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The Commanding Allure of Patricia Neal

Published: 8/8/2011

Written by Gigi Anders. Originally published on

Hud Bannon: You’re half native already. I’ve never seen you in shoes.

Alma Brown: I wore ’em once. To get married in. White satin pumps. I don’t have ’em any more. Or the man, either.

That is the amoral rancher Paul Newman and his world-weary housekeeper Patricia Neal in Hud, 1963’s dazzling contemporary western. Things get rough, but Neal fends him off and prevails – with an Academy Award, to boot.

Patricia Neal, 1954 (Carl Van Vechten via Wikimedia Commons)“You’d never catch Patricia Neal teetering around in stilettos,” says former Washington Post movie critic Rita Kempley. “She’s not the kind of woman who’s going to fall down and need the guy to carry her dramatically or fictionally as an actress or as a character.”

Indeed, Patricia Neal, who died at 84 of lung cancer at her home on Martha’s Vineyard, was always resourceful, intelligent, and solid. Look at her at 35 years old in 1961’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s, playing a married decorator who’s keeping the young writer Paul Varjak: Neal was only two years older than George Peppard, and three years older than her other co-star, Audrey Hepburn. Yet she seems a lifetime more knowing and seasoned than either one.

“She conveyed a sense of humor, ironic humor, that was worldly wise, sophisticated, and that she made sexy in a ladylike, thoughtful way,” says Jeanine Basinger, chairman of the film studies department at Wesleyan and author of The Star Machine (Knopf, 2007). “She’s a talented, modern actress with a strong presence and range. She wasn’t afraid to play a scheming villainess who wants control or a deglamorized, overworked housekeeper doing the dishes. A lot of actresses wouldn’t have wanted to do that, and Neal uses her Southerness, that charming, sly wile, to her advantage. She doesn’t have to make nice and make the audience love her.”

Patricia Neal, 1952 (GAB Archive/Redferns)

Patricia Neal, 1952 (GAB Archive/Redferns)



Ah, but love her we did, for those high cheekbones and that low, honeyed drawl. Patsy Louise Neal was born on Jan. 20, 1926, in Packard, Ky., to a coal company worker and a housewife. She grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. When she was 3, a neighbor child began choking her.

“My mother ran out of the house and had to peel that girl off me,” she told Robert Osborne in a 2004 interview. “My voice changed after that.”

Longing to be a stage actress, Neal attended Northwestern to study drama. After her sophomore year, she left for New York and her theatrical career took off. At 20 she won “best newcomer” at the first Tony Awards ceremony for her Broadway début in Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest. Neal was toast of the town but was struggling to make ends meet. When Warner Brothers made an offer, Neal went to Hollywood.

Her first picture, 1949’s John Loves Mary. Ronald Reagan played a soldier returning from WWII, Neal his fiancée. “I wasn’t very good in it,” she later admitted.

But talent wasn’t the problem, it was timing and temperament. Driven, single-minded stars like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Ginger Rogers had Hollywood’s star-making machinery to create focused vehicles for them — and no or few children to get in the way of professional achievements.

“Neal was not of that ilk,” Basinger explains. “By 1949, the studio system was collapsing, and … Neal was a human being who didn’t put her career first. That also held her back from top stardom.”

Enter Gary Cooper. The very married Catholic convert and father was Neal’s leading man in The Fountainhead, also in 1949. Directed by King Vidor, the emotionally wrought movie you either love or hate is campy and full of phallic skyscrapers. Cooper’s a genius architect a la Frank Lloyd Wright, and Neal is a ferocious newspaper columnist who falls for him.




The two actors — Cooper was Neal’s senior by 25 years — fell in love off-screen, too. The affair lasted several years and derailed Neal’s career at Warner’s. When Neal became pregnant, Cooper convinced her to have an abortion, and he returned to his family. “Our affair might’ve had something to do with [Warner’s dropping me],” Neal said, “but I was not the great success they hoped I would be.”

All told, she’d made mostly so-so films, the war movie The Hasty Heart (1949), with Ronald Reagan; Bright Leaf (1950) with Gary Cooper as a tobacco tycoon; and The Breaking Point (1950), a remake of To Have and Have Not with John Garfield.

But in 1951 came The Day The Earth Stood Still, the 20th Century Fox sci-fi cult classic. Neal’s character, a single mom, saves the world by uttering this immortal phrase to a robot: “Klaatu barada nikto.”

“I thought it was hysterical, really,” Neal said of the movie. “[Director] Robert Wise was very patient with me because I couldn’t keep a straight face. Now I think it’s gorgeous. I’m so proud to be in it.”



Decamping to Manhattan in 1952 to star in a revival of Lillian Hellman’s play, The Children’s Hour, Neal met British writer Roald Dahl at a dinner party at Hellman’s apartment. The pair married the following year and lived in New York and England. Neal had five children in 10 years: Olivia (1955), Tessa (1957), Theo (1960), Ophelia (1964), and Lucy (1965).

A month after Tessa’s birth, A Face In The Crowd was released, a professional triumph for Neal and for co-star Andy Griffith, in his first screen role. Directed by Elia Kazan, the movie introduces us to Lonesome Rhodes, a charming hillbilly performer radio reporter Marcia Jeffries discovers. When she realizes Lonesome’s a dangerous demagogue, Marcia betrays him to the world.

The year 1960 signaled the onslaught of epic nightmares: Neal’s 4-month-old son, Theo, was hit by a New York City taxi, which left him brain-damaged. In 1962, firstborn Olivia died at age 7 from measles encephalitis.

There were a few respites: Hud followed by a BAFTA award for her role as a divorced Navy nurse in In Harm’s Way.

Neal was 39 and pregnant. She’d just begun work on John Ford’s final film, Seven Women.

“We were living in a rented house in Beverly Hills,” she recalled. “I came home from work and was giving Tessa her bath. Roald was coming upstairs with a cold drink for me. I started vomiting and collapsed on the floor. He knew I was having a stroke. He called Theo’s doctor for help. I had another seizure in the hospital and was thoroughly paralyzed after having three massive strokes. I have no memory of that whole day and for a long time afterward. I was in a coma for 21 days. I couldn’t walk or talk or see out of one eye. I was not expected to live. But I did. I am a stubborn woman. I gave birth to Lucy, who’s healthy. And here I am.”

A long, slow recovery followed. Neal’s big screen comeback was in 1968’s The Subject Was Roses, based on Frank D. Gilroy’s Pulitzer prize-winning play. She played Nettie Cleary, a bitter Bronx housewife and mother. Though the film got mixed reviews, Neal got great ones. “Miss Neal’s presence . . . gives the movie an emotional impact it wouldn’t otherwise have,” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times. “She has, in fact, simply too much style and wit for this kind of monosyllabic nonsense.”

“I really didn’t want to do that movie,” Neal recalled. “It’s terrible having a stroke. It was very difficult to learn my lines. But my husband wanted me to go to work. He shoved me into it. By the third day I began to be a little interested. At the end I was the happiest woman alive.”

Alas, Dahl was not the happiest man alive. During Neal’s commercial shoot in 1972 for Maxim coffee, Dahl met Felicity Crosland, a young set designer. Neal and Crosland hit it off, becoming best friends. Unbeknownst to Neal, however, Crosland and Dahl began a long affair that in 1983 ended Neal’s 30-year marriage. Dahl died in 1990.

Aging gracefully, Neal kept busy with TV work and pursued her other passion, the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, Tenn., which opened in 1978 for patients with strokes, and spinal cord and brain injuries. Neal visited the center every year until her death, lending support and fund-raising.

Patricia Neal on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, 2005 (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images Entertainment)Neal’s last notable movie was 1999’s Cookie’s Fortune, directed by Robert Altman and co-starring Glenn Close and Julianne Moore. In the comedy, Neal plays a rich southern dowager who decides to kill herself because she’s tired of widowhood.

In 2003, Neal was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. “I am so happy they decided to let me in…,” she said. “I love awards.”

Neal doesn’t need more awards or, for that matter, white satin pumps or a man, to remain eternally significant and seen. Her best films endure. Perhaps the most reassuring line she ever uttered came not from a script but from her own deathbed:

“I’ve had a lovely time.”

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