A Patch of Blue
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After becoming the first African-American performer to win a Best Actor Oscar®, for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1963), Sidney Poitier had emerged as such a box-office force that MGM's Pandro S. Berman declared he would produce A Patch of Blue (1965) only if Poitier agreed to play the leading role. Based on a novel by Australian novelist Elizabeth Kata, the script told of a friendship between a black man and a young white woman who has been blinded by her sadistic, bigoted mother and is therefore unaware that her new friend is of a different race.
Once Poitier had committed to the project, he worked with Berman and writer-director Guy Green in updating the screenplay and making it more attuned to his onscreen personality. In the novel, the girl shares some of her mother's prejudices and reacts traumatically when she discovers the truth, pushing her newfound friend into the hands of racist vigilantes. "Nothing of that kind was left in the picture, the meaning of which depended on the fact that she did not mind discovering her friend's Negro origin," Berman commented. Thus, as re-envisioned by Poitier and his associates, the story takes on a much more optimistic tone; even though the friends eventually part, each has benefited from the relationship.
MGM tested 150 unknowns before signing Elizabeth Hartman as Poitier's costar. "I believe I was lacking the things they wanted an actress to lack," the Youngstown, Ohio native modestly commented to Sidney Skolsky at the time. The columnist observed that the 24-year-old Hartman was "shy, timid - She always takes her Raggedy-Ann doll to bed with her." Although she would appear in a half-dozen other films, Hartman grew increasingly reclusive with the years and died at 45 in a fall from her fifth-floor apartment, an apparent suicide.
Shelley Winters, cast as the monstrous mother, said in interviews that it was very difficult for her to speak the racial epithets used by her character in A Patch of Blue. "I've always found something to like in the characters I've played, but not this time," she said. "I really hate this woman." Despite her animosity toward the part, Winters won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar® for her shrewish performance. The film also was nominated in the categories of Best Actress (Hartman), Art Direction/Set Decoration, Black and White Cinematography and Original Score. Although neglected this time by Oscar, Poitier won a nomination for a British Academy Award as Best Foreign Actor.
A Patch of Blue proved a box-office winner, even in the South. In Atlanta, its first two weeks' grosses broke a record held by Gone With the Wind (1939). Old taboos still held, though; a modest, eight-second kiss between the leading characters was cut for Southern audiences. Poitier, meanwhile, had become frustrated by the limitations imposed upon his screen romances: "Either there were no women or there was a woman, but she was blind, or the relationship was of a nature that satisfied the taboos. I was at my wit's end when I finished A Patch of Blue."
Director: Guy Green
Producer: Pandro S. Berman, Guy Green, Kathryn Hereford (associate)
Screenplay: Guy Green, Elizabeth Kata (novel Be Ready With Bells and Drums)
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Urie McCleary
Cast: Sidney Poitier (Gordon Ralfe), Shelley Winters (Rose-Ann D'Arcey), Elizabeth Hartman (Selina D'arcey), Wallace Ford (Ole Pa), Ivan Dixon (Mark Ralfe), Elisabeth Fraser (Sadie), John Qualen (Mr. Faber), Kelly Flynn (Yanek Faber)
BW-106m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Roger Fristoe