Sunday, August 8, 2010

Patricia Neal has moved on

I just saw a tweet from Roger Ebert that actress Patricia Neal has left us at the age of 84 after a lifetime of notable work and personal challenges.

She co-starred with Gary Cooper in King Vidor's adaptation of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (1949) and they began a five-year affair during which she became pregnant, and he pressured her to have an abortion.

But she went on to play Helen Benson, who supports the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) when he arrives on Earth to deliver grave warnings about the planet's imminent destruction in the 1951 sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.

She was Marcia Jeffries, the producer of a small-time Arkansas radio program that helped catapult Andy Griffith's contemptibly amoral Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes to national fame in the wonderfully cynical A Face in the Crowd.

For me one of her key roles was as Anna, the housekeeper who fends off the playful advances—and then the attempted rape—of Paul Newman's Hud in Martin Ritt's brilliant 1963 film of the same name. I think it's Newman's best role. And it doesn't hurt that Larry McMurtry was one of the screenwriters, who went on to explore the emptiness of this kind of rural life in 1972's The Last Picture Show and his 2005 Oscar-winning adaptation of Brokeback Mountain.

I first saw Hud on videodisc when I was in my early 20s. For years I thought it was just some Western with Paul Newman, so I always dismissed it when I saw it on the shelf at the video store, but when I finally rented it, I was blown away by the simultaneous richness and bleakness of the story, the widescreen black and white cinematography and the authenticity of the characters.

Neal's Anna has accepted her lot in life, baking biscuits and taking care of three men, and she responds to it with a sleepy acceptance, delivering her dialogue in her trademark lazy purr. She's not really sexy, but she has a kind of sensuality that attracts Hud.

Neal won the Best Actress Oscar for Hud, but she suffered a series of strokes a year later that left her semi-paralyzed and unable to speak. With the help of her husband, children's fantasy novelist Roald Dahl, she recovered and managed to returned to the big screen in Frank Gilroy's 1968 The Subject Was Roses, also starring Jack Albertson and Martin Sheen. But she turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in 1967's The Graduate because she thought it was too soon after her infirmity. Could you see her in that role? I certainly can. Maybe she didn't have Bancroft's angular face, but that purr...

The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (1971) is another favorite. It serves as the pilot for the long-running series "The Waltons" with Neal as Olivia, the mother of the brood. It's part of my holiday viewing tradition, along with A Christmas Story and A Christmas Memory, with the equally wonderful—and also missed—Geraldine Page.

The scene in which she confronts John-Boy for going into his bedroom and locking the door behind him—you get the idea that she thinks he's been masturbating—but then she asks, "Have you been smokin' up here, John-Boy?"—it's hilarious. Then he reveals his private diaries and ambitions, and the tear ducts get a real workout.

Every time I see it I always think that she and Andrew Duggan, who John Sr., are pretty old to have such a young brood, but maybe they started things late in those days. Neal's performance, as she prepares a meager Christmas dinner while anxiously awaiting the return of her husband, is wonderful to watch.

She was Fred Astaire's wife in the intriguing but flawed 1981 Ghost Story and she also starred with Shelley Winters in the 1989 An Unremarkable Life, which seemed to be their effort at a Whales of August, but I found it kind of...unremarkable.

Ironically, she and Dahl divorced in 1982 when she discovered he'd been having a longtime affair with one of their close friends.

Her last screen credit is for the 2009 Billy Ray Cyrus (groan) film Flying By. I hope she got a good paycheck.

1 comment:

Russell Adams said...

I recently saw "Hud" and "A Face in the Crowd" again and was reminded of her brilliance. Great lady, sad day!


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