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.
He should have been easy to pigeon-hole. Short, round, close-cropped bullet head, general air of perpetual unease which more than occasionally oozed the menace a thousand other movie tough guys would spend every penny they had to acquire if, by chance, it was something you could buy.
That sums up the look–the presence if you will.
Then, without anything like formal training, and carrying a casually dismissive attitude towards the whole idea of “studying” to be an actor, he took that presence to an awful lot of places: Mob boss, down-at-heels private eye playing footsie with Jessica Rabbit, Iago, Nikita Khrushchev, Mussolini, Churchill, J. Edgar Hoover, Conradian anti-hero.
I mean, I haven’t even seen all of it myself–a failing I will certainly try to redress in the very near future–but, at some level, I almost don’t have to see it with my four eyes to see him with my mind’s eye. Just stick his name next to pretty much anything and I’m ready to take the journey with him. Now as ever. Now, maybe more than ever. Because whenever I do get around to catching up, I know he’ll have been up to the task.
Any task he set himself.
From what I have caught up with, some time or other, I can say that he was–just for starters–truly great in Mona Lisa and The Dunera Boys and Othello and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And when Brian DePalma used his name (and a $20,000 retainer) as bait to hook Robert DeNiro (the director’s preference all along) for Al Capone in The Untouchables, he cashed the check, had a good laugh about it and never once let on that DePalma came a long way second by settling for an actor’s actor to play Big Al when he could have had a force of nature who was born for that sort of thing.
It’s possible, of course, that Hoskins didn’t even know himself what DePalma was throwing away–though it’s a whole lot more possible that he did.
Either way, it’s hard to imagine him ever letting on.
In that respect, he was a bit out of his element in the modern world, where taking such real and perceived slights personally is the fashionable sign of your high seriousness. Needing none of that, he instead projected purely old-fashioned charisma, not to mention genuine bon homie. As a result (and no matter how convincing a regular good guy he was away from his roles) he often seemed a little too big for even his best roles–as if Jimmy Cagney had been transported to modern Hollywood and found that, yes, it was indeed the movies that had gotten smaller.
Once, though, an entire movie got all the way up to the best of him.
What he and Helen Mirren achieved in The Long Good Friday took them on the rarest journey–to the partly exhilarating, partly frightening place where John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards and Vivien Leigh’s Blanche Dubois and Anne Bancroft’s Annie Sullivan reside. Long past the point of worrying about awards in other words. So it was fun and gratifying, while surfing for tributes, to discover a documentary on YouTube where various parties spoke at length about the work both actors put into improving their already strong roles. My guess is that they were just old enough to know such parts in such a movie might very well come along only once in a lifetime–even a lifetime as full of great and good work as each of theirs would turn out to be.
And Mirren eventually got her Oscar (for a very fine performance in The Queen), in much the same way (and for many of the same reasons) that John Wayne eventually got the one he deserved for The Searchers (for a very fine performance in True Grit).
Hoskins never got his.
And, wherever that unquenchable spirit currently resides, I’ll bet he’s having a good laugh about it.
Heck, the top gangster in London called him over to his table in a restaurant not long after the TLGF’s release and congratulated him.
“Good to see one of us make it,” the guy said, confidentially.
Hoskins always loved telling that story–the story about the London mobster who actually thought the guy who played Harold Shand so eerily close to the bone must surely have been a reformed gangster himself.
Hey, what’s an Oscar next to that?
Anyway, here’s the story of an entire relationship in three scenes and seven minutes (with bodies stacking up like cord wood around them the while)….capped off by history’s greatest smoking-in-bed scene (greatest because it’s all about the smoking…the bed is incidental)!
BLFJ (Bright Lights Film Journal): Yes, and very unique, remarkable given where and when it was made. I also think that, to an extent, The Chase, which is the next film of yours I wanted to talk about, comes directly out of it. Both The Left-Handed Gun and Mickey One touch on this idea of there being a particular kind of violence lurking in American society, and that seems to come to the fore in The Chase.
Arthur Penn: Yes, I totally agree. What we’re doing however, is leaving out one other film, which is The Miracle Worker, which had its share of, how shall I say, positive violence, in the sense that Ann Sullivan [sic], in the film Anne Bancroft, was determined to penetrate the slowly dying intelligence of this child, and get through to her the concept that language was the symbol for idea. So they were a series of fairly vigorous films.
BLFJ: The Chase was set in a small Texas town….
(Source: Bright Lights Film Journal Interview with Arthur Penn (director of The Miracle Worker), in 2009….Note the difference in what the filmmaker wants to talk about and what the really important person in the conversation, the interviewer, wants to talk about.)
“I know people who re-view The Miracle Worker every year.”
(Source: David Thomson, Have You Seen….?, 2008)
Let me just say that people who “re-view” (I think that means “watch”) The Miracle Worker every year have a value system I don’t really comprehend.
I watch it every five or ten years depending–always with trepidation.
I’ve never been able to treat a visit with human pain after the manner of a holiday, like getting out a Sunday suit once a year for Easter.
It happened this week was the time for one of my very occasional visits with Arthur Penn’s 1962 film. The timing was due in part to just-because-it-had-been-a-sufficient-while-and-the-mood-arose, and in part because They Shoot Pictures Don’t They just released their annual, ever-fascinating compilation of all the critics’ lists that seek to name the very best films, which is by far the most thorough-going of its kind.
Once again, Penn was represented on a list of a thousand only by Bonnie and Clyde. That film is certainly worthy–and pretty well placed at #219 (up a not particularly meaningful two spots from last year). But it says quite a lot about the particular mindset that dominates arts criticism in general and film criticism in particular, that a film which mythologizes and heavily romanticizes two historical characters who, by star Warren Beatty’s own admission at the time, were in fact “a couple of thugs,” (an admission with which Penn, in an interview separate from the one quoted above, heartily concurred) can place so routinely high, while a film by the same director which, if anything, is even better-made, and celebrates two accurately portrayed historical characters, who, by their collective example as teacher and student, helped create hope out of the darkest despair for literally millions of people who might have otherwise been abandoned, gets no love at all, says….
I didn’t really watch the film in order to get at any new feelings about the crit-illuminati. Anybody who reads this blog with any regularity will have a pretty good idea of how I feel about that subject already.
However, I did want to watch it this time around with a specific eye toward its value as a film, which is another way of saying I wanted to view it as objectively as possible as a film that compares favorably–or unfavorably–to the sort of films that tend to excite critical passions.
I won’t lie. Pure objectivity isn’t something I generally strive for or even think is realistic. I certainly didn’t achieve it this time. Point of fact it was pretty well gone by the time the opening credits finished rolling.
Objectivity. Distance. Whatever name you care to put on it. All that went right out the window in the first few minutes because I was immediately reminded of what is so easily forgotten when I let the film sit on the shelf for a decade or so. Before it is anything else, Penn’s take on The Miracle Worker is that of a Gothic horror story, straight out of Poe, Shelley (Mary, not Percy) and the Bronte Sisters and conceding nothing to any of them.
Because until Annie Sullivan comes to redeem her, Helen Keller is a monster–one who threatens not lives and limbs (after the manner of Frankenstein or the Terminator) but hearts and minds (after the manner of Heathcliff)–not least her own.
That she’s a monster–and that Penn, along with playwright and script-writer William Gibson, saw that side of her and tapped into it–is evident until almost the very end. The scenes where Helen–supposedly well on her way to being civilized–drops her napkin on the floor, capture the exact beats of a horror film. They also magnify those beats a thousand-fold because, by now, we know Patty Duke’s Helen Keller is not only a monster.
She’s also a terribly–and justifiably–frightened little girl.
In the review from which I quoted above, Thomson (normally wooden-headed even by crit-illuminati standards) contends that the fight over Helen folding her napkin is the most violent scene Penn ever filmed.
That’s a mouthful because Penn was basically responsible for breaking down the really significant barrier between abstract distance and in-your-face realism in American film. The bullet he put in the face of an innocent civilian in Bonnie and Clyde‘s first act of overt violence really was a watershed.
But it’s also true–if by “violence” we mean (as I’m not sure Thomson does, but go with me here) full exposure to fear.
During the famous nine-minute scene where Duke’s Helen is desperately trying to escape the room in which Anne Bancroft’s Sullivan is trying equally desperately to hold her, anyone who isn’t in denial about the film being after something far more than “uplift” has to know just how much is at stake.
Helen Keller in that moment clearly believes–has somehow intuited after the manner of gifted children everywhere, whether or not they can see, hear or speak–that her choices are stark. Escape that room or end up in the asylum where we know–and must believe that she somehow knows–her parents are already thinking of sending her.
Annie Sullivan in that moment clearly knows–as we know–that Helen’s escape from that room would actually lead to the end she dreads. That if she gets out of that door she’ll be confined to the very darkness she’s certain she’s trying to escape.
It’s the overt terror of a horror or suspense film turned inwards.
And, having played the scene together hundreds of times on Broadway (and done God knows how many re-takes on the film set), Bancroft and Duke don’t simply act like they’re doing it for the first time or making it anew. They act like they’ve been transported into the minds and bodies of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan and taken to a room where much more than themselves are at stake–which I suppose is just a way of saying they transcend “acting”–as indeed they do throughout the film.
Sorry, but what is Bonnie and Clyde–or ninety percent of the other films on TSPDT’s list–next to that? What is it next to just that, which is by no means the whole–or nearly the whole–of what The Miracle Worker is about (one could write a nice, lengthy treatise on Annie Sullivan’s arrival at the train station as a version of the western stranger, coming to save the town…take a look at how it’s shot some time)? Certainly Sullivan herself–in this film and more than likely in life as well– is as convincing a version of the American obsessive as Ahab or Ethan Edwards. (If that quality is sometimes missed, it might be because her obsessive streak is moving her towards the light rather than the darkness–not a journey any modern intelligentsia is likely to be comfortable with, I’m afraid.)
The Miracle Worker was Penn’s second film. He ended up being a very fine–if not very prolific–filmmaker. I’d argue 1976’s Night Moves, at the very least, should be getting plenty of recognition on these lists (it doesn’t), and nearly all his films have more than a little to recommend them.
I’d certainly rank all I’ve seen ahead of The Blues Brothers, for instance (which checks in at 936 and, yes, which I like).
But he never had a subject to match this again.
Very few filmmakers have.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say in five or ten years when it’s time to approach it again.
The headline being attached to Sight and Sound’s latest list of the “greatest films” is that Citizen Kane–which topped the once-a-decade poll five straight times from 1962 to 2002–was displaced by Vertigo.
Existentialism still trumps narrative. Concepts still trump people.
Directors still count (and conceptual, existentialist directors still count most of all). Performers still don’t count even a little bit.
A lot of people are lamenting the absence of Luis Bunuel or Howard Hawks or Erich Von Sternberg or Douglas Sirk or whoever and, in at least some cases, I see their point.
But I miss Vivien Leigh and Barbara Stanwyck and Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant a lot more. Not to mention Anne Bancroft and Humphrey Bogart and, heck, Gloria Grahame. (That’s GWTW and/or Streetcar, plus The Lady Eve, Notorious, The Miracle Worker, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Heat and/or In A Lonely Place for those keeping score at home….and, incidentally, shifting the focus from directors-only, to great-directors-collaborating-with-great-actors would also redress the diminution of women’s-importance-in-film discussed, albeit without much insight, here)
Interesting and serendipitous that Vera Miles, the astringent, oft wrongfully-dismissed muse of both Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford’s last great periods–and the woman Hitchcock never forgave for backing out of Vertigo after he had already built his story-boards around her irreplaceable profile (he knew what had gone missing even if his now-triumphant acolytes didn’t and don’t) is the only American lead besides Brando who made the list twice.