Already I have another blogathon entry to offer my wonderful followers! This time I’m celebrating the 90th birthday of my favorite living actor, Sidney Poitier, and my favorite film of his. Before I begin I’d love to thank the always gracious host of this blogathon, Virginie over at The Wonderful World of Cinema, for always choosing such incredible and deserving people for us to write about. I wish this blogathon all of the success possible, and I can’t wait to participate in the 2nd Golden Boy Blogathon: A William Holden Celebration in April! And of course, if you’re interested in reading all of the other entries relating to Sidney Poitier, mosey on over to this post which lists them all. Without further ado, I wish Mr. Poitier the happiest of birthdays tomorrow, and on with the post!
I have had a long and loving relationship with this film over the last five years or so. I was first introduced to it as a freshman in high school, and immediately fell in love with both the moving story and its leading actor, Sidney Poitier. This single film has developed into what will likely be a lifelong passion of mine for his work, and the year after I discovered it I introduced it to the classic film club that I created as a sophomore. Of all of the films that we watched during the club’s existence, this was considered the favorite by a unanimous vote, which speaks volumes about its powerful subject matter, artistic direction, and relevancy, even today. The film takes place right in the middle of the historic Civil Rights Movement, and immediately introduces the audience to Selina D’Arcey (Elizabeth Hartman), a blind teenager who dilligently strings beads for income and keeps house after her alcoholic grandfather Ole Pa (Wallace Ford, in his final film role) and her abusive mother Rose-Ann (Shelley Winters, in her typical role as an obnoxious villainess), a prostitute. Despite her hardworking demeanor, Selina is not very independent as she never received a formal education, and begs Ole Pa to walk her just a few blocks to the park. She promises to work twice as hard stringing beads if he does so, and he agrees despite Rose-Ann’s selfish objections.
While there, Selina meets the gentle Gordon Ralfe (Sidney Poitier), a black man who works nights and spends his days in the park. The two become fast friends and Selina tells him the story of how her mother Rose-Ann blinded her by accidentally throwing acid in her face when she was five years old during a domestic dispute with her father. Gordon begins to witness the level of abuse that Selina has been through and feels sympathy for her, helping her string her beads, bringing her pineapple juice, and by presenting her with a pair of dark sunglasses because she felt insecure about the scars around her eyes. He soon learns that she has never attended school and is shocked by that fact most of all, stunned that she had never even heard of Braille or schools designated for the blind. Later that evening he takes it upon himself to do some reading about the blind, and meanwhile Rose-Ann slaps Selina for going to the park and steals the sunglasses given to her by Gordon. Despite her opposition, Selina manages to go back to the park the next day with the help of Mr. Faber (John Qualen), the merchant who gives her beads to string. Once again she meets Gordon, and he helps her find her own way across the street and ends up teaching her a little bit more about the world in the process. The two begin to fall in love, but Selina starts being pulled in two directons. On one hand, Rose-Ann is making plans to shack up with fellow prostitute Sadie, ditch Ole Pa, and forcefully bring Selina into their grim business. On the other, Gordon promises Selina a brighter and more independent life by assisting her in enrolling in a blind school. Which path will she be able to choose? Will Selina begin to teach Gordon a few things about life as well? Is love truly blind, or will Selina never be able to look past the color of Gordon’s skin?
The complex role of Selina D’Arcey proved to be a difficult one for director and screenwriter Guy Green as well as the casting directors at MGM. Hayley Mills was considered for the role but hiring her proved to be too costly. Producers Green and Pandro S. Berman then offered the role to Patty Duke, who was advised to reject it as she had just starred in the 1962 hit The Miracle Worker (1962) as the famous blind woman Helen Keller, and was afraid of being typecast in such parts. Eventually Green set his sights on casting an unknown actress, leading to open casting calls, and as soon as Elizabeth Hartman walked in, he knew that she was perfect for the role. She had only appeared in middle and high school plays prior to her appearance in A Patch of Blue (1965), and the studio decided to take advantage of this fact by releasing “A Cinderella Named Elizabeth”, a short film documenting her casting process and the research that she conducted for her role, prior to the film’s release. Hartman ended up wearing opaque contact lenses as Selina, which added a realistic touch to the completed picture as they ended up actually depriving her of her sight. Her work and research paid off, as she became the youngest woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress at the tender age of twenty-two, a record that she held proudly for eleven years until 1976, when Isabelle Adjani was nominated at twenty-one for her work in The Story of Adele H (1976). A Patch of Blue (1965) was nominated for five Academy Awards in all, yet only a single Oscar was awarded to Shelley Winters for Best Supporting Actress in the role of Rose-Ann. Winters, a staunch supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, was actually overwhelmed and speechless after winning the award as she felt uncomfortable portraying a racist and disliked her character as a result.
As for our star of the day Sidney Poitier, the picture proved to be the most financially successful of his entire career despite the fact that he did not receive an Academy Award nomination, with the film raking in $6.75 million with a budget of only $800,000. This proved to be most lucrative for Poitier as he forfeited a portion of his salary in exchange for 10% of the film’s profits. In addition, the film skyrocketed Poitier to a new level of stardom with excellent critical reception and box office draws even in the southern cities that were steadfastly against the Civil Rights Movement, like Houston, Atlanta and Charlotte. Scenes of Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Hartman kissing were nevertheless removed when it was shown in theaters in those and other southern cities, where many states had laws against what they called “race-mixing”. Overall, A Patch of Blue (1965) still proved to be a step in the right direction, and casting agents, directors, and producers began lining up to cast him in films that would later be regarded as some of his best and most well-known, like To Sir, With Love (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). This picture in particular still remains the closest one to my heart of all of Mr. Poitier’s roles, especially due to the ingenious direction by Guy Green. His decision to shoot the film in black and white when he could have very easily produced it in color is a stellar artistic choice on its own, and the audience being visually limited, even if it isn’t on the same scale as Selina D’Arcey, adds subtle meaning to the finished product. All in all, I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking to watch a poignant and underrated classic on his nintieth birthday.