Patricia Neal would never have been cast to play herself in The Patricia Neal Story. Her screen persona, in movies like The Fountainhead and Breakfast at Tiffany's, was one of elegance and hauteur. Even when the ice goddess thawed, as Paul Newman's earthy housekeeper in Hud, which won her an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1964, Neal gave an edge to all those curves; here was a woman no man would easily mess with.
Off screen, the Knoxville, Tenn., native radiated a warm Southern gentility rarely seen in her movies. And in real life, especially over a few years in the 1960s, the actress who dished it out had to be the woman and mother who could take it. She endured a series of calamities: the brain damage her 4-month-old son Theo suffered when his carriage was crushed by a taxi; the death of her 7-year-old daughter Olivia after a bout of measles; and the three massive strokes one night in 1965 that left the pregnant Neal in a coma for three weeks and required years of therapy for her to be able to speak, walk and act again.
No performer wants to be the star of her own tragedy; but Neal, who died Sunday at 84 on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard, proved herself a towering figure of physical resiliency and emotional strength in surviving and rebounding from all her ordeals. She wasn't the bitch on wheels of her film roles; she was really a gal named Job, a heroine named Pat.
Patsy Louise Neal, born in Packard, Ky., the daughter of a coal company executive and his wife, knew her calling from the age of 10, when she heard a touring actress recite monologues in a Methodist church. Her Christmas wish that year was for dramatic lessons, and she got them. After high school, she continued her theater studies at Northwestern. Going to Broadway at 20, she instantly landed a prize role (and won the very first Tony Award for a Supporting Actress) as Regina Hubbard in Another Part of the Forest, Lillian Hellman's prequel to The Little Foxes. Regina had been played on stage by Tallulah Bankhead and in the movie version by Bette Davis two stars Neal would soon be compared to, the first for the husky voice, the second for the take-charge attitude.
Ah, that voice: a sultry blend of honey and vinegar, so sonorous that a man couldn't help taking notice of its lure and challenge, and so deep it made Bankhead, by comparison, seem as if she had swallowed helium before speaking. In the mid-60s Tom Wolfe wrote of Manhattan women whose voices had "the golden richness of The New York Social Baritone, like that of a forty-eight-year-old male dwarf who just woke up after smoking three packs of Camels the day before." Neal inhaled more than her share of cigarettes: the cause of her death was lung cancer. But her voice was a supple instrument that could register urban-sophisticate arrogance, an easy Southern charm and many shades in between.
In the '40s, actors and actresses alike were valued for their mature voices. Lauren Bacall another young star at Warner Bros., the studio that signed Neal to a movie contract in 1948 had acquired her throaty pipes when Howard Hawks, her first director, ordered her to go out into the Hollywood Hills and spend a day shouting herself hoarse. Neal, though, had a womanly voice from childhood. As she recalled in a 2004 interview for Turner Classic Movies' Private Screenings series, she was about 3 when a local 10-year-old girl, enraged by the taunting of Neal's older sister and cousin, caught up with her. "She got a hold of me," Neal told host Robert Osborne, "and she said, 'I'll just choke you, Miss Lady,' which she did. And I screamed and screamed until my mother finally heard and came and saved my life. And that's what I've been told is why I have a deep voice."
Warner Bros. gave Neal star billing in her first picture: John Loves Mary, a comedy about a war wife who's both eager for and anxious about her reunion with hubby Ronald Reagan. She then snagged a role that Davis and Barbara Stanwyck had both coveted: Dominique Francon, the headstrong heiress who falls under the spell of architect Howard Roark, played by Gary Cooper, in Ayn Rand's film version of her novel The Fountainhead. Ludicrous by the standards of naturalism "Little effort is made to persuade us that these are real characters," critic Michael Atkinson observes, "not just walking, ranting points of view" the movie works as a full-bore evocation (or sly parody) of Rand's Objectivist creed. Director King Vidor certifies Roark's massive maleness with more phallic imagery (the erection of tall buildings, the drive of a rotary hammer drill) than might be found in a gay porn festival, and with chiaroscuro lighting that underlines the eroticism in every glance and gesture.
Coutured and made up to seem a younger, taller, lither Davis, Neal reads her early lines with a castrating wit, accompanied by the flinging of an eyebrow for emphasis. Even when lounging in a chaise, she has the animal attentiveness of a cougar stalking her prey. As the dominant Dominique, she begins her relationship with Roark by slashing his face with her riding crop. Soon she is surrendering to his defiance: beating her fists against his chest before locking him in a desperate kiss, twice crumbling to the floor in his presence, begging him to marry her, saying, "I'll cook, I'll wash your clothes, I'll scrub the floor" before he walks out, the stubborn Objectivist icon. So often in Hollywood's post-war dramas, strong women had to crumble in the arms or at the feet of stronger men; their intelligence was seen to mask a neurosis that, to be cured, needed men as their Svengalis. The wonder is that Neal's precocious craft makes Dominique a creature as plausible as she is passionate.
Or, perhaps, no wonder, since Neal was giving the camera a glimpse at her own volcanic feelings. On the set, she had fallen hard for the married Cooper, a quarter-century her senior. "I loved him," she told Osborne in 2004. "I thought he was the most ravishingly beautiful man I had ever seen. And I still think so." She and Cooper had an affair no less intense than the one in The Fountainhead; and Cooper, like Roark, called all the shots. He refused to leave his wife. (His daughter Maria, believing Neal had stolen her father, spat at her. The two women were reconciled much later.) And according to Stephen Michael Shearer's biography, Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life, Neal became pregnant by Cooper but underwent an abortion at his insistence. Yet, she said, he remained one of the two great loves of her life. The Fountainhead remained a bold statement of Cooper and Neal's forbidden love.
Released from her Warner Bros. contract in 1951, Neal went to 20th Century Fox, where, in The Day the Earth Stood Still, she got to utter the immortal extraterrestrial phrase, "Klaatu Barada Nikto" and co-star with Michael Rennie in one of the first human-alien love stories. But what should have been her prime movie decade was mostly a wash; her one significant mid-'50s role was for director Elia Kazan, as the cynical reporter monitoring the rise of a television despot (Andy Griffith) in Budd Schulberg's A Face in the Crowd.
At that time, Neal had other priorities. While starring on Broadway in a 1952 revival of Hellman's The Children's Hour, she attended a party given by the playwright. There she met the Anglo-Norwegian writer Roald Dahl, just making his name as the author of devilishly clever short stories (and later renowned for the children's books James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda and The Witches). As her dinner-table mate, he annoyed her by ignoring her, and a few days later she turned down his request for a date. But he pursued and married her; eventually they had five children, and stayed together for 30 years, until Dahl confessed to a long-term adulterous affection and Neal said goodbye.