In the springtime of 1982 Marc Singer was still about six months away from becoming a genre icon with The Beastmaster in theaters and about a year away from cementing that status by fighting evil, lizard-faced alien invaders in television’s V. Despite my lifelong status as typically being one of the bigger geeks in whatever company I was keeping, it was just about this time when I discovered Marc Singer as an actor in a non-genre film in what is still to this day my favorite of his many roles.
If You Could See What I Hear was promoted as an inspirational biopic based on the autobiography of actor, writer, producer, singer, and author Tom Sullivan. Picking up with and keeping largely in his college years, the film focuses on Tom Sullivan’s (Marc Singer) hijinks with his best buddy Will Sly (R.H. Thomson) as they try to get through school around long hours of chasing women, drinking way too much, figuring out ways to make ends meet, and, in Tom’s case, performing on the piano wherever he can get the work and acing games of golf. Oh, there’s also the fact that Tom is blind.
As the character of Tom Sullivan explains in the film while correcting someone who refers to him as having been born blind, Tom was a premature birth baby. He was placed in an incubator at the hospital to save his life, but, as occasionally happened back then, too much oxygen was pumped into the incubator. This really was a thing that happened back in the day. The increased oxygen would cause the blood vessels in the eye to become overdeveloped and thus damage the retina. Before Dr. Arnell Patz was able to convince the medical community that upping the oxygen supply in incubators was the culprit in a growing epidemic of blindness in premature birth babies, over 10,000 premature birth babies had been blinded by this practice.
Tom Sullivan decided while growing up that he wanted to be seen as equal to everyone else despite his blindness, and he assumed he’d have to be better than anyone else at anything he chose to do in order to be seen as equal. It’s this Tom Sullivan we get as Marc Singer’s character in the film. Whether it’s about having the quickest wit, coming up with the craziest plans, handling his beer better than everyone else, getting the prettiest women to fall for him, or attempting to out-do the sighted at various sports, the Tom Sullivan of the film is a character who goes all out in his pursuit of life.
The film starts with the first meeting of Sullivan and Sly in the college’s gymnasium showers, giving us an exchange that lets us know these two will grow into the perfect partners in crime. From there we basically dive straight in to Sullivan and Sly’s misadventures in college. In the case of Sullivan, this very often involves the pursuit of the fairer sex. Enter into the picture Heather, played by Shari Belafonte.
Heather’s initial reaction to Tom is seemingly more bemusement than genuine interest, but she eventually agrees to go on a date with him. Their relationship becomes a fun part of the first third of the film, and the chemistry between Singer and Belafonte (and Thompson) really makes some of their scenes together work better than they might otherwise have done. From the storytelling point of view, her presence in the film also serves to both break Sullivan’s heart in order to set him up for the second act romance as well as providing us some small look at how Tom’s lack of sight impacts how he sees some racial matters.
Eventually, as should be obvious from what I just wrote, Heather chooses to break things off with Tom. While still having feelings for him, the idea of struggling against the societal norms of that era with regards to perception of race starts to become too much for her to consider going further with the relationship. Based on the things she’d experienced growing up, the idea of struggling against the prejudices against a mixed race couple would be hard enough by her point of view, but struggling with some of the societal prejudices against the handicapped on top of that would be too big of a hurdle to deal with. Tom objects, but she’s already started things in motion to leave the area for a different school and job opportunities.
Tom’s way of dealing with the lowest of lows in his life is to overcompensate on having fun. He seeks out “fun” as a diversion to almost dangerous levels. Sly is there for much of this, working in equal parts as Tom’s enabler and (sometimes) as a check on his more extreme impulses.
Tom is just about over Heather when Patti (Sarah Torgov) enters his life. Patti isn’t like most of the girls Tom typically falls for. She’s far more devoutly religious than he is, she takes things in a relationship far slower than he likes, and she’s generally more interested in what she sees as him than she is in the over the top persona he typically puts on public display. She captivates him and frustrates him to just about equal levels as their relationship grows, but, despite a few screw-ups and setbacks along the way, it becomes clear that this woman is going to be the love of his life.
For all that I’ve just written that makes the film itself seemingly come across as too serious or looking at some societal issues of the day through an analytical lens, that’s all for the most part only noticeable if you’re actively looking for it while you’re watching it. For the bits I’ve written that make the film come across as primarily a romance, it’s not. While aspects of all of those things is certainly there to greater or lesser degrees, the film is through and through, with very few exceptions, a laugh out loud comedy.
Tom and Sly as characters in the film are hilariously funny. Both characters are written with a level of intelligence and wit about them, and the way Singer and Thomson play the characters off of one another is typically engagingly hilarious. Almost all of the characters throughout the film come across as people you’d want to hang out with because you know you’d spend an evening laughing nonstop. Many of the moments depicted on screen are almost infectious in how gleefully silly and fun they are.
Well, there is one scene that very much does not fit that category. This scene involves an incident in a swimming pool. It’s actually a very intense, chilling scene. The emotional punch of what happens and the moment of darker revelation for Tom about how much of the world may see him is magnified greatly at the start of the ending credits when it’s revealed that this incident actually took place later in the life of the real Tom Sullivan with someone far closer to him than was depicted in the scene.
If You Could See What I Hear hasn’t been available on the US video retail market since the days of VHS. It can typically be found on the web somewhere at any given moment, most often on YouTube as an upload by fans. It’s a genuinely fun film, and worth tracking down and watching if you’ve never seen it before. Seek it out, watch it, enjoy it, and then start pestering the powers that be for a good quality print on DVD and/or Blu-Ray.
Jerry Chandler does geek stuff. When not doing geek stuff, he does only slightly less geeky stuff. When not doing only slightly less geeky stuff he can be found sleeping, but nowhere near often enough lately.
Be sure to join the Needless Things Podcast Facebook Group and get in on the conversation for this week’s episode! Let us know what you think!
Phantom Troublemaker's Patreon is now LIVE! This is your chance to directly support and influence Needless Things, the Needless Things Podcast, and all of Phantom's projects. Check out the rewards and the support levels and decide if you want to be an Official Phantomaniac!