Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Alma the housekeeper and Cookie Orcutt (1926-2010)

There are so many remarkable things about Patricia Neal’s life that it is difficult to pick one to highlight. For the technically or medically inclined, it might be the Wade-Dahl-Till valve.

That would be the name of a shunt for draining brain fluid that was more effective than those available previously. It was named after its inventors—a retired engineer, a neurosurgeon and a children’s author. That last one would be the same Dahl (Roald) who gave the world such quirky fare as James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches. He pursued the improved shunt for the benefit of his small son, Theo, who was left brain-damaged after his pram was crushed between a bus and a taxi on a New York street when he was four months old. Maybe that urban accident was the reason that Dahl decided to move his family an ocean away, to a small village in England. (Dahl had been born in Wales to Norwegian parents.) But that move must have left the parents wondering if their daughter Olivia might not have died there of measles encephalitis of the age of 7 if they had stayed where they were.

In any event, it was certainly Dahl’s experience with brain injury, acquired from caring for Theo, that saved the life of his wife and the mother of those unfortunate children, Patricia Neal. When she collapsed in the Beverly Hills home where they were living, Dahl immediately called in one of the preeminent neurosurgeons in California. The pregnant Neal had suffered a series of three strokes and was in a coma for three weeks. She awoke partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Her prognosis was by no means promising.

But Dahl arranged many hours of physical and speech therapy and drove here relentlessly to recover. In her autobiography, Neal called him “Roald the slave driver, Roald the bastard, with his relentless scourge, Roald the Rotten…” But recover she did. And six months after her brain surgery, she gave birth to her fifth child, a daughter.

A couple of years later, she was nominated for an Academy Award for the lead role in The Subject Was Roses, a domestic drama in which she played Jack Albertson’s wife and Martin Sheen’s mother. I can still remember the strong poignancy from the Oscar telecast over the miracle that Neal had come back from the debilitating strokes. At the time, I assumed that she was really, really old. It was only later that I realized that she had not been old at all. She wasn’t yet 40 when she was stricken. Neal did not win the Oscar that year, although Albertson got the Supporting Actor prize. Instead, there was a tie between Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter and Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl. But she had won the statuette five years earlier for Hud, a triumph that, at the time, was seen (prematurely, as it turned out) as the comeback of her career.

After a heralded start in Hollywood, she made 13 movies in five years by the time she turned 28, and then was seen as a has-been. Her debut was opposite Ronald Reagan in John Loves Mary in 1949, and her subsequent films included major commercial flops like The Fountainhead and Bright Leaf (both pairing her with Gary Cooper, with whom she had a three-year affair). But her string of early movies also includes some timeless classics, some of which we may have forgotten she was a part of. She was Billy Gray’s worried mother in Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. She was the radio reporter boosting the career of Andy Griffith in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd. And she was George Peppard’s patron in Blake Edwards’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. After her success in Hud, she appeared in In Harm’s Way (with John Wayne) and was signed to star in John Ford’s 7 Women at the time of her strokes.

She never had another major big screen role after The Subject Was Roses, although she was reportedly offered the role of Mrs. Robinson in Mike Nichols’s The Graduate but turned it down because she felt it was too soon after her strokes. (The part, which went to Anne Bancroft, seems to have been put out to, or considered for, a lot of actors, reputedly including Jeanne Moreau, Grayson Hall and Doris Day.) But, over the years, Neal kept showing up in the occasional supporting role or TV guest spots. She appeared on such shows as Kung Fu (in a two-parter called “Blood of the Dragon”), Little House on the Prairie (as a dying widow in a two-parter called “Remember Me”) and Murder, She Wrote. She also originated the role of Olivia Walton, the mother of a Depression-era brood, in the 1971 TV movie The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, earning her the first of three Emmys. When The Waltons was spun off as a TV series, Michael Learned took over the role. (Neal and Learned would eventually appear together in the 2000 short film For the Love of May.) Neal also played Fred Astaire’s wife in the 1981 horror thriller Ghost Story, which featured fellow acting veterans Melvyn Douglas (her co-star in Hud), Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and John Houseman.

Patricia Neal’s life was so full of tragedy and triumph that its soap-opera aspects threaten to overwhelm her legacy as an actor. Her ill-fated affair with the married Gary Cooper, a quarter-century her senior, the devastating injuries to one child and the death of another in addition to her own near-fatal strokes are the stuff of operatic drama. In fact, the story of her illness and recovery was made into a 1981 TV movie, starring Glenda Jackson as Neal and Dirk Bogarde as Dahl. Two years after that movie, Neal and Dahl divorced, after she learned that he had been in a longtime affair with one of her best friends. She never remarried.

Her final movie, Flying By (a follow-your-dreams story with Billy Ray Cyrus and Heather Locklear), came out as recently as last year, but I like to think of her cinematic send-off as being Robert Altman’s delightful 1999 humorous small-town crime flick Cookie’s Fortune. As one insightful critic wrote (yes, it was me), Neal was “the movie’s pipe-smoking heart and soul in the title role.” This is the fitting film to see as Neal’s finale.

-S.L., 12 August 2010

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