It took me almost 40 years to finally see "A Patch of Blue". It was promoted as the kind of trendy, raise your social consciousness movie that I avoid like the plague. The mid-sixties was full of this kind of moralizing political stuff, as the country finally began to wake up to the embarrassing social inequities and the hypocrisy that hung over everything like a cloud of poison gas. The older half of the baby boomer generation was beginning to question the fear and hate of their parents, and Hollywood was beginning to discover that this had exploitation potential. Most of these things were moronic at the time and have not improved with age.
Ironically, what led to my finally viewing this film was watching Catherine Deneuve in another film from 1965; Polanski's "Repulsion". Writing a review of that film I lamented the failure of the Academy to nominate Deneuve for Best Actress and Polanski for Best Director. Whatever was thought then about the films and performances actually nominated, in retrospect they pale in comparison to "Repulsion". No one even gives a thought anymore to "Darling" or "Ship of Fools", "Doctor Zhivago" is more big that it is good, and Julie Andrews was great in a very weak movie (but decent musical). While "A Thousand Clowns" and "The Collector"-with Samantha Eggar, are good cult films, they are easy to dismiss.
But when I got to Elizabeth Hartman's nomination for "A Patch of Blue" I realized that I knew very little about her or the performance, having dismissed it as just a reprise of Patty Duke's performance in "The Miracle Worker". I became more intrigued when I discovered that Hartman was the actress who blew me away in "The Beguiled", so I picked up a copy of the 2.35x1 aspect ratio DVD of "Patch of Blue". I was surprised to find that a film with the name of a color in its title had been shot in black and white. And for anyone thinking about getting this DVD, it was transferred to DVD from one of the cleanest prints (or maybe from the original MGM negative)I have ever seen-the detail and contrasts are as good as they must have been when it was first printed 40 years ago.
After seeing "Patch of Blue" I still made my case for "Repulsion", but qualified it by saying only Hartman's performance was in the same class as that of Deneuve. Which was quite a concession for me but both performances are truly wonderful.
As for "Patch of Blue", I found it absolutely amazing-close to perfection. There were so many places where Guy Green could have screwed it up and he neatly avoided them all.
The director is presented with a real problem when deciding how to film an actor playing a blind person. Tight shots on the eyes are what makes acting for the camera so special. Unfortunately the unfocused eyes of a blind person cannot convey much emotion, in fact anything but a blank stare betrays the blind illusion. So Guy Green had to get a verbal and body language performance out Hartman that compensated for not being able to use tight shots, and Hartman had to work at not just playing a complex character but also at maintaining the illusion that she was blind. All her scenes are excellent but she has three that are especially memorable.
The first is at the kitchen table where she casually discusses being raped with Gordon. Her matter-of-fact narration plays perfectly with Poitier's horrified reaction (which of course she can't see).
The second is after a stranger has helped her back to the apartment from her terrifying failed attempt to find the park by herself. In a few minutes she ranges from despair so deep it verges on madness, to extreme gratitude toward the boy who brings her a message, to giddy joy at the realization that Gordon cares enough about her to send someone to see what has happened to her. Hartman plays all parts of the scene convincingly-I wonder if they shot it all the same day or if Green shot each sequence separately.
The third scene (and my personal favorite) is when she is alone in the park and it starts to rain. If someone told me of the challenges posed by this scene, I would not have given it much chance of success, yet Green pulls it off and Hartman is absolutely believable. The is the scene where you first really connect to Selena's fear and isolation, because by this time you know and identify with the character. Absolutely amazing.
Here is a little Elizabeth Hartman trivia. After Patty Duke turned down the role because of type-casting concerns and Hayley Mills for financial reasons (what a disaster that would have been), they tested 150 unknowns and choose the 22 year old Hartman. "I believe I was lacking the things they wanted an actress to lack," Hartman told Sidney Skolsky when he made her the subject of one of his "Tintypes" profiles. After meeting her Slolsky said: "She is shy, timid. She sleeps in a normal-size bed in sleeveless nightgowns. She always takes her Raggedy-Ann doll to bed with her." Prior to Oscar night Hartman, who still lived in Youngstown with her mother, commented "I'm just waiting for someone to offer me a part in a picture or a play. I'm climbing the walls, as a matter of fact". MGM did not use her picture in their Oscar ads for her but used a sight gag, a pair of sunglasses in a Price Waterhouse envelope.