Monday, August 9, 2010

Goodbye, Patricia Neal

Patricia Neal, movie star
Academy-Award winning actress Patricia Neal died yesterday at her home in Martha's Vineyard. She was 84 years old and succumbed to lung cancer.

Kentucky Born and Tennessee Raised
Neal was born in Packard, Kentucky in 1926, but raised in Knoxville, Tennessee. As an adult, she studied acting at Northwestern University (B.S. 1947). While still a student, Neal stared on Broadway in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest. For her role as Regina Hubbard, Neal won a Tony for Best Featured Actress. The Tony Award and rave notices, not to mention her stunning good looks, brought Neal to the attention of Hollywood.

Hollywood Comes a Calling
Gary Cooper and Neal in The Fountainhead
Signed to a contract with Warner Bros., Neal starred opposite future president Ronald Reagan in John Loves Mary (1949). She made another film that year with Reagan (The Hasty Heart), but it was the over-the-top film version of Ayn Rand's bestselling novel, The Fountainhead, that received all the attention. Although not a critical or commercial success, the chemistry between Neal and costar Gary Cooper kept the pages of movie fan magazines burning for several years. In reality, Neal and Cooper had a very torrid love affair that almost destroyed Cooper's marriage and Neal's sanity. When the relationship collapsed, Neal suffered a nervous breakdown and abandoned Hollywood for Broadway. Ironically, she starred in another Helman play, a revival of The Children's Hour. During its run, Hellman introduced Neal to children's author Roald Dahl. The two were married in 1953.

The Play's the Thing
During the late 1950s, Neal devoted herself almost entirely to working on the stage, appearing in only one film: Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd (1957), costarring Andy Griffith. Film fans would have to wait until Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) to see Neal on the big screen again.

Oscar Winner
Neal won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Hud.
During the early sixties, the leading-lady roles Neal was used to playing all but dried up. After a series of personal tragedies sidelined her from the screen, Neal played a worn-out housekeeper in Martin Ritt's Hud (1963) costarring Paul Newman in the title role. For what many considered a supporting role, Neal won an Oscar as the best actress of the year. Major film roles started coming Neal's way again including Otto Preminger's big-budget World War II classic In Harm's Way (1965). In a cast of many Hollywood notables, Neal received third billing behind John Wayne and Kirk Douglas.

Tragedy and Triumph

Jack Albertson and Neal in The Subject is Roses
Pregnant with her fifth child in 1965, Neal suffered a number of strokes that nearly killed her. After emergency brain surgery and several weeks in a coma, Neal found herself confined to a wheelchair. Neal's husband helped her with her physical therapy and within two years, she had learned to walk and speak again. So remarkable was her recovery that she was offered the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967), but turned it down, thinking it was too soon for her to return to the screen. A year later, she took the lead role in The Subject Was Roses. It was a remarkable comeback; Neal was nominated once again for Best Actress. She lost the award to Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn, who tied that year, but it was a personal and professional triumph for Neal. Although more major film roles didn't come her way, Neal consistently worked in movies and TV, including Flying By released in 2009.

Patricia Neal, star of stage and screen, is survived by four children (daughter Olivia preceded her in death) and seven grandchildren.

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