Saturday, September 26, 2015

A Patch of Blue

A PATCH OF BLUE             B             
USA  (105 mi)  1965  ‘Scope  d:  Guy Green

Selina:  “I know everything I need to know about you. I love you.  I know you’re good, and kind.  I know you’re colored and I…”

Gordon:  “What’s that?”

Selina:  “…And I think you’re beautiful!”

Gordon:  “Beautiful?  Most people would say the opposite.”

Selina:  “Well that’s because they don’t know you.”

A variation on the Cinderella fairy tale, told Hollywood style in a wrenching racial melodrama about an 18-year old blind girl, Elizabeth Hartman as Selina D’Arcy, who’s been kept out of school and forced to do menial chores at home all day doing the cooking and cleaning for her tyrannical mother, Rose-Ann (Shelley Winters), before meeting a stranger in Gordon Ralfe (Sidney Poitier), who happens to be black, though she doesn’t learn this until late into the picture.  Gordon befriends her and takes an interest in what’s happening in her life, which leads to a cataclysmic upheaval in her life once her mother finds out.  Literally locked inside her apartment with few opportunities to ever go outside, Selina leads a stifling existence, where her mother’s mental and physical abuse has no bounds, yet she won an Academy  Award for a playing a woman so monstrous that she belongs in the discussion for worst mothers ever depicted onscreen, (which may be reserved for Franziska Weisz in her vile portrayal in Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg) in 2014), where her grotesque sadism and sheer lack of humanity overshadows any and all racist shortcomings.  As portrayed in Steve McQueen’s more recent 12 Years a Slave (2013) or Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), white slave owners are depicted as not just evil, but are exaggerated into such sadistic caricatures that it’s reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004).  While this is an extremely popular characterization in Hollywood movies, it’s highly questionable whether this over-exaggeration may do more harm than good, resorting to a sado-masochistic indulgence to such an extreme degree that ordinary racists are paragons of virtue by comparison, so it really misses the point.  Coming a year after the legislative passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it’s hard to believe someone who so completely embodies racial bigotry would win an Academy Award for her performance, even though this film lays it on a bit thick in drawing the moral lines between good and evil, where Rose-Ann literally has no redeeming qualities whatsoever as a human being.  Winters herself revealed in interviews afterwards that it was difficult being this abhorrent, “I’ve always found something to like in the characters I’ve played, but not this time.  I really hate this woman.”  Adapted from the 1961 novel Be Ready with Bells and Drums by Australian writer Elizabeth Kata, the film alters the tone of the novel where the young girl shares her mother’s prejudices, going into a state of shock once she learns the truth about her newly discovered friend, handing him over to a mob of racist vigilantes.  That doesn’t happen here where the subject of race is cleverly downplayed, where instead it’s a film about a sheltered and abused blind girl’s personal liberation and freedom, optimistically breaking the shackles of the past and walking into a new era. 

Just two years earlier Poitier became the first black actor to win an Academy Award for his performance in LILIES OF THE FIELD (1963), which is interesting considering one of the central scenes of the film is the spirited rendition of the gospel song “Amen” Lilies of the Field - Amen - YouTube (3:06), where the musical arrangement and Poitier’s voice were supplied by Jester Hairston, as Poitier was notoriously tone deaf.  Certainly one of the most exceptional performances of his career went unrecognized by the Academy in A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1961), featuring an all-star black cast, where his youthful anger couldn’t have more perfectly fit the raging sentiment of the times.  Poitier went on to play the parts of noble and dignified black men not only in this film, but also TO SIR WITH LOVE (1967), IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967), and FOR LOVE OF IVY (1968), where as much as any other celebrity, white America came of age in the 1960’s identifying with the decency of Poitier as a black man, making him a safe choice with movie audiences that embraced him, helping raise awareness for more equal treatment of all races.  While this is an extremely conventional film, what’s interesting is how it balances the ordinary moments of Selina and Gordon spending time together and then how traumatizing it feels with her own mother, who treats her with little more than outright contempt.  There’s an interesting use of flashback and dream sequences, which were much more commonly used internationally in the 60’s than they are today, allowing directors greater freedom in exploring the psychological state of mind of the characters, where in this film it also provides a window into Selina’s brutal past, where her childhood was anything but innocent.  Gordon immediately picks up on this, where this perfectly normal girl, except that she’s blind, has endured and somehow prevailed under the most tragic circumstances.  In many ways it resembles the fragility of The Glass Menagerie, where Selena has been kept inside a cloistered existence all her life, completely unaware of the world outside that represents her yearning for freedom.  We eventually learn what a house of horrors she did come from, as her blindness was actually caused by her mother (discovered in bed with another man) who in a state of rage threw a bottle of hydrogen peroxide at her father when she was only five, where he ducked out of the way but it landed on her face, causing burned scars around her eyes and immediate blindness.  The title of the film references one of her earliest memories, where all she remembers is seeing a patch of blue sky out the window. 

The other surprisingly good aspect of the film is the inventive musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, and while it overemphasizes moments of sentimentality with heartwarming string music, very much a period of its time, it also takes a novel approach for more ordinary moments, creating a slightly jazz-tinged scenario with an interesting use of percussion, where the off-kilter music actually helps the audience see the scene in a uniquely different way.  The weight of the world seems to rest on Selina’s shoulders, having to endure a daily barrage of insults from her mother, who picks on her constantly, literally blaming Selina for all the troubles in her life, particularly her impoverished economic status, suggesting her own life would be so much better without the added burden.  To complicate the woes, Rose-Ann’s drunken father lives there as well, known as Ole Pa (Wallace Ford), and while he’s kinder to Selina than her berating mother who actually slaps her around, he’s pretty much useless, as he never really interferes.  He is willing to drop her off in the park one day, much to Selina’s delight, as the idea of spending an entire day outdoors is like a dream to her, having no problem whatsoever with having to wait until early evening for him to pick her up on his way home after work.  While sitting under a giant tree, she happens to meet Gordon as he lives nearby, where they quickly become good friends.  Astounded that she’s never had any education, and has been deprived of all the things that make life interesting, he helps her manage her away across a busy street intersection and introduces her to the food from a nearby cafeteria, while also teaching her how to use a public telephone and rest room.  Anchored to the same spot all day, she’s not hard to find, where he has a hunch she might still be out there during a heavy downpour of rain, helping her to the nearest protective cover.  In their meetings, she expresses the awe of discovering new things, like pineapple juice or different flavors of ice cream, while also confessing some of the most disturbing incidents that have happened under her mother’s care, which in her eyes is an ordinary occurrence.  There is an unworldly moment that certainly takes us by surprise when Gordon sings to her (in French no less!!) the words to a French children’s song that plays on a music box, A Patch of Blue: "Il pleut, il pleut, bergère." (49 seconds), but other than that, there’s nothing particularly dramatic about their scenes together, which is the beauty of the film, although the interracial eight-second kiss between them was cut for Southern audiences.  Well-acted and always intriguing, even Gordon’s brother Mark, Ivan Dixon, so superlative in Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964) a year earlier, questions his budding friendship with a blind white girl, realizing it could potentially cause a scandal, which it does once Rose-Ann accidentally sees them together on the street, bringing the wrath of Hell down upon her, scolding her for associating with a “nigger.”  Untouched by the sordid reality surrounding her life, Selina is pure of heart, where the music box becomes her most prized possession, as it symbolizes her friendship and developing love for another human being, where it ends on an ambiguous note, as the doors to her future swing open, but the social services available for the blind, mentally ill or disabled in the mid 60’s were hardly a picnic, many discarded for simply being too much trouble for their families, as evidenced in the hackneyed recut version of an early John Cassavetes film A Child Is Waiting (1963), which actually takes place on the premises of a California State Hospital for the Handicapped.  Clearly, however, as evidenced by the idealism expressed in both films, the seeds are planted for a more humane society.  If the 60’s was anything, it was an era of optimism and hope for a better future, despite the lingering Vietnam War and existing racial and economic disparities.


For her performance, Elizabeth Hartman, who was 22 years old at the time, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, but suffered from lifelong depression, which worsened following her divorce in 1984, giving up acting and instead moving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where she worked at a museum while receiving treatment at an outpatient clinic.  On June 10, 1987, at the age of 43, Hartman committed suicide by jumping from the window of her fifth floor apartment. 

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