We repeat truisms for a reason. We believe them to be true. Of course. Context is everything. Perspective is everything. Perspective changes everything. Time changes our perception. See? Certainly, I have had reasons to consider some of the above in the days since the passing of Oscar and Emmy winner Patty Duke.
As a child, I loved Patty Duke! I got such a kick out of her wacky sitcom. How special was that? All of sixteen and she had her own show. I wanted my own show, and I wanted to play twins–twin cousins, that is. Just like Patty Duke. There she was with her fabulous flip (kinda-sorta) as (insert–kooky, spunky or perky–here) teen Patty Lane, and there she was–again–as demure Cathy, no flip but more elegant, refined tastes, especially in clothes, not to mention ballet and crepes suzette. Plus, Cathy had that super-cool British accent. Sure, technically, she was supposed to be from Scotland, but try telling that to a three, four, or five year old, especially once Beatlemania and the British Invasion set-in. Who could believe that one actress, a teenager, no less, was capable of such extraordinary gifts? And that was before I knew smack about The Miracle Worker or something called Academy Awards.
^ Probably one of the first songs to which I learned all the words. Incredibly, Duke and many of the original cast members re-reteamed for a 1999 TV reunion movie.
Of course, I was too, too young to understand the implausibility of the premise. I just assumed Patty and Cathy were twin sisters. No, I was reminded by my pre-teen sister, they were cousins. Okay, that works. Doesn’t it? I wonder how the creator–that would be heavyweight Sidney Sheldon–ever successfully pitched the idea. Oh sure, I understand, now, there was some tom-foolery about how the girls’ dads (trusty William Schallert–still living btw, at 93) were also twins, and I guess even a 6 or 7, maybe 8, year old might buy that one for a minute or two.
Patty Duke’s show was cancelled after a three season run for a total of 103 episodes, per the IMDb. I also didn’t understand, then, why great shows, shows like Patty Duke’s, were cancelled. Did I even know the meaning of the word “cancelled”? How thrilled I was, a few years later, when over the course of a summer my sister and I were laid up, recovering from tonsillectomies (yes, at the same time), and we found reruns of The Patty Duke Show on one of the UHF channels. Remember UHF? What a summer! Patty Duke and all the ice-cream I could eat. Well, the promise of ice cream was how they, the adults, tricked us into being compliant with the whole tonsillectomy thing. That part was a bit of an exaggeration as eating anything required too much effort, but Patty Duke, playing twin cousins, was back on TV; that much was true, and it helped.
A few years later, after yet another divorce in the family, my mother relaxed strict rules about “bedtime” and allowed my sister and me to stay up and watch Valley of the Dolls on the late show. You know Valley of the Dolls, don’t you? Based on Jacqueline Susann’s provocative best seller (long held as the best selling novel of all time, per the Guinness Book of World Records), the movie served a heady mix of glamour and allegedly savage, “hard-hitting” drama as three career girls soar to rapturous show-biz highs, full of lucky breaks, fancy clothes (by Travilla), outrageous hairdos, nightclubs, premieres, awards, montages, montages, montages, and, of course, romance (laced, as it were, with hints of nudity), only to descend to the titular valley as a result of madness and misfortune brought on by pills (dolls), booze, and catfights. My mother carefully prompted my sister and me to the real-life parallels, such that Patty Duke’s Neely O’Hara was based, at least in part, on Judy Garland, legendary–and quite troubled–dynamo of screen, TV, and music (both live and recorded). Her battles with addiction, dating all the way back to her years as a child star at MGM, were hardly secret.
At any rate, I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. Looky there at Patty Duke, no longer a teen comedy queen, but a legitimate dramatic actress at all of 20-21. Her incredible range staggered my 11 or 12 year old imagination. She transformed from poor, put upon, sweet yet scrappy Neely, so egregiously mistreated by that bully Helen Lawson (a caricature of brassy Broadway diva Ethel Merman, played divinely by Susan Hayward) to a pathetic, manipulative mess. A monster who shrieked, growled, and suffered sloppy yet frightfully realistic nervous breakdowns. And catfights. What an actress! Patty Duke could seemingly do anything, and I was horrified–horrified–to think that she had not won yet another Oscar–by then, I was into the game–for such an earth-shatteringly brilliant performance. Did I mention, by the way, that I was 11, 12, maybe 13, at the time?
I watched Valley of the Dolls as often as I could, and I stayed up wee into the night, vampire style, reading my mother’s hardback edition. One day, the movie lost its magic for me, and I didn’t watch it for several years. I’d moved on to other things, like Jane Fonda movies: Julia (1977), Coming Home (1978), and The China Syndrome (1979). I immersed myself in movie culture and expanded my knowledge; consequently, my tastes changed.
Then, came cable TV and videocassettes, and I returned to the Valley of the Dolls. (Sounds like a sequel, doesn’t it?) As an adult, even a young adult, however, I recognized the film as something entirely different from my easily swayed, romanticized childhood POV. Oh sure, parts of the movie look great, and Barbara Parkins (as Anne, Susann’s idealized version of herself) and the late Sharon Tate are fine, the latter portraying a doomed showgirl turned international sex symbol (rumoured to be a composite based on Marilyn Monroe and Carole Landis.) Alas, Ms. Duke does not fare as well. What once seemed earth shatteringly bold and brilliant suddenly read as baffling. Duke hams it up, thick and juicy style, straining–it seems–to shatter her “All American Girl” effect, making herself look silly, clueless, and over made-up, in the process. Of course, she isn’t helped by a script lacking in subtlety. Everything that happens to these girls arrives at breakneck pace, and Duke’s Neely is no exception.
With Neely, extreme swings are the norm, but Duke doesn’t modulate her performance accordingly, especially in the film’s latter half, where it might make sense to pull back just a bit since the story is already over-the-top. Instead, she barks her lines (most of them howlers), like a petulant 8 year old, and rips right through anything standing in her way, kind of like the old Tasmanian Devil. For her part, the actress always blamed director Mark Robson. Duke’s complaint has long been that Robson felt he needed to extract the actresses’ performances through any means necessary, including humiliation and indifference. Duke’s response was that as an actress she could and should be addressed as a working professional, not as a piece of scenery, a prop. To a degree, she might be correct in that Parkins corroborates Duke’s frustration on the DVD, claiming that Robson always seemed more interested in effects, the way staging would read on camera, than he was in working with the actresses to help develop their characters. Per Parkins, it was more about being told to turn to the camera after so many beats, or to make sure hands were in the shot performing a particular bit of business, such as holding a bottle of pills at a certain angle, but never explaining how to connect the dots. Also, both Duke (in her autobiography) and Parkins chide Robson for less than supportive treatment of lovely Sharon Tate, whom Parkins assails as not having a mean bone in her entire body. Alas.
For all of Valley of the Dolls‘ miscues, it survives, at least as classic camp, propelled as it is by 1960s glossiness and a compulsively watchable cat-fight between Duke and Susan Hayward that sets the bar–a very low bar–for such tomfoolery though the dialogue, ham-fisted as it is, crackles. Even so, Duke’s final meltdown in a deserted alley still gives me shivers, probably the most authentic moment in her entire tortured performance. Whereas her intensity in other scenes seems ripe for mockery, I just can’t shake Neely’s seething desperation in that moment, and I wonder where Duke, as an actress, had to go in order to make it happen. Certainly, those who long to imitate it never quite get there, and the joke is on them.
Of course, speaking of matchless performances, nothing matches Patty Duke in her most famous, no, iconic, role: young Helen Keller in 1962’s The Miracle Worker. Duke first played Keller in the original Broadway production, beginning just shy of her 13th birthday; the show closed almost two years later, a healthy run for a so-called “straight” play, but the show’s legacy is even greater than that, and I’m not even including the famed movie version though maybe I should. Allow me.
In my last piece, I wrote about how Broadway vets, such as Carol Channing and Julie Andrews, are sometimes denied the opportunity to repeat their successes in big screen adaptations, but, luckily, that was not the case with Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft, in the role of Annie Sullivan, the fiercely committed teacher, the miracle worker of the title, trying with all her might to make a connection with her charge, a scared, bratty, over indulged deaf and blind girl, who, of course, would grow up to be a world class scholar and activist. But I digress. At any rate, thank goodness the gods of Hollywood casting decided to take a chance and allow Bancroft and Duke to recreate their stage roles for the movies even though there was a very real concern that by 1962, Duke had grown too tall to be convincing as a child. Fortunately, Ms. Duke was still small for her age, and the director and camera operator worked out staging and angles to manage the rest as best possible.
What a blessed achievement. What fascinates me the most about the film version of The Miracle Worker is how Bancroft and Duke work together so seamlessly. I’ve often remarked that they’re actually giving one performance, not two. That’s the pronounced degree of their connection. I would almost call it magical, but I think that demeans the achievement, the dedication and skill they bring to the piece. Their big dining room confrontation, choreographed to the nth degree as Duke describes in her book, is acting at its finest simply because it doesn’t look like acting. It looks like two very strong opponents unfolding in an unconventional, even banal, arena, getting to know in such an unorthodox way each other’s personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, through emotion and movement and with nary a word. I think it may very well be the most thrillingly acted scene in the history of American cinema.Of course, they both won Oscars, but that in itself is not what makes Duke and Bancroft in The Miracle Worker such a singular triumph. No, instead, consider this. Though long a favorite of high school drama departments, performed with varying degrees of success all across the nation (the clips are all over YouTube), with at least two TV remakes, the play has been revived only once on Broadway, and that revival came more than 50 years later and, alas, closed abruptly after a few dozen performances. Lesson learned. Duke and Bancroft own The Miracle Worker and likely always will.
For whatever reason, and there are likely several obvious ones, Duke’s movie career was otherwise spotty though, please note, that even before The Miracle Worker, she’d enjoyed some degree of success, playing the younger version of Kim Stanley’s character, a Marilyn Monroe-alike, in 1958’s The Goddess. For most of her career, Duke earned her living on the small screen. She never landed another series as successful as her early sitcom, but she earned a People’s Choice award for It Takes Two, a smart if short-lived series that ran on ABC from fall of 1982 through spring of 1983 for a total of 22 episodes. Co-starring Richard Crenna, the show was created by the same team that created Soap, Benson, and, eventually, The Golden Girls. (Per the IMDb, the kitchen set of It Takes Two was recycled for The Golden Girls.) Duke later reteamed with the same production company for Hail to the Chief, an even less successful sitcom about the first ever female President of the United States. Coincidentally, at about the same time Duke was playing president on TV, she held office as president of the Screen Actors Guild.
Duke’s biggest mark was in guest roles, TV movies, and mini-series. In If Tomorrow Comes, she played a young bride, married to a Japanese-American, in the days leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack. It was this 1971 offering, btw, that actually served as my introduction to the disgrace of America’s own internment camps. (Curious, isn’t it, how I’d already had some knowledge of the Holocaust but nothing about our own camps.) A few years later, Duke stunned me yet again playing an informant, one with a lot of baggage, in an incredibly intense episode of Police Woman, of all things , an episode that featured her then husband John Astin as a sleazoid, a man who pissed off the wrong person and ended up with a face full of brass knuckles. As I recall, this was also my introduction to whole idea of something as disturbing as brass knuckles. In the early 1990s, my sister and I bawled our eyes out, straining not to, as we watched a Christmas season weepie entitled Always Remember I Love You about a mother and child reunion that hurts so good it elicits smiles through tears. I watched it every year after that as long as it aired, most notably on Lifetime, and I even had a lousy videotaped version, but I lost it long ago, and I the show hasn’t been rerun in close to two decades.
In her storied career as a TV star, Duke amassed a total of 10 Primetime Emmy nominations. Per her bio, she at one time held the record as the most nominated actress in Emmy history. Her resume also boasts one Daytime Emmy nod as well. Those nominations include everything from an early bid for her own sitcom as well as a turn as Martha Washington and a character reportedly based on Rose Kennedy in the mini-series version of Taylor Caldwell’s mammoth Captains and the Kings. She also scored a nod for a supporting role in the tele-adaptation of Marilyn French’s feminist classic The Women’s Room. Ultimately, she claimed three statuettes for her TV portrayals, including one for My Sweet Charlie, a landmark TV film co-starring the great Al Freeman Jr.
Patty Duke’s life was full of turmoil, everything from a positively Dickensian childhood, in which her single mother essentially relinquished her to the care of abusive showbiz promoters–Patty Duke wasn’t even her real name–to disastrous high-profile affairs, four marriages, a notorious paternity scandal, and well-publicized bouts of bipolar disorder. Duke eventually made de-stigmatizing mental illness part of her personal platform and even drew attention to the issue by writing about it in her book, which was later adapted into a TV movie in which, yes, she played her adult self.
What a curious life. As a child, little Anna-Marie was subverted into the public persona known as Patty Duke. As a teen, she played twins. Early in her career, she won an Oscar for playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker while as an adult she won an Emmy for playing Annie Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, in a TV version of The Miracle Worker. She acted the role of a fictional U.S. President and served as president of her union. Later, she even played the grown version of herself, always acting. Always a wild duet. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Anna Marie Duke-Pearce is survived by her husband Michael Pearce, and sons Sean Astin, MacKenzie Astin (both actors), and Kevin Pearce.
 By 1974, Tatum O’Neal broke Duke’s record, earning Best Supporting Actress (Paper Moon) at all of 10 years old. Of course, labelling either Duke or O’Neal as supporting is a bit of a stretch considering their screen time and importance to their respective films’ plots, but I digress. To clarify, when Anna Paquin won in the same category for 1993’s The Piano, she was 11.
 Citing Police Woman probably seems pretty indefensible now, but back in its time it was hailed as a breakthrough, first of all, for being spun-off from the highly acclaimed anthology series Police Story (from Joseph Wambuagh). Beyond that, star Angie Dickinson did something that Anne Francis (Honey West) and Teresa Graves (Get Christie Love!) had not, which was headline a successful TV crime series with a female lead, the other two lasting only a season, or less, each. That noted, for all of Dickinson’s star power, and whatever contributions Wambaugh might have made, Police Woman devolved from its early promise over the course of its four season run. The aforementioned episode with Duke aired during season 1.