Patricia Neal: a career in clips

The Oscar-winning actor Patricia Neal has died aged 84. We look back over her career in clips

Write-ups of the life of Patricia Neal, who died from lung cancer in Martha's Vineyard yesterday, tend to be dominated by two things: her marriage to the author Roald Dahl, and her fall into a coma for three weeks when pregnant with their fifth child (Dahl subsequently oversaw her rehabilitation). But look back over clips of Neal's career and her remarkable talent and intensity once more come into sharp focus. With her deep, sardonic voice, her blazing eyes and pickaxe cheekbones, Neal was a most imposing leading lady. But she was also good-humoured, with a great, uninhibited cackle and a sly sideways glance that suggested a fine sense of fun.

After a spell in the theatre, Neal made her film debut in 1949 alongside Ronald Reagan in wartime bigamy comedy John Loves Mary. Billed in the trailer as "lovely, new star Patricia Neal", a touch of theatricality remains in her performance – indeed in the whole film, a Broadway transfer – but it made an impression on both the critics and the box office.

Later that year, in The Fountainhead, adapted by Ayn Rand from her bestseller, her remarkable poise and latent energy was more easily showcased. Alongside Gary Cooper, with whom she had become involved offset, she made a formidable adversary – here admonishing Cooper with a whip for apparently ill-treating employees, before falling into his arms in a full-stringed bedroom scene.

Two years later – in the same year she met Dahl – she starred in The Day the Earth Stood Still, lending paranoid sci-fi a real sense of moral and sexual conflict.

The following year she amped up the smoky-voiced femme noir star aspect of her appeal with a barnstorming turn in The Breaking Point, an adaptation of Hemmingway's To Have and Have Not.

And a less spectacular performance in John Wayne submarine vehicle Operation Pacific.

She quit Hollywood for New York, returning to Broadway, and through the late 50s acted in fewer films, most notably Budd Schulberg's wry satire A Face in the Crowd, in which she played a feisty TV executive (a highly unusual role for a women, back then).

She also co-starred in the more conventional but more successful Breakfast at Tiffany's; a perky sidebar alongside Audrey Hepburn's heroine.

But the highlight of her career must be the film for which she went on to win a best actress Oscar: Hud, one of the first revisionist westerns, in which Paul Newman plays an embittered, drunken cattle wrangler. Neal is his housekeeper, with whom he engages in seemingly mutually flirtatious banter before eventually forcing himself on her. Here's one of the pre-rape scenes, a virtuosic exchange in which Neal rebuffs her employer firmly but oddly fondly: "No thanks – I've done my time with one cold-blooded bastard. I'm not looking for another."

Fourteen years after The Fountainhead and Neal has matured into a quite brilliant performer, of real depth and pathos. Three years after this triumph she starred opposite Wayne again in In Harm's Way (she got on much better with him this time around), a performance that won her a Bafta. But then came her series of strokes, and a break from the profession which meant she turned down the role of Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. But she was back on film in 1968, in Vietnam vet homecoming drama The Subject Was Roses (starring a young Michael Sheen), for which she was nominated for another Oscar. There's a remarkable little behind the scenes documentary showing how Neal struggled to remember the lines following her illness.

It proudly announced: "Pat Neal is back," but in fact the film was one of Neal's last, on the big screen at least, for she made highly-acclaimed outings on TV, in full-length Walton's pilot The Homecoming: A Christmas Story.

Speaking at an AFI tribute to Kirk Douglas, who also featured in In Harm's Way, in 1991, she was highly commanding, if a little halting.

But in an interview recorded last year she was on great form, witty and feisty and elegant, recalling the first time she met Dahl. Her enunciation and pace through the anecdote are just brilliant; it's a neat little showcase for a consummate performer.


Catherine Shoard

The GuardianTramp

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