A Patch of Blue

(USA - 1965)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Elizabeth Hartman, Sidney Poitier, Shelley Winters, Wallace Ford, Ivan Dixon
Genre: Drama
Director: Guy Green
Screenplay: Guy Green from Elizabeth Kata's novel Be Ready With Bells and Drums
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Composer: Jerry Goldsmith
Runtime: 105 minutes

Though blind Selina (Elizabeth Hartman) has no one and nothing, 1960’s America is so racist Gordon (Sidney Poitier) feels he has something to hide from her, his black skin. Racism may be the reason the film was made, but arguably we’ve progressed enough in this area it’s not quite as valuable today. That said, A Patch of Blue’s prominent subject is disability, and in some ways we are even worse today because we’ve lost our sense of community, the idea we should help a person because they are one of us, our neighbor. These days anyone unknown is looked at in a far more suspect light, and when fear is the starting point what you don’t understand, what’s different, will more quickly drive you away.

The film is good in the little details of people’s misunderstanding of the handicapped. People aren’t sympathetic to Selina not being able to do things they take for granted. It’s hard for them to even talk to her because they automatically answer in a manner that assumes vision. There’s a scene where a lady helps Selina cross the street. The lady surely thinks she’s done a good deed, and in fact that’s the help Selina asked for, but Selina is still lost and now the lady is nowhere to be found.

It may be years between finding someone who is truly helpful to you, and when you do it’s hard to hold on to them because you need them a lot more than they need you. It’s also hard to trust them because no matter how much you hate yourself, you are still inclined to believe the person is helping you because they like you and want to be your friend. Another person’s charity will always run out, often when you need them the most, and then they’ve done more damage than good. By being a good person they helped you a lot, but by only seeing you as a charity case they’ve destroyed you mentally and emotionally.

Gordon has his own cross to bear, being a minority he knows what its like to be looked down upon and ignored. He helps Selina get a caterpillar out of her shirt because he’s a nice guy, taking an interest in her because it’s readily apparent no one else has. While she’s different in negative ways, many are from simple neglect and thus could be improved upon, giving Gordon a purpose. He’s willing to give her a chance to be different in a positive way, not judge him by the color of his skin. By not telling her it gives him an out, but sets her up for an even more devastating fall if she is a racist or he decides to use color as his reason for bailing. The point of the film is everyone has problems and differences, but we should judge by what is inside. Selina is the best judge of character because she’s the only one who is forced to do so. Beyond that, to be a friend is to be tolerant because everyone is a pain in the butt at times.

There are 1000 places A Patch of Blue could have gone wrong, and while there’s a blot here and there the film has enough subtlety and restraint to be touching without being a melodramatic tearjerker or a preachy message film. The difficulties of the relationship aren’t ignored, but rather acutely depicted. The underplaying handles them with more grace, sophistication, and maturity than the usual Stanley Kramer brand of stamping the mismatching all over every frame.

The most annoying problem is that Guy Green always gives away whether Selina is about to succeed or fail. Considering he was Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematographer, he ought to have learned more about suspense. Jerry Goldsmith’s score makes the film seem more simplistic than it is. In many cases less is more, but here simple is just simple. The tenderness works, but he overdoes the melancholy with the woodwinds.

A Patch of Blue is an innocent film in some senses, but that shouldn’t be mixed with naivety. It’s true the audience wouldn’t have taken them having sex, MGM even cut their mere kissing out for the South, and when you consider the changes to the screen adaptations that keep Morgan Freeman’s Alex Cross character loverless maybe this hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to think. But in any case it’s rare to find any film about a friendship between a man and a woman, and almost all of the few simply depict the impossibility of it.

Everything involving Gordon is fun for Selina because her life consists of being a slave for her mother Rose-Ann (Shelley Winters) and tending to the needs of her drunken grandfather Ole Pa (Wallace Ford) as well. Things that are drudgery for most humans, for example grocery shopping, are fun for Selina because they are new and different, but mostly because Gordon is nice to her. Kindness has the power to make anything fun. Selina is giddy anytime Gordon shows up at the park or looks for her because he is rescuing her from her own private hell, and showing her that there’s one person in the world who cares about her.

Selina is eager to expand her parameters in every way, and Gordon has the patience and tolerance to overlook things that make him uncomfortable, such as her growing love for him. Gordon does grow fonder of her as time progresses, but wants her to learn and experience things on her own rather than take advantage of being the only one she’s ever felt anything for. And he’s not sure himself, as he doesn’t know what she can become and how needy she’ll be. Even if she was the greatest woman in history, the fact that everyone will be against the relationship might not make it worth it. The small minded are always looking to rain on your parade, and no one in either family is even remotely sympathetic to their spending any time together.

Shelley Winters won a bogus award for her typical selfish abrasive overbearing role. She’s great at it, but it’s no stretch for her. This white trash racist whore who preys on her daughter, keeping her a trapped and helpless slave by denying her all forms of freedom and education is her most unsympathetic role. Wallace Ford doesn’t give as strong a performance, but his character is more believable than Winter’s Cinderella’s stepmother. He isn’t wholly unsympathetic, but he’s so disgusted by his own failures he’s become a useless drunk.

Poitier is an excellent actor who values dignity above all else. Unfortunately, his characters tend to be supermen of a different sort. We don’t want them to fail because they are in the right, and since it’s a movie they can just be so sure of themselves and we know they’ll always succeed. As always, he delivers within the limitations of the script, but he’s a bit too noble. Though he shows caution and restraint, there’s no way Gordon could be so sure of how to help her; he just couldn’t understand her needs so clearly. Gordon does have some weakness though. He’s afraid of the consequences of even being Selina’s friend, and so used to everyone drawing the wrong conclusions that he gives in to the pressure to some extent and denounces her to his disapproving brother.

Elizabeth Hartman gives the standout performance. Audrey Hepburn was praised for her work in Wait Until Dark, but blindness is just a plot device, and the gimmick performance is merely a prop to propel the mediocrity. Not only is it totally believable Hartman is blind, her work goes well beyond blank stares. Her body language is excellent, and she depicts the ups and downs of being a lonely person dependent on someone else so well. The film doesn’t make the mistake of being about her transformation like almost every other. She gains skills, but remains very fragile and vulnerable to the end. Her capabilities increase, but she’s hardly an overnight master and she’s more emotionally vulnerable because she can no longer imagine life without Gordon. Perhaps the best part of her performance is the way she conveys her need to get over two things, isolation and fear, which rather than going hand in hand actually are in fierce opposition.

Gordon realizes showing Selina a new world isn’t enough unless he has some involvement in it, at least until she no longer needs him. Now that he’s made Selina feel she’s worth something, he doesn’t want to take that away by bailing. Selina has her faults, but she gives Gordon all the kindness she has. She is the only person he’s ever met who isn’t judgmental, and that’s worth a lot.




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