When Cinderella Kissed Sidney Poitier

Elizabeth Hartman

The voice-over narration breathlessly wonders, “How many girls in America wish they could literally fly from their hometowns to Hollywood to be cast in a leading role for a major motion picture?” Eager to introduce its newest star, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer asked this question in 1965, in the short promotional film “A Cinderella Named Elizabeth.” This Cinderella, living a “dream come true,” was 21-year-old Elizabeth Hartman, fresh from Youngstown, Ohio. She soon made her film debut opposite Oscar winner Sidney Poitier in the landmark tearjerker A Patch of Blue, the first major American movie to feature an interracial kiss.

But Hartman had trouble adjusting to stardom. “All this has happened so fast,” she said. “I’m kind of misplaced.” Two decades later she was unemployed and had been frequently institutionalized. On June 10, 1987, Hartman threw herself from the window of her Pittsburgh apartment. Her ex-husband, screenwriter Gill Dennis, later said, “Nobody ever knew what happened to Cinderella after the ball. Yes, dreams can come true, but, for some people, life can be even harder when they do.”

A Patch of Blue, based on Elizabeth Kata’s 1961 novel Be Ready With Bells and Drums, is the story of Selina D’Arcey, a blind white girl living in poverty with her racist prostitute mother (played by Shelley Winters in an Oscar-winning performance). Selina meets Gordon Ralfe in the park one day; a kind, gentle man, he befriends her, and Selina falls in love with him. Only eventually does she learn what the audience has known all along: Gordon is black.

How is it that black people have these powers but they use them for the benefit of white people?

Director Guy Green picked Hartman over 150 other young women who had tested for the role. She was likened to Katharine Hepburn, and her first agent remembered, “When you looked at her screen test, her raw talent just leapt out of the film.” A Patch of Blue is pure melodrama, but Hartman’s and Poitier’s performances elevate it into something beautiful and poignant. Hartman is a revelation as Selina; her raw openness and honesty is at times almost painful to watch, and the viewer cannot help but love and root for this character. Hartman’s sister remembered that Hartman “became the character she was playing. When she was doing A Patch of Blue, she would come home to the apartment she and my mother were staying in, and she would still be Selina. I remember they gave her these dark contact lenses to wear to play a blind girl. She wore them all the time; she never left the character.” Her debut performance also got Hartman an Oscar nod; at the time, she was the youngest woman to be nominated for best actress.

The film’s interracial romance, however, was what made history. Even though the eight-second kiss between the stars was edited out by most Southern theater owners, it still generated bomb threats and a Ku Klux Klan protest. Yet in Atlanta, A Patch of Blue broke the box-office record held by Gone With the Wind, and the movie became Poitier’s biggest box-office hit to date. By this point, Poitier had grown tired of never having a love interest in his films. “Either there were no women or there was a woman, but she was blind,” he said, “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.

In a 2001 speech at Yale, director Spike Lee lambasted Hollywood for perpetuating the stereotype of the “magical, mystical Negro.” Lee asked his audience, “How is it that black people have these powers but they use them for the benefit of white people?” Black playwright Clifford Mason had raised this question decades earlier in his 1967 New York Times article “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” Mason had no use for A Patch of Blue and wondered if Poitier were running a “Black Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Blind White Girls.” Poitier, who had become the first African American to win the best actor Oscar (in 1963 for Lilies of the Field, in which he transforms the lives of a convent full of white nuns), was not unaware that his tremendous box-office success was built on cultivating a safe image with white audiences. Poitier told Ebony magazine, in 1968, that he had “never worked in a man-woman relationship that was not symbolic.”

In 1966, after the success of A Patch of Blue, Hartman won the Golden Globe for most promising female newcomer, and the American Film Exhibitors voted her one of their stars of tomorrow. She next appeared in The Group, followed by Francis Ford Coppola’s first major film, You’re a Big Boy Now, and, later, The Fixer, The Beguiled and Walking Tall. But her periods of depression became more frequent, and she worked less and less. Her last screen credit was for voice work as Mrs. Brisby in the 1982 animated film The Secret of NIMH. After her death, her neighbors told reporters they heard she had once been an actor and had made a movie with Sidney Poitier; a Pittsburgh detective described her death as an “ordinary suicide.” But anyone who has seen Hartman’s touching performance in A Patch of Blue knows she was anything but ordinary. Upon learning of his former costar’s death, Poitier said, “She was a wonderful actress and a truly gentle person. We have lost a distinguished artist.”

Photo courtesy of Everett