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Patricia Neal, 1926-2010

Posted by Mark Feeney  August 9, 2010 08:53 PM

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226neal_hud.jpgPatricia Neal was the American Jeanne Moreau. Neal, who won the 1963 best actress Oscar, died Sunday, in Edgartown.

Or she could have been the American Moreau, if Hollywood didn't fear smart, unconventionally alluring actresses who defy pigeon-holing. Both women combined toughness and femininity, ardor and restraint, knowingness and indomitability (in Neal's case, even more in life than on the screen). Until fairly recently young women were almost always referred to as girls (Neal was barely out of her teens when she won a Tony, in Lillian Hellman's "Another Part of the Forest"), but you can bet no one spoke of her that way. Several things made Neal special. There was her fur-lined purr of a voice. The somehow variant quality of her beauty (that slash of a mouth, the squared-off face, the wide set of her eyes), which made her all the more striking in appearance. What was most striking about Neal was an ability to be at once victim and wisest person on the screen -- which is another way of  saying the most richly human. It's a quality she demonstrated in what may be her two most memorable performances, as the discoverer of Andy Griffith's Lonesome Rhodes, in "A Face in the Crowd,"  and as Alma, the sexy-spinsterish housekeeper, in "Hud" (seen above, with Paul Newman in the title role).

What dominates the perception of her career -- how could it not, since it nearly ended Neal's life -- was the devastating series of strokes she suffered in 1965 and the heroic recovery she made from them. They left her in a coma for three weeks, yet within two years Neal was offered the role of Mrs. Robinson, in "The Graduate," which she turned down. Perhaps it was the similarity to her part in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" as George Peppard's . . . would "underwriter" be a suitable euphemism?

For someone who had such a checkered movie career, thanks not just to health issues but also how much theater she did (Neal played Helen Keller's mother in the original production of "The Miracle Worker") and television, too, she showed up in several very notable movies. Besides "Hud," "A Face in the Crowd," and "Tiffany's," Neal had the female lead opposite Gary Cooper in King Vidor's "The Fountainhead" (her tumultuous affair with Cooper is one of EarthStoodStill32.jpgthe more famous off-screen romances in Hollywood history). In the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (shown at right), Neal got to utter what must be the most-quoted extra-terrestrial sentence in movie history, "Klaatu barada nikto." And in "The Subject Was  Roses," Neal's first role after her stroke, her son was played by a young actor making his movie debut by the name of Martin Sheen. Which makes Neal the mother of Kit Carruthers and Captain Willard, too (sort of).

It's a sad truth of American film that female movie stars are not allowed to age well -- or even interestingly. That's true even when they're not old yet. In "Hud," Neal's character is supposed to be significantly older than Newman's, this despite the fact Newman was born a year before Neal was. All of which makes Neal's title performance in Robert Altman's "Cookie's Fortune" that much more cherishable. As an elderly Southern eccentric who rather merrily commits suicide, Neal manages to be both enchanting and cranky: the sort of person you can't decide whether to cross the street to avoid or seat next to you at Easter dinner. Watching "Cookie's Fortune," you can see why Liv Tyler never really had a movie career -- and you might wonder how Julianne Moore and Glenn Close managed to. There are no such doubts with Neal. 


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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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