The loss of Patricia Neal (at 84) this week means that another great star actress of the twentieth century is gone. When Neal suffered those three severe strokes at age 39 in 1965, who would have guessed that she had more than half of her life ahead of her? Despite a life and career of enormous ups and shattering downs, Neal never was out of the spotlight for long, thanks to her rare combination of stunning yet highly individualized beauty and ever-deepening reserves of talent.
Her first phase in Hollywood, the Warner Brothers years, is now best remembered as the time of her great love affair with Gary Cooper, who was a quarter-century her senior. Their King Vidor picture, The Fountainhead (1949), has always been my choice for the greatest bad film ever made. Beyond terrible in many ways, it is nonetheless riveting, containing unforgettable visual sequences that are alternately campy/ridiculous and sublime/original. Though deeply pretentious and heavy-handed, how can you dismiss a movie in which Neal, as a frigid neurotic, lustily watches a sweaty Cooper in a rock quarry as he drills at about crotch level? Or, after he rapes her, when she tells him, a promising architect, “I wish I’d never seen…your building.” The film ends with Neal ascending a never-ending building-site elevator to Cooper at the top, the effect being that she’s riding the biggest phallus in movie history.
Neal fared better as the Canadian nurse in Burma in The Hasty Heart (1949) with Ronald Reagan and the wonderful Richard Todd, a moving, heartwarming post-war army-hospital drama in which a glowing Neal displays her smarts and sensitivity. In Michael Curtiz’s The Breaking Point (1950), opposite the great John Garfield, Neal gives my favorite of her performances, as a high-class whore. She is not only slinky, bad-girl fun in the part, but she gives this familiar “tramp” type a penetrating depth and humanity. Plus, her chemistry with Garfield is electric. At Fox, she appeared in the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), as a widowed secretary and mother who finds herself unforgettably involved with alien Michael Rennie and his robot Gort.
After years away from the screen, she returned for Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), a flop in its day but now a much-admired cautionary tale about television and its personalities, even if Kazan’s touch isn’t exactly light. It’s Andy Griffith’s movie, in which he dazzles and terrifies as a fireball hillbilly who becomes a national treasure (while morphing into a monster). Neal is his Dr. Frankenstein, who realizes she must destroy her out-of-control creation. The first half is pretty close to perfect, loose and airy in its Southern locations, and building dramatically quite beautifully. But the second half becomes preachy, obvious, hysterical, and smug. The film is a Capra tale in reverse, in which “Mr. Deeds” turns out to be the bad guy. But Neal shows an unapologetic sexuality with Griffith, able to suggest much more need and yearning than the censors would allow in 1957.
A problem with Neal’s career is that she is not the main focus of any of her best films, second fiddle to the male stars. This continued into the 1960s, although in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) it was Audrey Hepburn who was the main attraction. Even so, who can forget Neal’s illicit delight as a married woman sneaking around for trysts with “kept” stud George Peppard? Her best Tiffany’s get-up is her black-cape coat and her red turban. Has anyone ever enjoyed the mechanics of infidelity more?
Neal won the Best Actress Oscar for her supporting performance in Hud (1963), a solid Paul Newman vehicle. Neal is superb as a sassy, easygoing, likable housekeeper, a barefooted divorcee who shares sexual tension with both Newman and his teen nephew Brandon de Wilde. She provides this contemporary western with humor, warmth, and authenticity, but it’s simply not a lead performance.
From the high-fashion glamour of her Fountainhead and Tiffany’s roles, to the unvarnished womanliness and sensuality of her Face in the Crowd and Hud performances, Neal was a gorgeously gifted star whose handful of fascinating movies should keep her in the public eye till the earth stands still.