It's been forever since I saw this, probably 60 years or so. It's the kind of movie where everyone praises it, and then promptly forgets about it. Arthur Penn's direction is near perfection, but when you hear his name, you think Bonnie and Clyde. Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke won Oscars, but when you think of them, you think of The Graduate and The Patty Duke Show. If someone mentions The Miracle Worker, people think of Helen Keller, or if they saw the movie they think of how great the two actresses were, but that's about it.
I'm not here to say that The Miracle Worker is an all-time great movie. But it's close. Anne Bancroft is incredible as Annie Sullivan, and Patty Duke matches her as Keller. Penn's direction manages to make us forget the stage origins of the story, and he (and the actresses) are familiar with those origins, since they worked on the Broadway production before the film was made.
Everyone who sees The Miracle Worker in any of its forms remembers the dinner scene. It invites greatness, although it's easy to imagine it going wrong. David Thomson wrote that Penn "sees that the moving camera is essential to animate the fights between Annie and Helen—their great scene over folding a napkin may be the most violent scene in Penn’s work." And that's saying something, considering Penn directed Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man.
The scene is choreographed down to the simplest movements (in fact, it's all in William Gibson's original play), but as presented here, it's frighteningly real, even as we appreciate the choreography, which is as magnificent as the best wire-fu from Hong Kong. Bancroft and Duke did it together on stage hundreds of times under Penn's direction ... they knew the parts backwards and forwards, there was a danger that after all of those prior performances, the filmed version would be rote. But it's not ... it's one of the great scenes in movie history:
Thomson is right to single out the moving camera ... it's what raises the scene above a simple reenactment of a stage play.
Not everything works. The flashbacks designed to show us Sullivan's past seem like another movie. And while Sullivan and Keller are the core of the movie, there are other characters and other actors, and they are functional at best. But I'm nitpicking. The Miracle Worker deserves to be seen and remembered.