Patricia Neal with Michael Rennie in a promotional photo from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Neal died last week at the age of 84.
There was something special about Patricia Neal on film. Her life was difficult and much written about. But when she died, a week ago, America lost an irreplaceable talent. She was one of those stars who seemed to have been born with an inner light.
And she had that wonderful voice: the husky alto surrounded by a little Southern sugar that made her round her vowels as if she loved each one of them personally.
In her obituaries you will read about her challenging life. The affair with the very married Gary Cooper. Her later marriage to the writer Roald Dahl, whom she supported with her film career as he turned out James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. How her son suffered a brain injury. How her daughter died of measles. And how she, at the age of 39, suffered a stroke that almost killed her. How her husband stayed at her side as she recovered. And how, when she had recovered, Dahl left her for her best friend. Oh yes, and tucked in there amidst all that, she won an Oscar for her role with Paul Newman in Hud (1963).
The events of her life were almost too much for one lifetime to hold. But what she left us are her wonderful films and if you want to see the best of them, here are a few of my favorites:
A Face in the Crowd (1957) This acidic film, written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, stars Andy Griffith in the most un-Mayberry-like role of his career. But it is Neal who stars as the film's conscience. She is beautiful and natural as the eager young producer who discovers a talented hustler and makes him a television star. We truly believe she is first seduced by his charm, devastated when she is betrayed, and crazed when she finally faces the evil she has helped create. It is a troubling, thoughtful film and Patricia Neal, with her grace and talent, helps to keep it from teetering over into melodrama.
In Harm's Way (1965) Directed by the tyrannical and creepy Otto Preminger, Neal is one among a cast of many talented actors, including John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Burgess Meredith, Paula Prentiss, Carroll O'Connor, Dana Andrews, and Tom Tryon--to name just a few. But in her scenes with John Wayne there is a sexual energy that jumps off the screen. In one, all she does is take off her shoes and it is very provocative! Wayne worked with practically every beautiful actress on the planet, but with Patricia Neal he was well-matched. This is a good film about the Navy in World War II, as well.
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) You have to pay attention to catch her in this one. The film is dominated by the glamorous Audrey Hepburn and the vapid George Peppard, with Mickey Rooney wildly over-the-top as a cartoonish Japanese landlord. Neal--the cynical older woman--is the only realistic character in this much-acclaimed film based on a very silly story by Truman Capote. Besides Neal, the best things about this movie are Hepburn's clothes and Johnny Mercer's "Moon River." But I have to admit: Neal, fashions, and Mercer make a very appealing film.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Not a favorite of critics, this turned out to be one of the most iconic science fiction films of the 1950s. Director Robert Wise is a big reason the fantastic story works and Patricia Neal is another. And although she said the entire cast thought the whole thing was "... hysterical! Absolutely hilarious!" this is a really good movie. And you don't want to be the one person in America who has never seen her cowering in front of that giant space robot in the silver suit, screaming at the top of her lungs and saying: "Klatu. Barada. Nicto." This movie--which actually has a very thoughtful and timely message, believe it or not--is now woven into the fabric of our culture. Much to her surprise, I would guess, this is probably the one film she made that will never be forgotten.
I've left out quite a few that you may want to see. She's absolutely gorgeous with Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead (1949), Ayn Rand's polemic about collectivism. But the story is so laughable and there is so little logic to the plot: I'm not a big fan. But it is a good-looking film, I'll say that. And when she watches Gary Cooper working at his drill-baby-drill, it is tough not to miss the symbolism, as it were. You also might want to see Hud (1963), the movie that won her an Oscar for Best Actress. She is, as usual, terrific in it. But I find the story dreary and unpleasant, in spite of hunky Paul Newman. And I always feel that I have to get the Texas dust out of my socks when I've watched this thing. I don't know if it is her best film. But she deserved to win an Oscar for something: and that is how Hollywood works.
She was an intelligent actress in the days before actresses began to look and act like plastic dolls. We are very lucky to have the legacy of Patricia Neal's films.