Patricia Neal, who died of lung cancer on Sunday, became one of my favorite movie performers when I was a little kid and saw her in – inevitably – The Day the Earth Stood Still on television. I remember finding her not only great-looking, but also fully identifiable as the one human being truly worth saving on this planet of ours.
As a teenager, I rediscovered Patricia Neal – on TV again – in her Oscar-nominated performance in Ulu Grosbard’s 1968 family drama The Subject Was Roses. Though completely different from The Day the Earth Stood Still‘s young heroine, Neal – who by then had already suffered a series of strokes that had left her severely impaired for several years – kept me mesmerized just as before.
This time, it wasn’t her looks or the romantic/sci-fi setting. Instead, with quiet authority and without ever resorting to acting tricks or histrionics, Neal managed to fully bring to life the disillusioned wife and mother of a crumbling family. Her is an achingly truthful, profoundly complex characterization the likes of which are seldom found on screen.
Also around that time, I saw her in Michael Curtiz’s solid remake of To Have and Have Not, The Breaking Point, a more faithful adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel in which Neal was quite effective as the tougher of the two women in John Garfield’s life (the sweeter one was Phyllis Thaxter).
A long Patricia Neal drought came to an end when, as an adult, I finally saw Hud. Directed by Martin Ritt, and written by Harriet Frank Jr and Irving Ravetch (from Larry McMurtry’s novel), Hud is by far the best 1963 Hollywood release I’ve seen and one of the best films of the ’60s.
In addition to the mature handling of the story’s complex family and social dynamics, this modern Western features two of the greatest performances ever committed to celluloid: veteran Melvyn Douglas’ stern patriarch Homer Bannon and Patricia Neal’s sexy, forceful, and more than a bit jaded Alma Brown, the housekeeper who gets sexually assaulted – and left emotionally scarred – by Paul Newman’s aimless, no-good cowboy Hud Bannon.
That year, Martin Ritt received an Oscar nomination for Best Director, but Hud wasn’t shortlisted for the Best Picture Oscar as Academy members opted instead for the worst crop of Best Picture Oscar contenders in its history: America, America; How the West Was Won; Cleopatra; Lilies of the Field; and Tom Jones.
On the positive side, James Wong Howe’s stunning black-and-white cinematography came out victorious, and so did both Melvyn Douglas and Patricia Neal. Douglas, one of the film’s leads, won as Best Supporting Actor; Neal, in what amounts to a supporting role, was chosen as Best Actress.
More importantly, she was chosen as my Best Actress not only of that year but of any year. (Admittedly, along with a couple dozen or so others.)
Several years later, I got myself a copy of Neal’s autobiography (actually written by Richard DeNeut), As I Am, which had been published in the late ’80s. I became enthralled. I couldn’t put the book down. I couldn’t think of another conversation topic. In fact, that was the best biographical work I’d ever read – and it remains so.
It wasn’t just all the suffering Neal went through – the strokes, the loss of a child, the doomed love affair with the very married Gary Cooper, the abortion, the professional downturn, the cheating, abusive husband (children’s book author Roald Dahl). What impressed me the most about As I Am was the raw honesty found in Neal’s narrative.
Years after I’d read As I Am, when I was working on my Ramon Novarro biography, I befriended Richard DeNeut. Among the many stories Dick told me about writing the Neal bio (including a couple of surprising revelations), the one that has stuck with me the most is that at times he’d tell her, “Pat, you’re not coming across very well here.” She’d then respond (I’m paraphrasing it): “But that’s how it happened and that’s how it must be told.”
That’s the same raw honesty that can be found in her best screen performances. I’ll go one step further: that’s the same raw honesty that lies at the very core of those performances.
Much to my surprise, I discovered as an adult that despite a handful of melodramatic moments, both The Day the Earth Stood Still (directed by the then-vigorous Robert Wise) and Neal’s determined heroine remained as moving and involving as I remembered them. In fact, I even came to appreciate Michael Rennie’s turn as the undocumented alien out to teach us all a lesson in humanity.
Watch Patricia Neal’s matriarch in The Subject Was Roses and see if you can think of a more unflinching portrayal of disillusioned middle age.
And just try not getting goosebumps – or a lump in the throat – while watching Alma Brown’s last moments in Hud.
I haven’t mentioned two other renowned Patricia Neal performances – the radio journalist in Elia Kazan’s political drama A Face in the Crowd, also featuring Andy Griffith, and the World War II nurse in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way, which earned her a British Academy Award for Best Foreign Actress – because I have yet to watch these two movies.
Well, maybe I’ll catch at least one of them tonight. After all, tonight is as good a night as any to spend time with one of my favorite movie performers.
P.S. One day I hope to watch in some parallel universe Patricia Neal as The Graduate‘s Mrs. Robinson. Not that Anne Bancroft wasn’t great – but Neal, who turned down the role due to health concerns, would have been perfection.
Patricia Neal dies: Best Actress Oscar winner for ‘Hud’
Previous post (Aug. 9): Patricia Neal, Best Actress Oscar winner for her superb performance in Martin Ritt’s 1963 drama Hud (right, with Paul Newman), died from lung cancer at her home in Martha’s Vineyard on Aug. 8. She was 84.
Among Neal’s most important film roles are those in King Vidor’s over-the-top melodrama The Fountainhead (1949), opposite Gary Cooper, with whom the actress had a passionate affair; Robert Wise’s sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); Elia Kazan’s political drama A Face in the Crowd (1957); and Ulu Grosbard’s dysfunctional family tale The Subject Was Roses (1968).
In addition to her film work, Patricia Neal is known for having survived a series of strokes that left her severely debilitated in the mid-’60s.
I’ll be posting a Patricia Neal “appreciation” on Monday.
Patricia Neal can be seen in this montage featuring actresses from the 1920s to the 1950s.