Thursday, April 26, 2007

Blue for Elizabeth Hartman

Few pieces of music have expressed my own recurrent melancholy over the years as well as the Jerry Goldsmith score for the 1965 black-and-white film A Patch of Blue. Few actresses enfleshed the feeling of sometimes being "like a motherless child," as the spiritual has it, better than Elizabeth Hartman, who played the young and blind Selina D'Arcy.

Music, directing and acting meshed particularly well in A Patch of Blue.

The score is dominated by a soft, soft piano used in the impressionistic manner of Erik Satie and a wistful harmonica, at the time a Goldsmith score trademark, which distinctively Americanizes the sound. As Aaron Copland once remarked of his own Appalachian Spring suite while in rehearsal, Goldsmith achieved a sound that is "Amerikanisch ... the sentiment's not expressed on the face."

The director specifically chose black and white, when color was readily available. It made a point crystal clear against the backdrop of the then-growing civil rights movement.

The fresh-faced, freckled and pale Hartman was aptly chosen over Patty Duke and Hayley Mills to play a blind urban Southern adolescent girl who lives in her drunken grandfather's grimy tenement apartment with her tawdry mother (Shelley Winters). She plays her handicaps the way the music plays its sentiment, in a restrained, accepting way that is all the more touching, without ever crossing over to the cloying.

Taken to the park one day by the kindly employer for whom she strings cheap necklaces, she chances to befriend an educated professional man whom she does not realize is black (Sidney Poitier).

I won't spoil the film any further, but perhaps the premise hints at the poignancy that was brought to mind a few days ago, when I brought out the film score vintage record (yes, vinyl LP) sitting in my collection.

Then I realized that I had never again seen Hartman on the silver screen.

Hartman was nominated for the Oscar in 1966 as best actress for the performance. However, it was headliner Winters, then a veteran, who was given the film's only Oscar (the score, cinematography and setting were also nominated). Hartman's work on the film did, however, win her a Golden Globe for most promising female newcomer.

What was Hartman, who turned 22 on the year of the film, up to now?

A little bit of googling gave me a quick answer: she died on June 10, 1987, in a fall from her fifth-floor apartment in Pittsburgh, in a suspected suicide while undergoing psychiatric treatment for depression.

She had told an interviewer in 1969 that Patch had the ironic effect of beating her down, as she never met similar success ever again, despite a number of roles opposite famous actors for roughly 20 years after that film. Hers was an understandable feeling in the cutthroat world of acting; perhaps it was made worse by the collapse of her marriage several years before her death.

So few people, however, have the chance to make a similar impact on such important topics at such a key historical moment. In the minds of all who watched her for just that one film, I would venture, she remains a success whose demise turns a little patch of our hearts blue.
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