The Graduate (which became her most famous performance), 1977's The Turning Point (which was nominated for 11 Oscars and won zero), and 1985's Agnes of God. She was also married to Mel Brooks for 40 years until she died of cancer in 2005.

Funny story about the Best Actress Oscar this year (at least I think it's funny). This was the year of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which starred two previous Best Actress Winners who famously hated each other: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Davis was nominated but Crawford was not. Anne Bancroft couldn't make it to the Academy Awards, so Crawford offered to accept the Oscar on her behalf if she won. So basically Joan Crawford used Anne Bancroft's fabulous performance to beat Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Classic Joan Crawford.

Next up: Patricia Neal

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