The introduction of Selina, Elizabeth Hartman’s character, and the actress herself, starts from the first seconds of the film A Patch of Blue.
The viewer sees her hands that move along and around when she is stringing beads. From this first scene with a close-up of the girl’s hands, the audience can understand, consciously or subconsciously, that there is something special about these movements and the girl who makes them. No sighted person would touch the objects in such a manner. To the sighted majority, the world is a place experienced first and foremost through visual images.
In contrast, people deprived of sight have to switch to other information sources, such as ears to hear, nose to smell and hands or skin to touch. To Selina, the world is a combination of shapes, sounds and smells, and Hartman manages to involve the viewer into this world through empathy and, obviously, through her brilliant acting. The latter is realized via various tools of the craft of acting, such as performing in the extreme physical and environmental conditions, attention to objectives and obstacles, endowment and painting a picture with words. According to the film trivia, Elizabeth Hartman wore non-transparent lenses that literally deprived her of her otherwise good eyesight.
Thus, interestingly, the issue of endowment that was aimed to visually introduce the protagonist’s eye defect to the viewers, happened to play the secondary though not least important role of “blinding” the actress. In other words, an element of the film’s mise-en-scene that was a part of the heroine’s external image served the purpose of introducing the actress to the world of the people with special needs, one of whom she portrayed. Hartman temporarily submerged into the world where eyes are no longer the primary means of assessing the world. She had to establish an alien, qualitatively new contact with the environment as a blind person would do in his or her first years of blindness, be it acquired or inborn. She had to learn how to interact with her immediate environment of objects and people, such as her acting partner Sidney Poitier who played Gordon Ralfe. Evidently, Hartman’s imposed blindness was not absolute.
She could still distinguish colors, shapes and, most importantly, light and darkness, which means there was plenty of room for the woman to act. In one of the chapters, Uta Hagen discusses endowment and how a “cup of cold water becomes hot coffee and stays that way” (113). For Hartman, lenses became her half-full cup of hot coffee. In sum, a relatively simple part of a character image, such as lenses, evolved from a matter of endowment into a means of making blindness real, both for the audience and the actress.
In regard to the aforementioned endowment issue, it would be appropriate to discuss the obstacles to and in Hartman’s acting. Interestingly, both the lenses and the remaining sight unimpaired by them became an obstacle for the actress. The lenses were the real, non-far-fetched obstacle. Unlike the obstacles described by Hagen, where the actor had to search for or even invent hindrance that would create the drama in their acting, lenses actually made Hartman disabled.
She was not fully faking her disorientation in space or difficulty moving around objects and people. Thus, lenses created an actual physical obstacle for Hartman’s performance as a sighted individual. However, the lenses also helped Elizabeth to get used to her role of a blind girl since they made blindness real for her. Interestingly, Hartman’s remaining sight unhindered by the lenses also became an obstacle. The actress had to ignore the signals that came from her eyes and the instinct to turn her head towards the light source or the acting partners, especially the usual need to establish an eye contact.
The blurry shapes that Hartman’s eyes perceived became her acting obstacle. To that matter, the actress’s eyes became her hindrance on the way to a true portrayal of a blind girl. Thus, eye sight – both its hindered and functional parts – was a double obstacle. “Obstacles will be inherent in, or spring from any element of, the given material: from the character itself and from the objects themselves” (Hagen 181). In A Patch of Blue, blindness came from the character and lenses, and the remaining ability and “temptation” to see came from the actress’s seeing eyes.
Hartman dealt with both. In general, environment and the female protagonist’s interaction with it in A Patch of Blue is crucial to the actress’s performance, as well as the viewer’s perception of the film’s realities. “Identifying the specific sensory elements of the environment can stimulate the actor and help with the character’s emotional life in a scene” (“Lecture Notes”). In Hartman’s case with playing Selina, the word “sensory” from the aforecited utterance becomes pivotal.
The immediate environment, i. e. all props, and each scene’s greater context present the variety of objects with which the actress had to contact, physically and emotionally. The art of Hartman’s performance in this respect can be seen in many scenes. For example, one cannot but be impressed by the way Selina comes to a window, opens it and looks into it.
Evidently, being blind, the protagonist could not see the street. A question arises, what does this act mean for Selina or for the cinematic reality of A Patch of Blue? In fact, her actions express and symbolize another essential idea apart from “seeing”, namely the act of waiting, the idea of looking forward to something or someone. The unintended pun in the phrase “looking forward to” said in regard to a blind girl is, per se, dramatic and symbolic. Other bright instance of Hartman’s interaction with the environment is the scene when Selina goes half-way around the tree and comes back over the same side instead of ending a full circle (like a sighted person would do). Thus, through Selina’s character, Hartman feels the world around her and brings it to the viewer.
Another important element that shaped Hartman’s performance in the film is Selina’s objectives. “The actions of human beings are governed, more than anything else, by what they want” (Hagen 174). A special role in A Patch of Blue is given to the so-called super objectives. Super objectives are the quintessence, the apogees, the paramount of all objectives. “Super objectives may include the need for power, control, love, respect, or validation” (“Lecture Notes”). Evidently, Selina did not seek power or empowerment either as a representative of the blind community or as a female fighting for women’s rights and emancipation.
In fact, the girl did not even know that her subdued and subservient position in society and family was a problem. Respectively, she did not crave or struggle for validation or respect, not to mention control. From the above list of super objectives, only one seems to fit Selina’s case – love. The girl’s need for being happy via being in touch with the loved one is the kernel of Selina’s life after meeting Gordon. The man gives her life a purpose, an aim and, most symbolically, color. A new life becomes Selina’s purpose in itself and Hartman’s focus in acting.
It is difficult to distinguish whether tolerance – the conceptual core of the film, – including racial tolerance, was inherent to the actress or the character. It is the acting axiom that, “Actors must always use themselves when creating and building a character”, but one never knows what part of the acting is genuine (“Lecture Notes”). Regardless of her attitude or thanks to it, the actress played a true racial “tolerance”. Either way, Hartman’s enacting of the black-and-white love was credible.
It is important to mention that Hartman’s play would not be so deep if not for the greater social context in which Selina’s objectives take place. Indeed, the 1960s was the decade when many social shifts occurred that brought society and its certain groups from marginal positions to the mainstream society. For example, Gordon shows the girl how the needs of handicapped people are gradually included into social life through elements like the button on a traffic light for blind or an opportunity to ask for operator’s assistance from a phone booth. However, Gordon himself is an integral part of the social turmoil of the decade. In spite of the victories of the African-American civil rights movements of the 1960s, the integration of “people of color” into the mainstream society was not yet absolute. Undoubtedly, the movie’s being black-and-white in the era when colored film was already available is nothing but a director’s symbolic hint on the problem.
For Selina, who did not see the colors and for whom the world was all black, skin color was not an issue. Unlike many other contemporaries, the blind girl could see beyond the exterior right into the essence of the human nature and loved Gordon for who he was inside. It makes her super objective of being happy and loved pure and absolute. Last but not the least, one more special acting technique that should not be omitted while analyzing the film A Patch of Blue is the art of painting a picture with words.
Selina’s world is a mystery to an average viewer. One can only close one’s eyes and try to imagine what it would be like to live in darkness. By the way, Gordon tried to do the same trick in one of the scenes, and it did not end well, nor was it easy. In this respect, Selina’s words and descriptions of her sensations become an important source of the insight into the blind world. For example, Selina talks to her grandfather who is concerned about her staying outside after sunset, “Dark’s nothing to me.
I’m always in the dark” (“A Patch of Blue”). Also, Selina says to Gordon the day they meet, “Your voice sounds tall” (“A Patch of Blue”). A sighted person would never use such words to describe a voice. For Selina, Gordon’s voice is not merely a sound, but also the source of understanding how tall the man is. Finally, Selina reads a Braille book for the first time and says excitedly, “I never knew you could feel words” (“A Patch of Blue”). In conclusion, Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue incorporates and brilliantly uses many tools of the craft of acting, such as performing in the extreme physical and environmental conditions, endowment, attention to objectives and obstacles, as well as painting a picture with words.
The viewers observe many instances when Selina tries to “see” the world through sound, smell and, mostly, through touch. In this blind world, Hartman manages to be realistic and true when interacting with the physical environment in her lenses, or portraying a girl to whom color is of no relevance in the relationship fueled by a desire to love and be loved that has been aroused by a black man. In addition, Hartman touches the strings in the viewers’ hearts by tying her portrayal of the white blind girl to the decade of 60s, a turbulent time in the American history. Such a multifaceted actor’s performance makes the film look and feel real.
A Patch of Blue. Dir. Guy Green. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1965. Film.
Hagen, Uta. Respect for Acting. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 1973. Web.