Patricia Neal: a beauty that cut like a knife | David Thomson

Blonde, sexy and sharp as a razor, few leading ladies could drive men out of their minds like this Kentucky-raised movie star

In 1981, The Patricia Neal Story, with Glenda Jackson as Neal and Dirk Bogarde as her husband, Roald Dahl, was more than good by the standards of TV biopics. It was co-directed by Anthony Harvey and Anthony Page, and done with taste and intelligence. The TV movie dramatised Neal's struggle with several strokes and came close to showing what a strange and rather nasty man Dahl was. But Jackson wasn't Neal.

At the time, Bogarde wrote to the Dahls, saying: "We shall strive in any case to honour you and the valient fight you fought." (Bogarde acted better than he spelled.) At the same time, he conceded that Jackson ("a bloody marvellous actress") was an odd choice. She wasn't beautiful, she wasn't sharp as a razor and she wasn't from Kentucky. That last point may sound frivolous, but it's an important matter. Patricia Neal came from a small town in that state – Packard – and though Kentucky is written off by American sophisticates as just too damned remote, the state plays an important part in movie history. Starting with DW Griffith, moving on to Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, Johnny Depp, Ned Beatty and George Clooney, the only other state I can think of where out-of-the-way-ness is offset by a grand cast of actors is Nebraska. This isn't just a trivial pursuit. It's a way of suggesting that sometimes large, pretending ambitions can come out of the rural hinterland.

Then you have to consider the likeness to a razor. I don't mean to say that Glenda Jackson was ever less than intelligent and a match for most men, but she's more of a blunt instrument. In Neal you saw the threat of a razor shining in the light of her sardonic smile. The way she looks at Paul Newman in Hud and sums him up as a jerk – albeit one she will have a hard time resisting – reveals a sense of danger. Patricia Neal always let you know that if you were going to get involved with her you would have to keep your wits about you.

And then there was her beauty. When Neal got into movies, in the mid 40s, she was blonde, edgy and sexy. If you have never seen it you should see The Fountainhead, where she starred with Gary Cooper. Cooper took it for granted in most of his pictures that he was the most beautiful person in sight and he assumed that the women were going to come to him. He was 27 years older than Neal, and in the habit of having a quick fling with most of his leading ladies. But he fell in love with her and went crazy.

Cooper left his wife and nearly married Neal. But his Catholic faith and Hollywood society marriage reasserted themselves and he dropped her. Men who are brave on screen are often wimps in life, but I doubt he ever forgot her or stopped cursing his timidity. Cooper was dead long before Neal's battles with her own brain, and with Dahl. And I daresay he was a stranger to the kind of courage she showed. But in The Fountainhead, you can see truth to the idea that, when all is said and done, the movies have no more lasting subject than infatuation and its madness. Patricia Neal could drive icons out of their minds.


David Thomson

The GuardianTramp

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