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.