Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The (1968): Carson McCullers on Screen, Starring Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke in Oscar-Nominated Performances

Based on the first, acclaimed novel by Carson McCullers, published in 1940, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an effective coming of age tale as well as a portrait of friendship.

In a bravura turn, Alan Arkin stars as John Singer, a sensitive deaf man who moves to a sleepy small town in order to be close to Antonapoulos (Chuck McCann), his institutionalized deaf and mentally impaired friend.

If John Singer could, he’d tell you about his inner world of beauty and dignity. But the card he holds must speak for him. “I am a deaf-mute. I read lips and understand what is said to me. Please do not shout.”

After renting a room with a family, Singer begins to change the lives of its members, beginning with the father, Mr. Kelly (Biff McGuire), who’s unable to earn a living due to a serious injury. Soon, Singers silent kindness and spiritual presence draw to him other individuals who are broken in body and spirit.

The story’s main relationship is between Singer and Kelly’s teen-aged daughter Mick (Sondra Locke, in her film debut), who’s at first resentful of the intruder’s presence. However, Mick begins to change her mind, when he ingratiates himself by introducing her to classical music, which he can “feel,” if not hear.

Singer likewise tries to brighten the lives of such unfortunates as alcoholic Blount (Stacy Keach Jr., also making his first film appearance), a dying black doctor Copeland (Percy Rodriguez), and Copeland’s poverty-stricken daughter (Cicely Tyson).

“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” earned $5.9 million in box-office gross and Arkins performance earned him an Oscar nomination and New York Film Critics award for Best Actor in 1968. It was Arkin’s second Oscar nod after earning a Best Actor nomination for the comedy, “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming,” in 1966.

Issues for Discussion:

Representation of deaf individuals on screen

Racial segregation

Friendships that cross boundaries of age, class, and gender

Teenager’s loss of virginity (by will)

How Locke Got the Part?

In July 1967, Locke competed with 590 Southern actresses and New York hopefuls for the part of Mick Kelly. Previously, she had acted in TV commercials and starred in theater productions for Circle Players Inc. For the audition, her then-fiancé Gordon Anderson gave her a makeover, he bound her bosom, bleached her eyebrows, and applied makeup in order to create a more gamine appearance. They also lied about her age, shaving off six years to seem younger, a lie Locke would keep up for years. After three auditions, she got the role.


The Kellys’ teenage daughter Margaret (“Mick”) resents having to give up her room to him, so John tries to win her friendship. He also tries to become friends with Jake Blount, a semi-alcoholic drifter, and Dr. Copeland, an embittered segregationist African American physician who is secretly dying of lung cancer. John helps interpret for a deaf-mute patient who is seeing Dr. Copeland. Copeland’s deepest disappointment is that his educated daughter, Portia, works as a domestic and is married to a field hand. Meanwhile, Mick has an outdoor teenage party at her house, but is disgusted after some boy guests disrupt it by finding and setting off fireworks.

After a successful attempt to win Mick’s friendship by encouraging her love for classical music, John visits Spiros and, although he takes him out for the day, John is lonelier than ever when he returns home. Meanwhile, Portia and her husband are attacked and he is jailed for defending himself at an incident at a carnival. Portia gets upset at Dr. Copeland for not perjuring himself to help bring out the truth about what happened in the fight. Dr. Copeland and Portia’s relationship gets even more strained after her husband has his leg amputated after being placed in irons for trying to escape jail.

John gets them to reconcile after Portia learns from John of Dr. Copeland’s illness. Mick willfully loses her virginity to the sensitive older brother of one of her classmates after she realizes that her father’s injury has permanently disabled him and she will have to leave school and work to help support the family. Disturbed by her sexual initiation, she ignores John’s request for some company. John goes to visit Spiros and learns that he has been dead for several weeks. After visiting his friend’s grave and saying goodbye in sign language, John returns to his room and commits suicide.

In the last scene, Mick brings flowers to John’s grave, where she meets Dr. Copeland.  As they talk, Mick asks, “Why did he do it?” Copeland has no answer, and Mick asks to stay there alone for a while, making a heartfelt confession to John of how much she loved him.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 2

Actor: Alan Arkin
Supporting Actress: Sondra Locke

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1968, the winner of the Best Actor Oscar was Cliff Robertson for playing the mentally challenged lead in “Charly,” and the winner of the Supporting Actress Oscar vet Ruth Gordon for playing a modern witch in Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.”

Alan Arkin as John Singer
Sondra Locke as Margaret “Mick” Kelly
Laurinda Barrett as Mrs. Kelly
Stacy Keach as Jake Blount
Chuck McCann as Spiros Antonapoulos
Biff McGuire as Mr. Kelly
Percy Rodriguez as Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland
Cicely Tyson as Portia Copeland
Jackie Marlowe as Bubber Kelly
Johnny Popwell as Willie
Wayne Smith as Harry Minowitz
Gonzalo Meroño as Richard Steward
Peter Mamakos as Spirmonedes
John O’Leary as Beaudine
Hubert Harper as Biff Brannon
Sherri Vise as Delores
Anna Lee Carroll as Nurse Bradford


Directed by Robert Ellis Miller
Produced by Thomas C. Ryan and Marc Merson
Screenplay by Thomas C. Ryan based on “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers
Music by Dave Grusin
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Edited by John F. Burnett
Distributed by Warner Bros
Release date: July 31, 1968
Running time: 123 minutes