This awful year continues…
She was turned over to “talent managers” at the age of eight (they billed her as six). They put her in soaps, commercials, modeling, live TV, abused her verbally, financially, and (likely) sexually. At twelve, she was cast as a lead on Broadway, in what turned out to be the role of anyone’s lifetime on both stage and film. For every generation after she was Helen Keller. She’ll be Helen Keller for every generation to come.
Other than that all she did was star in an iconic television show (where, in one of those cruel twists that Hollywood delivers so casually and mercilessly, she was cast as identical cousins with opposite personalities, two decades before she was diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder), write one of the most important autobiographies of the twentieth century (it made her as much an ambassador for bipolarity as Helen Keller had been for blindness and deafness), light up just about everything she was ever in (I especially recommend the 70’s-era TV movie Nightmare even if you have to settle for YouTube or a bootleg), slay demons, and, until this morning in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, survive. As anyone who has grappled with demons of their own understands, that may be the highest and most improbable achievement of all. Perhaps never more so than when you are making it look easy.
I said most of what I have to say about The Miracle Worker here. It’s one of the very greatest American films, and one which, to our considerable peril, we’ve found ways to underestimate, patronize and ignore ever since (see the link for the details). I’ll take this sad occasion to add that the reason she will always be Helen Keller, no matter how many take on the role, is that she and Anne Bancroft gave the greatest dual performances in the history of film, beating even Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in Streetcar, and did it under the impossible burden of playing historical figures who were both well known and justifiably sainted. Like their subject matter (and their role models), their performances transcended art. If we’ve lost the ability to see that, or know what it means, or how rare it is, then goodbye us…and good riddance.
For all her courage, there was surely little enough peace here. God grant she’s found it now.