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The Short Life of Elizabeth Hartman : Instant Stardom in 'Patch of Blue,' Then Unemployment, Then Suicide

November 22, 1987|SANDRA HANSEN KONTE | Konte is a San Francisco journalist

"We had a party in our apartment. My husband was in law school then, and half the school was there, and most of the local press. We were so proud. The Academy Awards were something you watch from the time you're a little kid, and there Biff was."

Hartman's daydreams had come true. Film offers began to pour in. But the overnight star, who should have been ecstatic, was surprisingly pensive.

"When they bring people to meet me, you can see the look of disappointment. But I can't be anything but what I am, or I couldn't sleep at night. Perhaps for this reason, my career won't be successful."

And Dennis, who saw Hartman immediately after the first screening of "A Patch of Blue," recalls: "She said everybody else was wonderful. But she was invisible."

Really, my life has been so unhappy since I made that film. --Elizabeth Hartman, 1969 interview.

The film catalogue of Hartman is a very brief one. After "Patch of Blue," she played a sexually repressed wife in "The Group" (with Candice Bergen and Joan Hackett); a shy waif in "The Fixer" (with Alan Bates), a psychotic go-go dancer in Francis Coppola's first major film, "You're a Big Boy Now" (with Geraldine Page and Julie Harris); a repressed schoolteacher in "Beguiled" (starring Eastwood and Page) and the victimized wife in "Walking Tall."

Although her output was not prodigious, critics continued to admire her work. (Richard Schickel, who loathed "You're a Big Boy Now," wrote, "If anything, she is too strong and artful for her surroundings, and the harsh light of her work, spilling over the rest of the film, intensifies one's sense of dismay with its juvenility.")

Nonetheless, her career never quite took off. There are many theories why.

Her former agent, Howard Rubin, claims the offers were there, but for the wrong films. "We got 20 blind girls, deaf girls, crippled girls. Name the handicap and there was a script for it."

Says Dennis, who married Hartman in 1969: "The role in 'Patch of Blue' was one an actress gets once in a lifetime. She wasn't perceived as a comedienne, and she was a wonderful comic actress. She wasn't offered glamorous roles. If she was going to keep getting parts where she was hesitant or insecure, she didn't want them. But the other parts didn't seem to exist."

Dennis says she was offered the ingenue role in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." "But it was just another alternative on the white girl/black man theme, offered to Biff with Hollywood's usual lack of imagination."

Hartman blamed the studio, claiming that her ascent began when the star-making machinery was disintegrating along with it.

"I'm the last product of the star build-up," she said in 1971. "But there was no follow-through. It got to the point where I died."

But Janet Shoop believes part of the responsibility rested with Hartman herself. "She was a dreamer. We kept telling her to sell herself. We'd tell her, 'This is a hard business.' She had such an idealistic view. She'd say, 'You don't go selling yourself, you stand on your record.' She'd audition for roles. But there was none of the using of contacts. That would seem bad to her.

"She liked work and applause. She liked making films better than anything else. But she didn't want to deal with the reality of the profession. She was capable of acting, but she lacked stamina, and she wasn't worldly enough to be a fighter. She never could do that very well."

An example of this--Hartman badly wanted the part of Pookie Adams in "The Sterile Cuckoo" (for which Liza Minnelli later was nominated for an Academy Award). She told an interviewer, "I read for it, and (director) Alan Pakula said, 'No, you're just not Pookie.' "

"What did you do?"

"I went home," she said simply.

Whatever the case, the shower of offers turned into a trickle, and Hartman became very depressed. When she returned to Broadway in 1969 to appear in a revival of "Our Town" with Henry Fonda, she voiced her disillusionment to the New York Times, in an article entitled prophetically, "After a Patch of Blue, Gray Skies."

She claimed that she had spent the past two years at home, just reading and brooding (Dennis says it was actually a few months). "In a way, I expected to fail. Everybody wants to see if you can live up to your big success. Well, the parts that followed just weren't that good."

When the inevitable money problems occurred, Hartman was urged to take on more lucrative roles. At first, she claimed she would never do so. "I wouldn't take any part because of the money," she told Seventeen. (Says Janet Shoop: "That might have been another reason for the decline in parts. She was a '60s intellectual snob in certain ways.")

But, in 1973, she did just that with "Walking Tall," the violent story of Southern sheriff Buford Pusser's campaign to clean up his town, at a risk to himself and his family. Hartman played the wife who was ambushed and killed. (Hartman hated violence and her sister says she never saw the film.)

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