Eight Great Silent Performances From the Sound Era

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 22 2012 12:15 PM

How To Win an Oscar Without Saying a Word

Eight great silent performances from the sound era.

(Continued from Page 1)

Trapped in Silence

Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (1962)


If Jane Wyman broke the soundless barrier with her Oscar-winning turn as a mute farmer girl who learns sign language in Johnny Belinda, then Patty Duke went to Mach 3 with Arthur Penn’s exhausting and exhilarating story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, The Miracle Worker. Just 15 years old when the film was shot, Duke plays the deaf, mute, and blind Keller as a flying-fisted, flailing-armed, tantrum-throwing creature of pure physicality. She’s so persuasive as a child trapped in silence—particularly in the real-time set-pieces that pit her against co-star Anne Bancroft in a body-bruising battle of wills—that it’s hard to accept hers as just a performance. When Keller finally starts to learn words in the film’s final minutes, Penn permits Duke her first close-up, completing a portrait that started with wild gestures and ends with a face triumphantly smiling; in-between is nothing but desperate, brute force.

Quiet Understatement

Alan Arkin in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968)

These days Alan Arkin is best known for his wry comedic work in films like The In-Laws, Grosse Point Blank, and Little Miss Sunshine. But 38 years before he took home a best supporting actor Oscar for the last film, Arkin received a best actor nomination for his heartbreaking portrayal of deaf-mute John Singer in the underappreciated big screen adaptation of Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. From its largely silent cold opening to quiet nights of chess in a rented room, the film manages to express Singer’s point of view without stooping to gimmickry or obscuring the experiences of the hearing-abled world. Without speaking or so much as externalizing a strong emotion, Arkin reveals enough quiet charisma to remain the focal point of every scene that he’s in. His underplaying is so finely calibrated that when this set piece rolls around, a tiny flip of the fingers can express a lifetime of loneliness.

The Silent Witness

Joe Morton in The Brother From Another Planet (1984)

One of the most common speechless roles is that of the mute witness. Everything from Kieslowski’s Decalogue to Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (for which Sir John Mills won a best supporting actor Oscar) employs a character that is more observer than participant, saddled with knowledge that can’t be verbally communicated. Playing a black-skinned, interplanetary interloper in mid-‘80s Harlem, Joe Morten puts a unique spin on the trope in John Sayles’ The Brother From Another Planet. Taking in New York through alien eyes and ears—he’s incapable of human speech—he lacks both earthly prejudices and defenses. With eyes wide and lips locked, Morton underplays to the point of placidity. Everything is so strange that he doesn’t even know what merits a reaction; he’s not dumb so much as permanently dumbfounded. Actors fill the air around him with familiar language that starts to sound abstract and strange when confronted by Morton’s naïvely blank stare. He’s a cipher without forgoing character, a mirror for others who absorbs all that he encounters.

Silence as Metaphor

Holly Hunter in The Piano (1993)

Look at her poise: at how she carries the story of herself in her upright but defiant posture, her frightened but unblinking eyes, her half-gloved but unmistakably sensuous fingers. Holly Hunter never makes a peep on camera (she provides a voiceover for the film’s prologue and epilogue), but if a silent body has ever managed to communicate, hers delivers a clamor. Ada McGrath’s muteness is a metaphor, to be sure, of women’s subjugation, of powerlessness exercised as power, of the struggle for control over oneself and one’s destiny, even at the cost of full expression; but it’s also a physical fact, informing what Hunter does with her mouth, how she listens, what parts of herself will be marshaled to speak. Hunter does more than transcend Jane Campion’s metaphors—she makes them live, and shows how silence, in all its meanings and derivations, is really second nature.



Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?