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NEAL, PATRICIA - A ROLLERCOASTER LIFE

Patricia Neal had a rollercoaster life and something similar in her movie career, writes Geoff Gardner.

Patricia Neal is best known for her Oscar-winning role in Hud, playing the put upon housekeeper, the only woman in a household of three wildly divergent men. Paul Newmanís insouciant title role was one of the key films of his career as well and it was the film that brought Melvyn Douglas back in from the cold, as the frustrated father. Like Neal, Douglas won an Oscar.

But after two more films, Alexander Singerís experimental Psyche 59 and Otto Premingerís all-star Pearl Harbour story In Harmís Way (1964), Neal suffered a devastating stroke and spent much of the next decade, through her late thirties and into her forties when real stardom might have beckoned, slowly and painfully recovering. She told her own story, and that of her failing relationship with her husband the novelist Roald Dahl, which was filmed with Glenda Jackson playing Neal. But itís fair to say that great and memorable parts didnít come her way and only a couple of major directors offered her work from the seventies through to the turn of the century.

Neal was born in Kentucky in 1926 and after drama studies at Northwestern University she made her Broadway debut at age 20. After winning a Tony on Broadway, in Lillian Hellmanís Another Part of the Forest, she was snapped up for movies. For a decade and a half, from her film debut in 1949 through to the early sixties, she gave just a few standout performances and only occasionally worked for some of Hollywoodís best. Her second film, King Vidorís The Fountainhead (1949) established her in the leading rank of actresses. After that the parts and indeed the films were mundane and she seemed confined to roles of tightly strung women. It takes a real historian to recall such movies as Operation Pacific and Canyon Pass (1951) or Diplomatic Courier and Something for the Birds (1952).

After marrying Dahl in 1953 she took very few roles for a number of years but prior to Hud she was in perhaps the two best pictures of her career. In Elia Kazanís A Face in the Crowd (1957) she played a radio producer who discovers a hick cowboy singer played by Andy Griffiths with a penchant for homespun philosophy and she turns him into a grotesque right wing populist. Itís a take on media manipulation and the power to control the peopleís thinking and still worth watching today to see a view of just how and where all todayís shockjockery may have its roots. Nealís discovery of a conscience was a telling moment.

She was uptight again as a middle-aged mistress playing it hard and tough on George Peppardís somewhat reluctant toy boy in the Blake Edwards masterpiece, Breakfast at Tiffanys.

Then, at the peak of her career, came the devastating stroke and the years spent in rehabilitation, driven by Dahl to succeed. Only when she had done that did he devastate her again by leaving her for a family friend. She returned in 1968 in the screen adaptation of Frank Gilroyís The Subject was Roses and earned another Oscar nomination. Her last film of note was as part of the rich female ensemble in Robert Altmanís Cookieís Fortune in which, at the age of 73, she played the eccentric title character. One of the directorís best late films it was a fitting finale for a career which despite ups and downs contained more than a few personal and dramatic triumphs. She is survived by her four children.

Published August 12, 2010

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Patricia Neal as Dominique Francon in The Fountainhead




.. as Alma Brown in Hud with Paul Newman







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