Tuesday, March 29, 2016

R.I.P. Patty Duke (1946-2016)

Patty Duke
On March 29, 2016, actress and singer Patty Duke died at the age of 69 in Couer d'Alene, Idaho from an ruptured intestine. Over the course of her long and storied career, she has achieved a variety of things from being one of the youngest Oscar winners for her role in The Miracle Worker to appearing in edgier adult roles like The Valley of the Dolls. Her work was vast and always challenging, choosing to take on roles that were sometimes confrontational and contradictory to her squeaky clean child star image. She leaves behind an impressive body of work that is unmatched in terms of quality or charisma as well as serving as an advocate for mental illness. 

Duke was born Anna Marie Duke on December 14, 1946 in Queens, New York. With an alcoholic father and a mother who suffered from clinical depression, her early years were fraught with constant arguments. By six, her mother kicked her father out. By eight, she and her two siblings were given over to the care of Joel and Ethel Ross: two talent managers who turned to Duke after finding success with her brother. The one request was that she change her name to Patty Duke, partially to bank off of current child actor Patty McCormack's success. 

The story of Duke's time with the Rosses was full of problematic moments. While it did afford her opportunities to act in productions such as on Broadway in The Miracle Worker, the behind the scenes proved to be less peaceful. For starters, the Rosses infamously squandered the child's earnings - thus disobeying the Coogan Law. Duke would also make claims that she was sexually harassed by them during this time. Considering that it was during this time that her squeaky clean image was formed, it was also in some ways damaging. She was also undiagnosed with bipolar disorder, which caused mood swings and writers to pen The Patty Duke Show as having Duke play two dual roles.

As mentioned, she did enjoy some work on stage. This included The Miracle Worker, which was one of the many parts that she would revisit several times throughout her career, even moving from playing the child role to later the adult role many decades later. However, it was an encouraging performance, and Duke starred in the film adaptation. She would win Best Supporting Actress for her role as Helen Keller. Her acceptance speech was short and sweet, merely amounting to a simple thanks.

It was at the age of 16 that she became the youngest competitive Oscar winner up to that time. Her career afterwards was full of memorable moments. In the 1960's, she had a brief music career with hit songs like "Don't Just Stand There" and "Say Something Funny." She would perform on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson as well as The Ed Sullivan Show. For most of her remaining career, she would receive several Emmy wins and nominations as well as a few Golden Globes, including a Golden Globe win for Me, Natalie - which marked actor Al Pacino's cinematic debut.

The one thing that was shifting was Duke's image by the late 60's. Among her most noteworthy roles was in Valley of the Dolls, where she played a drug and alcohol-addicted singing star. While the film went on to become a cult classic, it was hard for audiences of the time to buy her as trashy. However, she would only continue to play conflicted women for the rest of her career, most recently in Glee as a lesbian jeweler. It was in some ways art imitating life, as she was actively abusing drugs for a large portion of her career, which also included several strange relationships that were frivolous.

In 1985, she became president of the Screen Actors Guild and held the position for three years. She was the second woman to hold this position following Kathleen Nolan. In 1987, she release a autobiography called "Call Me Anna," which also noted her life with manic depression, later renamed bipolar disorder. She would become an advocate for mental illness for the rest of her life, encouraging everyone to seek medical help. Her autobiography also became the subject of a 1990 docudrama. 

She even has a famous son. In 1971, she gave birth to Sean Astin. While there were initial paternity tests that controversially linked Astin to several different fathers (including Desi Arnaz Jr.). However, the situation has since been resolved and he has gone on to have his own successful career appearing in The Goonies and the Oscar-winning trilogy of The Lord of the Rings. Her career was slowing down by the 2000's, and she produced less work. She occasionally would star or produce productions based around The Patty Duke Show or The Miracle Worker, where she would play older versions of the characters.

Despite having several conflicts behind the scenes, Duke ended up being one of the most compelling and challenging actresses out there. Starting as a squeaky clean teenager, she would evolve with her age to reflect a variety of complex women that were arguably reflective of her own issues with drug abuse and bipolar disorder. Even if she hasn't quite struck a chord with audiences as much as she used to, she leaves behind an endearing legacy, and one that is sure to make you smile or feel provoked. She wasn't easy to pin down, and that's what made her so endearing.

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