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.
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.