by Paul Batters
Selina D’Arcy: I said what I did because I love you so much.
Gordon Ralfe: I know why you said it. I’m glad you said it. You brought me back to Earth.
Selina D’Arcy: I didn’t want you to come back to Earth. I wanted you to make love with me.
Hollywood is often accused (and not without good reason) of focusing on the glamorous and dealing in illusion. At the risk of stating the obvious, the very nature of art is illusion and any attempt to portray reality is going to be limited by or affected by the perception of the artist and the creative elements at their disposal. Yet within those bounds is a near infinite array of methods in portraying a narrative. Even the attempt to portray the harsher realities of the life experience are fraught with difficulty and the aim of the film-maker is to present a story that the audience perceives as real, feeling the reality and experiencing the journey of the characters on the screen. Of the many challenges in expanding the audience’s understanding of the human journey, one is presenting the experience of human disability and giving it authenticity as well as dignity. The opportunity for exploitation, cliché and stereotype, as well as an uniformed narrative, is always present and it takes great sensitivity and understanding on all the key stakeholders in a film production to assure that the story remains genuine.
A Patch Of Blue (1965) is a film, which initially seems in danger of falling into cornball cliché and syrupy storyline. The plot seems simple enough – a young, blind woman who lives a sad, cruel and lonely life befriends a kind, black man and they eventually fall in love. However, the convictions of the performances and the development of the story take our experience far beyond the usual themes and tropes that one may expect. Indeed, the director Guy Green is said to have called the initial premise of the story ‘corny’ but credited the writing of the original novel by Elizabeth Kata as giving it the depth, sensitivity and quality that made it work.
Selina D’Arcey (Elizabeth Hartman) is a young girl living with her abusive mother, Rose-Ann who works as a prostitute, and her alcoholic grandfather. Her existence is one of loneliness and neglect, exacerbated by her lack of education and most of all, her blindness. However, her world begins to change when she befriends Gordon, a young African-American man, who is kind, patient and values her humanity. Gordon feels for her situation and their relationship forms not out of pity but from true friendship.
Gordon meets her regularly in the park where they first met, where he guides her in developing self-confidence and independence. Selina tells Gordon how she came to be blind; a story so cruel and tragic that the audience cannot help but be as moved as Gordon is. Gordon and Selina become closer and the discovery of their friendship brings things to a head when Rose-Ann finds them in the park where they meet, unleashing an ugly scene. But it also reveals Gordon’s strength of character as he defends and protects Selina, who is unable to defend herself.
However, friendship has blossomed into something more and Selina declares her love for Gordon. Gordon seems unsure and does not want to take advantage of Selina’s love and innocence, especially since he is a good and decent man. But this reviewer believes that there is love in Gordon’s heart, assured by his willingness to see her chance to grow as an individual and give time for her to find herself.
The film’s ending holds a gentle power that transcends all clichés and leaves the audience with a sense of hope for humanity.
The context of the film cannot be overlooked and allows for greater insights into the film than one may initially perceive. Filmed and released at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it also reflects the artistic shift, as well as the political and social shift, that was occurring in the U.S. True, a key theme is the ugliness and cancerous nature of racism and the film challenges many of the precepts of hatred that racism aims to perpetuate. It also brings to light the power of love to conquer division and whilst we may smirk at, sniff at and inflict a sarcastic smugness toward this theme, there is nothing clichéd about the deepest human experience of love nor the political realities of such a theme.
The original story gave a very different and sadly pessimistic twist to the film regarding the girl’s blindness and her discovery that her friend is actually black. Yet Sydney Poitier’s personal commitment to the film saw him involved in the script and its’ development into a more hopeful and uplifting story. The film certainly reflects the idealism of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement in challenging long-established norms and values, as well as the hope that love and righteousness would overcome the bitterness, hatred and division that had underscored American society for so long.
Yet the key characters are more than just symbolic devices for a message. Selina’s journey and the overcoming of her own adversity is a poignant and powerful story. She is not a figure to be pitied and Hartman’s portrayal does not seek to evoke pity or any superficial pathos. Selina’s blindness is a harsh reality brought about by the cruelty of her circumstances. Additionally, the terrible treatment she receives at the hands of her abusive mother and lack of support from her alcoholic grandfather is not meant as a ploy to elicit simpering melodrama or tears from the audience. Her life is what it is and indeed further exemplifies the exploitive nature that some will go to with someone who has a disability – even if that person is a member of their own family. Incredibly, there does not seem to exist within Selina any bitterness or anger, perhaps because her world is so limited and she knows no other life but moreso because her innate spirit is whole and unbroken, even if her physical self lacks sight. The biblical evocation of being blind yet being able to see certainly comes to mind.
If pity is drawn from the audience, it is not simply because Selina is blind but for other tragic reasons. The constant abuse and lack of any comfort, support or love in her life brings angers as much as pity. Her disability is ultimately only one of the factors that have limited her life and within this framework lies the tragedy of Selina’s life. The crippling effects of neglect and cruelty perhaps even outweigh her disability but one of Gordon’s greatest gifts, other than his friendship and love, is that he helps Selina to find her way to develop and grow. Ultimately, as the film beautifully conveys, her disability is not what truly isolates her and once Gordon guides her, Selina begins to grow and seek out more.
Again, there are complexities to Selina’s self-discovery and her pronounced love for Gordon is not mere infatuation or misplaced gratitude for his friendship. Her heart and soul are immersed in the love she feels for Gordon. It must be remembered that she is young and her sudden newfound freedom and sense of discovery finds her elated. To Gordon’s credit and a strong show of his own love for her, he encourages and explains to Selina that she needs to go to school and discover more about herself – to gain an education, find her independence and sense of identity before any commitments can be made. What is beautiful about their relationship is that it far from a one-sided one; Gordon has also grown and learned from her and found a new self-awareness through her honesty, her responsiveness to him and especially her love of and for him. Despite her ‘blindness’, she sees Gordon’s goodness and kindness, in spite of his own self-doubts. It is this interaction that lifts the film from the superficial into something far deeper.
Director Guy Green shows great sensitivity in showing how Selina experiences the world through her senses. From the joys of beautiful sounds to the terror of being alone and sadly the horrific experiences of rape, Green allows the audience to step into Selina’s world and share these sensory moments from her point of view, giving us a powerful and emotional experience. The film’s soundtrack scored by Jerry Goldsmith offers a beautiful layer of beautiful melodies that underscores the story and lifts it into a stronger emotional experience.
The brilliance of Sydney Poitier is evident in his Golden Globe nominated portrayal. Wesley Lovell in Cinema Sight stated that Poitier is strong and stoic, conveying the confidence all great actors possess. These qualities come to the fore in his defense of Selina against Rose-Ann, her cruel and racist mother but also through his kindness and patience. It is the perfect accompaniment to the sensitive qualities of Elizabeth Hartman, whose innocence and limited screen experience certainly does not suggest lack of talent. On the contrary, Hartman’s performance deservedly saw her nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Again, Lovell suggests that her haphazard naiveté helps give the character an add dimension. Hartman comes across as a beautiful spirit aching to soar, trapped in the circumstances of her family and her blindness. Gordon gives her the opportunity to fly.
Shelly Winters portrays the repulsive and deplorable Rose-Ann beyond the reaches of the superficial, indicating a woman broken by life. Whilst it is easy to despise the woman who has made Selina’s life a misery, Rose-Ann is a woman also trapped by her circumstances, her lack of education and blinded by her own racism. For Rose-Ann, Selina represents her own failing as a mother and her disappointments as a woman. In many ways, Rose-Ann is also disabled and does not have the strength or fortitude to break from it; so imprisoned by her hatred and bigotry. It is a performance which Roger Fristoe on the TCM Website correctly describes as ‘shrewish’ and would garner Winters the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
It is important to remove the easy-to-fall-for jaded cynicism in which we view such stories. The New Yorker would call the film ‘forgettable’, which is unfair from this reviewer’s point of view. A Patch Of Blue is far from forgettable and challenges us to see our fellow humans who have a disability to not necessarily look beyond it but embrace it as part of their humanity and value the whole of the individual. Indeed, the character in the film with the greatest insights and understanding is the one who is physically blind yet whose heart has not been blinded by hatred nor twisted into bitterness by life’s cruelties. Selina shows us the simple beauties of life and thus the significance of the title comes into play; the sole visual memory of that she holds of the blue sky before she became tragically blind.
A Patch Of Blue is a film that still holds its’ simple beauty and its’ subtle and gentle power through the performances of Hartman and Poitier and the sensitivity of director Guy Green.
This article has been submitted for the 2018 Disability In Film Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood at https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com. Please click on the link for access to more articles for this blogathon.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.