She was a sexy blonde when she began films but returned to her natural brunette for most of her career. Regardless of hair color or the types of roles, she always impressed me as someone who had something on someone else. Her molasses voice made one sit up and listen and then she lowered her head and fixed those smoldering eyes on you, which seemed to be saying she knew something you didn't. Sometimes I studied her so intently that I would lose track of the story. What a fascinating creature.
Whether on or off the screen, her spirit was indomitable. In her vixenish roles, she could be lethal. Even when she played decent characters, she was proud and formidable and one never took her for granted. Off the screen, well, let's just say her screen roles, fine as they are, were just a blip for what was to come. She certainly lived a life packed with drama and tragedy.
She was born into a coal mining family in Kentucky in 1926. Acting got under her skin around the age of 10 and she never waivered from her aspirations. She began appearing in school plays and did a dramatic reading and won a Tennessee State Award for her efforts. She apprenticed at a theater in Virginia while still in high school. She then attended the prestigious drama school at Chicago's Northwestern University where some of her one-day-famous classmates were Paul Lynde, Charlotte Rae, Cloris Leachman, Martha Hyer and Charlton Heston.
She left the university after two years and hightailed it to New York to make fame and fortune. Always a bit cynical (which showed up in many a film role), she was also determined to make it... in fact there was no doubt. She quickly landed an understudy part in The Voice of the Turtle which, in turn, led to a role as the teenage Regina in Lillian Hellman's play, Another Part of the Forest. She and the crusty Hellman became good pals. The experience spurred two other noteworthy events... she won a Tony for her performance and Warner Bros came a-calling.
She had always thought of the stage when she dreamt of acting but maybe this Hollywood scene might work out, she told herself. It should have become immediately apparent that she was at the right studio for her. Everyone there was cynical, tough, mouthy and ambitious. She would fit in just fine.
She almost immediately began an affair with Ronald Reagan who was not only enjoying a brief time as a respected star rather than a buddy-type costar but he would be her leading man in her first film, John Loves Mary (1949). It's a comedy concerning a GI who marries a Brit so she can get into the U.S. to be with the man she actually loves and then discovers he is married to someone else. Rather bland and dated by today's standards, nonetheless, it featured charming performances from Neal, Reagan and Jack Carson.
She was rather excited to be cast as the wilful and treacherous Dominique in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (1949). It was an uncompromising look at a visionary architect's struggles with big business. A far cry from John and Mary, she was excited to show people what she could accomplish as an actress. For the most part, I think she succeeded. In fact, that's about all I could really say about the film on the plus side. I didn't read the novel but imagine the film never came up to its standards. I recall that Rand was involved in the film process or is that too involved? I thought the writing bashed my sensibilities, trying to strong-arm me. If the screenplay could have been in a text, it would have been in all caps. It begged for subtlety.
|With her great love, Gary Cooper|
The star of The Fountainhead is Gary Cooper and he and Neal fell madly, passionately in love. A number of folks chalked it off to an on-set romance but is was way more than that. Unlike her affair with Reagan, neither of whom was married at the time, Cooper was. She very much regretted being painted as the scarlet woman, the homewrecker, but said she just couldn't help herself. On Cooper's part, he and his wife, Rocky, had agreed to an open marriage but not on the scale of a love affair. And once the Neal affair became public knowledge, Rocky suffered severe embarrassment and Neal became a pariah. But while Cooper was a serial womanizer, love wasn't a concern... until Neal.
Had the affair been known at the time she made The Hasty Heart (1949), she might have been laughed off the screen for her part as kindly, noble nurse. She was teamed again with Reagan and European actor Richard Todd in his U.S. film debut. A sentimental tale about the end of the war in Burma, it took place in a hospital setting as the boys prepare to get better and go home. All except for one who hasn't been told he will not be going home because he's going to die.
Neal was ecstatic to be signed to star in the tobacco saga, Bright Leaf (1950), because Cooper would again be her leading man, but she coveted the part assigned to Lauren Bacall (who didn't want to be in the movie at all). I largely saw it as riding on the coattails of The Fountainhead with tobacco instead of architecture and a second woman's part added. Neal was again the bitch role. I liked this one well enough although its inability to lift itself out of soap suds didn't warrant this most capable cast of actors.
The Breaking Point (1950) was one of Neal's favorite films. It was actually based on Hemingway's To Have and Have Not but that title was used five years earlier for the Bogie & Bacall film. The author's plot was gutted from that version and then reinstated for The Breaking Point. Neal played the other woman who is fooling around with a married boat captain, John Garfield. They made a provocative team, both having such a good understanding of their roles.
|Roman, Neal & Parker taking it all seriously|
My own favorite of Neal's work (and hers, too) at WB was Three Secrets (1950). It was the story of three women, each of whom had had a child she gave up for adoption. All now wonder whether a child, the sole survivor of a plane crash, might be hers (each had a child born on the survivor's date of birth). It provided an engaging twist at the end. The episodic drama, which takes place just below the mountainous crash site, costarred Eleanor Parker and Ruth Roman. Neal and Parker became good pals.
She and Warner Bros came to an understanding... they had a mutual dislike for one another. She was most unhappy with her roles and could be very stubborn. (I'm aware of plenty of actors whose early body of work was far worse than Neal's.) Taking a number of suspensions in her short time with the studio, the bottom fell out when she adamantly refused to do a Randolph Scott western. (This is where I should note that most serious actresses didn't want to be in a Randolph Scott western.) In truth, the studio mainly held her rather public affair with Cooper against her. They let her go before her contract had expired. She didn't care.
She signed a deal at 20th Century Fox for three or four films, most of which were so-so. There was one exception. Director Robert Wise admired her work and signed her to appear opposite one of Fox's most reliable standbys, Michael Rennie, in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Science fiction in the form of monster movies in the 1950s was often unintentionally funny, filmed on the cheap, with bad acting but a new one seemed to pop up every week. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a bit of an exception. It's not my favorite genre but I admit to not only liking this one, but actually owning it. (This is just between you and me.) Rennie plays Klaatu, an alien who comes to Earth to warn us to live peacefully or be destroyed as a danger to other planets. We'll see how that works out. Neal most effectively played the concerned mother of a boy (Billy Gray, later playing Bud on TVs Father Knows Best) who become involved with Klaatu.
In 1952 her complicated love affair with Cooper petered out. Even before they officially closed it down, each had been seeing other people... Cooper's, who had not returned to his wife, were strictly sexual encounters, while Neal just liked going on dates and being photographed. Kirk Douglas was a frequent escort. Because of the nature of her relationship with Cooper, she had endured an abortion and public scrutiny but it might have been more tolerable had she had a commitment from Cooper, which she could never get.
They'd been having some issues. The finale came when over the phone she basically threatened to end the relationship because she just couldn't go on anymore the way it was. She meant it, perhaps at some level but it was likely said more as a wedge or an attention-getter. She needed to be heard. He needed to know that no matter what else may be said, she was hurting, too. And what was his response? In a typical Gary Cooper style... ok. And he walked out of her life.
She never got over him. He was the one who got away. She had a nervous breakdown, that seems clear. Somehow she completed a couple of films at Fox but she felt she was in a daze most of the time. She decided to get out of Hollywood and away from opportunities to run into Cooper or any of her enemies. She didn't feel any better when she heard Cooper and Rocky reconciled (and remained married until his death). She moved to New York and re-involved herself in the hectic pace of live television and the stage. She also joined The Actor's Studio.
On the latter she worked for her friend, Lillian Hellman, in her lesbian drama, The Children's Hour. Kim Hunter would play the other role. They and it were a sensation. Neal could only have wished she heard this much acclaim in Hollywood. Hellman threw a party with the obvious intention of matching up Neal with the British children's author, Roald Dahl. I would have thought she would have been a little too high-maintenance for a stuffy old sod like Dahl, but their 1953 marriage, which many whispered was a rebound thing, lasted for 30 years.
She received more good notices as Helen Keller's mother in the Broadway production of The Miracle Worker, along with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. She then did a turn playing Maggie the Cat in Elia Kazan's Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and it was through her association with Kazan that she returned to the movies.
|Lee Remick & Neal snuggling up to Andy Griffith|
A Face in the Crowd (1957) is one of those films Neal is most remembered for. She plays a southern media producer who latches onto a country bumpkin and turns him into a media sensation and demagogue, laced with fascist overtones. It could, of course, never happen today. Neal's portrayal of the shrewd producer showed she'd lost none of her sassy touch. She was certainly in touch with her southern roots and would be again in a performance that would earn her an Oscar. Kazan's cast was dazzling... Andy Griffith and Lee Remick in their film debuts and Walter Matthau and Anthony Franciosa in early roles.
By 1960, Neal and Dahl had had three of their five children. The youngest at that time was their only son, Theo, who was just four months old. His nurse had him out one day for a stroll when his carriage somehow got caught between a bus and a taxi cab in New York. The baby had several operations and luckily managed to survive. He must have been a tough little man, like his mama.
Even though A Face in the Crowd was a wonderful experience for Neal, she remained off the big screen for four years. Nothing would get in the way of spending time with her baby son. When she returned to movie-making, it would be in her first truly supporting role and in a film that would gain a gargantuan reputation, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961).
Neal played the elegant benefactress of a gorgeous man who is trying to write a book and becomes a big edgy when he becomes involved with his kooky downstairs neighbor. Neal had only one scene with Audrey Hepburn but found her to be a real gem. The same couldn't be said for the boytoy, George Peppard, and she had all her scenes with him. She thought Georgie had gone Hollywood and was an impossible ass.
In 1962, just as she was about to start a new film, and one that excited her, Neal's eldest child, seven-year old Olivia, unexpectedly died from measles. The family huddled together and ultimately regained its strength.
In the iconic Hud (1963), the part of Alma, the worn-out cook and housekeeper to a Texas, all-male, rundown farm family, is the role for which Neal is most remembered. It was a brief but astonishing performance of a woman bereft of joy and wrapped in cynicism, something that Neal knew a little about. She said that again it was a happy set and that Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas and Brandon deWilde were a blessing to be around at that time. Alma would win this marvelous actress the Oscar.
|Alma was tempted, yes, but she didn't like his manner|
In 1964 she had her fourth child, Ophelia, and by early 1965 she was working on John Ford's last film, 7 Women. It was certainly an unusual film for a man's man type like Ford to be making. Many might have clucked that Ford didn't know much about women, but here he was steering a story of missionary women in 1935 China being menaced by a Mandarin warlord. Neal had the starring role as an embittered doctor.
In February 1965, Neal, three month's pregnant, was on location in a rented house bathing daughter Tessa when she had the first of three serious strokes. Her friend Anne Bancroft immediately offered to replace her in the film. Luckily the new baby, Lucy, turned out fine. Neal endured a seven-hour brain operation and there was not much hope for full recovery, if she survived at all.
Her health dominated the news for months. Dahl moved the family to England and took charge of her rehabilitation, both physically and emotionally. She had to relearn how to talk and walk and large chunks of her memory, both past and present, were gone or seriously jeopardized.
She had already completed In Harm's Way (1965), which was released a couple of months after the strokes. It, too, had been a happy experience, despite its tyrannical director, Otto Preminger. She bonded with John Wayne, an actor she'd worked with before and pretty much disliked. And it was lovely to see Kirk Douglas and work with Brandon deWilde again. It was a hit with the public, no doubt in part because there were those who wanted to see her feisty and healthy when we knew things had turned so dark.
|Pat & Roald after she got to feeling better|
Her progress was almost alarming. Doctors were amazed at what she was able to pull off. They were no doubt informed of what a tough dame she really was, a fighter, always purposeful. Most doctors responded by saying she'd need every bit of all that because her trauma was devastating. But pull through she did. In no small way should we disregard the contribution from Dahl. Without him (and others), no matter her toughness, she wouldn't have accomplished so much and definitely not so soon. She said he saved her life. Caretakers suffer, too, and Dahl did not have an easy time of it. There was unbelievable weariness on both their parts and much bickering. The marriage got some new cracks and Pat got a new life.
One day, long after she had gotten better, she shared this... after a stroke, anger grows with awareness of what you have lost. The fog of unconsciousness that held you prisoner from the outside world was, in fact, a blessing in disguise. First you're like a soul with no body, but the soul is drugged. Then the soul awakens into a body that you cannot command. You are a prisoner in a private hell. Everybody is just pushing you around. They push your arms and your legs and your body. They say things, shout things and look at you with expectation and you don't know what they want. I was grateful for the insight. You never know.
Two years into her recovery, she was itching to get back into the acting harness again, but could she do it? Would she ever be able to do it again? Would she be able to memorize lines? Mike Nichols called, asking her if she would be available to accept the part of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. For sure it was an expanded version of her role in Breakfast at Tiffany's but she had to say no. Yes, she was itching to get back but she was not ready. Once again, her pal Bancroft stepped up and into one of the defining roles of her career.
Then came the day when Neal thought she might be ready to return to the cameras. Despite being uncertain of her memory, she embarked on The Subject Was Roses (1968). It seems astonishing to me that she would choose this vehicle, especially since it was based on a play and therefore very talky. Very. Grim, too. It's a cast of three... Jack Albertson and Martin Sheen were father and son and along with Neal as the wife and mother, these three just battle and battle and battle. Furthermore, the gents came directly from the play and had their stuff down. Neal was new to the material and incredibly uncertain. A number of times she wanted to quit, but her costars and her director, Ulu Grosbard, were loving and complimentary and supportive. The director said he actually thought her range as an actress had improved.
Still, it would be fair that her career never quite picked up the steam that it once had. To some degree the quantity was there-- she did a great deal of television, mainly episodic stuff, and also TV movies-- but the quality that she once enjoyed was probably missing. One thing that does stand out is that in a 1971 TV movie, she was the first Olivia Walton, the mother eventually played by Michael Learned, in the beloved series of the Depression-era family, The Waltons. Neal said it was one of her most favorite projects ever.
In 1981, two classy Brits, Glenda Jackson and Dirk Bogarde. portrayed Pat and Roald in The Patricia Neal Story. Everyone agreed it was a well-done project.
In 1983 Dahl announced he wanted a divorce. Neal, along with friends and family, was shocked. They had a long marriage and yes, there were some rough spots, especially during her arduous convalescence, but things were better. Weren't they? But Dahl had not only been diddling one of Neal's friends, but they wanted to be married... and they were. Of course public sympathy was with Neal.
In 1988 she signed a deal with Simon & Schuster to write her autobiography. She had been encouraged to do it before but could never come up with a reason why she would want to do that. She was mostly concerned with her memory. There were huge chunks of time that seemed gone forever. But new encouragement came from Lady Abbess of Regina Laudis to write her story specifically for that reason... to help her remember events... and Neal dedicated the book to her. Patricia Neal: As I Am is a most remarkable autobiography, one of the best I've ever read. She said the experience was one of the richest in her life.
One of her later films that I very much enjoyed was the deliciously quirky Cookie's Fortune, released in 1999 from naturalist director Robert Altman. Neal played the title character in this black, black comedy about an older woman who commits suicide. A crazy relative, fearing the family name will be tarnished, makes up a wild story that opens up fissure after fissure in a small town. Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Charles S. Dutton, Chris O'Donnell and Liv Tyler nicely inhabit their roles.
Neal was living the easy life by this point and in fact would work only twice more. She long had a summer home on Martha's Vineyard and would go there as often as possible. She was frequently sought out to make speeches or appearances for causes she believed in... stroke victims, brain damage... anything where she felt she could do some good. It all helped keep her pistons firing and she was grateful. She was close to her four children and her grandchildren.
Patricia Neal, an actress of immense talent, a tough, formidable human being, a role model for stroke victims, beloved by her family, passed away on Martha's Vineyard at age 84 in 2010. She died of lung cancer.
MGMs Mr. Reliable