Monday, May 18, 2015

façade: elizabeth hartman

Frail and incredibly touching, Elizabeth Hartman was arguably the most promising film actress of the mid-1960s, appearing in four diverse films in the space of three years, and then she disappeared, popping up in movies and on TV only occasionally until, sadly, she went away completely.

Time moves on and we tend to forget elusive people like Elizabeth Hartman. My thoughts returned to her when I read of the May 13th death of screen writer Gill Dennis, who was married to her from 1968 to 1984.  She was a footnote in his obiturary.  At the time of his death, Dennis was married to Kristen Peckinpah, a daughter of filmmaker Sam Peckinpah.


Hartman made her film debut in Guy Green's "A Patch of Blue," an unusually depressing film about a young blind woman (Hartman) who has an almost accidental relationship with a man (Sidney Poitier) who, unknown to her, is black.  Shelley Winters as her cruel mother, Wallace Ford as her cruel grandfather and Elisabeth Fraser as her mother's cruel friend make the film almost unwatchable.  But the role brought Hartman an Oscar nomination as best actress.  At age 22 (and at that time), she was the youngest person in that category to be nominated for an Oscar.

 

A year later, Hartman was part of Sidney Lumet's impressive ensemble in his film version of Mary McCarthy's ”The Group,”  playing the key role of Priss. At this early point in her film career, Hartman could do anything she desired.  Hollywood wanted her.  But she responded instead to a young filmmaker named Francis Ford Coppola who needed a "name" for his New Wave comedy, "You're a Big Boy Now."  The role was Barbara Darling, a go-go dance, a vamp and a sadist.  And Elizabeth Hartman, to her credit, signed on.  It was the only time that Elizabeth Hartman looked glamorous in a film.

And, reportedly, Coppola was forever grateful.

Hartman then went on to do John Frankenheimer's ”The Fixer” in 1968 as part of a British ensemble that included star Alan Bates, Dirk Bogarde, Ian Holm, Hugh Griffith and Georgia Brown. Around this time, Coppola was preparing "The Rain People" and wanted Hartman for the role of Natalie Revenna, a fed-up housewife who runs away from her marriage.  But Hartman, always insecure, wasn't emotionally ready for the role and Coppola had to opt for one of Hartman's co-stars from "The Group," Shirley Knight, who rewarded her director with a brilliant performance.

After taking off for a few years, Hartman returned to the screen for Don Siegel in his Clint Eastwood-Geraldine Page psychological Western, "The Beguiled" in 1971.  It would be her last role in an important film.

Her next film, had she made it, would have been even more important - and perhaps crucial to her career and her health.  She was Coppola's first choice for the role of Kay in his 1972 adaptation of Mario Puzo's "The Godfather."  But, again, life got in the way; Hartman remained insecure and emotionally fraught.  (The director was reportedly so grateful for her participation in "You're a Big Boy Now" that he wanted to reward her with a showcase female role in a big, largely all-male film.) The part of Kay eventually went to Diane Keaton who is the one weak link in "The Godfather," although in Keaton's defense, it's a poorly written role.

Frankly, I'm not sure that even an actress of Hartman's talent could have made it memorable.

The latter part of Hartman's career included only two film roles - in the original "Walking Tall" (1973), a red-neck drama starring Joe Don Baker, and, a decade later, as a voice in the animated "The Secret of NIMH" (1982), made by MGM - the studio that produced "A Patch of Blue."

Hartman went full circle, ending up where she had begun.

Before her death in 1987, she worked in a museum in Pittsburgh.  Elizabeth Hartman died on June 10th of that year, a victim of suicide.  She jumped to her death from a fifth story window.  She was 44.

16 comments:

Todd said...

I fear that the exquisite Elizabeth Hartman did not have the glossiness for Hollywood stardom or the stamina to want to strive for it. Sad because those first four films you mention certainly show that she had more than just a little potential.

Sharona Vickers said...

what a sad story. Her performance in "Patch of Blue" really stuck with me for years, having seen it at an impressionable age. Thank you for this fine tribute.

Sheila said...

Hartman remains one of Hollywood's missed opportunities. Thanks for reminding me of her.

Daryl Chin said...

One problem is to consider Elizabeth Hartman some sort of "victim", which wasn't true at all. It should be remembered that she had studied at Carnegie-Mellon, and then she was working in regional theater when she heard about the auditions for A PATCH OF BLUE, and she drove for two days just to try out for the role. She was signed by Pandro S. Berman to a contract (the same Pandro S. Berman who, when an executive at RKO in the 1930s, was responsible for the careers of Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers, and, in the 1940s, when he moved to MGM, was put in charge of the career of Lana Turner): he was going to make her a star on the order of K. Hepburn and G. Rogers. The first thing was his production of A PATCH OF BLUE; then he loaned her out for THE GROUP, the most publicized movie of its year. But while she was in NYC making THE GROUP, she met a young screenwriter, Francis Coppola, who gave her a script for a movie he hoped to direct. She liked him, and she liked the script, so she agreed to star in YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW (her acceptance - she was a recent Oscar nominee - guaranteed Coppola the production budget he wanted). Berman was furious: he did not approve of the project, he didn't want her to do it. Hartman stood her ground. She then did THE FIXER (which Berman had arranged), but his anger over her defiance caused a mutual dissolution of her contract. Even though the studio system was in disarray, enough of it survived so that the loss of her contract left her vulnerable. SHe wasn't exactly tough enough to fight for roles; in fact, she started having the emotional problems which led to institutionalization which would happen throughout the rest of her life.

Coppola knew this, knew what her decision to agree to do his movie had cost her, and he tried to show his loyalty. But her problems overwhelmed her, and she passed on THE RAIN PEOPLE and THE GODFATHER. But on the Zoetrope website, there was a tribute page to Elizabeth Hartman (i don't know if it's still there). But initially, Elizabeth Hartman showed the drive and the ambition necessary to be a star, and she was, for a short period.

joe baltake said...

Daryl- Thanks for the invaluable insight into Elizabeth Hartman's career and personality. Yes, she may have been frail and vulnerable but I love that she was also steadfast, especially in her conviction about and belief in Coppola. Nice also to know that he remembered and valued that. -J

kiki said...

Elizabeth Hartman -- wow, talk about dim memories . . . I confuse her with so many of that "type" of that era just like people will confuse Amy Adams, Rachel MacAdams etc years from now.

Alex said...

Do you think that Hartman had suggest Shirley Knight for the role in "The Rain People," given that they had just worked together on "The Group"?

joe baltake said...

Alex- I'd like to think so. -J

Charlotte said...

She was exquisite and, as you say, quite touching. I wish I could have seen her in more. I wish she would have done more. A true loss.

Brian Lucas said...

You overlooked that Hartman appeared in two films with Geraldine Page - "You're a Big Boy Now" and "The Beguilded."

joe baltake said...

Ooops!

Patty said...

I remember reading in one of her obituaries about how Elizabeth Hartman would tell the people she worked with in Pittsburgh that she was once in the movies and how no one believed her. Very sad.

a.n. said...

FYI. An IMDB check showed her last film appearance in 1981 Full Moon High

Marvin said...

Wonderful post about Ms. Hartman, Joe.

Tsar said...

Her last role was actually Larry Cohen's Full Moon High filmed in 1979 and shelved until 1981

joe baltake said...

Tsar- Thanks! -J