Helen Keller's forgotten Oscar

She’s best known as an activist and author, but the deafblind icon also had a moment in the Hollywood spotlight

Helen Keller holding an Oscar statuette.

Helen Keller displays the Academy Award she accepted for “Helen Keller in Her Story,” a 1955 documentary film about her life. Photo from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

February 25, 2016

Here’s an Academy Award trivia question: Who is the only famous historical figure to receive an Academy Award for appearing in a documentary about her life – and then have someone else win an Oscar for portraying her in another movie about her life?

If you guessed Helen Keller, you’re correct.

As Hollywood’s biggest stars prepare to gather for their annual celebration of talent, glamour and tearful speeches – the 88th Academy Awards on Feb. 28 – it’s a perfect time to remember Helen Keller, perhaps Hollywood’s most unique and remarkable Oscar recipient.

Keller, the deafblind icon and former student at Perkins School for the Blind, accepted an Academy Award for the 1955 documentary film about her life entitled “Helen Keller in Her Story.”

Written and directed by Nancy Hamilton, the film used archival newsreel clips and photos to trace Keller’s early years. Newer film footage showed Keller during an ordinary day later in her life – going for a walk, reading a braille Bible, answering correspondence and meeting friends for tea. The film, originally released as “The Unconquered,” was narrated by actress Katharine Cornell.

No ingénue, Keller received the Oscar at age 75. Photos from that evening show her holding the statuette, a broad smile on her face.

Seven years later, 16-year-old Patty Duke won an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of a much younger Keller in “The Miracle Worker,” the story of how teacher Anne Sullivan helped Keller break though the barriers of deafblindness and learn to communicate. Anne Bancroft, who played Sullivan, won the Oscar for best actress.

That brings up another Academy Award trivia question: Who is the only actress to win an Oscar for a role in which she says only one word?

Answer: Patty Duke. In the most famous scene in the movie, Sullivan signs letters into Keller’s hand, trying to help the youngster understand there’s a word for the liquid gushing from a pump. When Keller finally makes the connection, her face lights up and she says, “Water!” It’s the only word Duke speaks in “The Miracle Worker.”