R.I.P., Patricia Neal

Actress Patricia Neal has died.


Life is unfair. That’s one of the things I got from Patricia Neal’s autobiography,published in 1988. Neal’s life was full of unfair events (as I suppose all of us experience from time to time). But Neal’s life was particularly rough. Much of what life is has to do with how you respond to the crap that is thrown at you.

You really feel, by the end of the book, that you have been through the wringer with her, and that she has truly earned the right to say the words, “As I Am.” (the title of the book). It was hard-won, that peace with herself, hard hard won … She had to scrape and claw for so much, she had to climb herself back to health after her stroke, she had to insist to herself that life, after all, was worth living. Despite all of the tragedies that had unfolded in her life (her daughter’s death, her son’s near-fatal injury). Neal describes lying in bed, post-stroke, being unable to think of the words for things … saying things like “coliseum” when she means “cigarette” … and how enraging it was, how wildly upsetting. She remembers shitting the bed, but being unable to move, and weeping, as the nurses come to clean her up, humiliated, devastated. She was a young woman. Pregnant as well. How could this have happened?

Roald Dahl, her husband, was not a warm man. He told Patricia Neal he loved her twice in their whole marriage. But his response to her stroke – what we would call now as “tough love” – is much of why she recovered. Well, that and the neurosurgery team at the hospital. But when Neal came home, she was on her own. Dahl refused to baby her. If it took her 45 minutes to button her blouse, then it took her 45 minutes. He would not help. They would have enormous battles, and she would be screaming at him – only she still couldn’t remember the words for things (horrifying – it just gives me chills) – so she’d be shouting gibberish, trying, trying, to remember the word for, oh, “son of a bitch” or “I hate you”.

Prior to marrying Roald Dahl, Neal – early in her career – had been cast in The Fountainhead with Gary Cooper.


Gary Cooper was a married man, but he was also a famous philanderer. He had great respect for his wife, Rocky, and always stopped his affairs before they went too far. Rocky knew all about them, and I have no idea what it was like for her – but the two of them seemed good companions. Cooper needed to be married, having a homelife was very important to him – and Rocky loved her position in society as his wife. It was a tradeoff. Cooper and Neal had an affair. Neal was not a floozy, not really, and she fell so in love with Gary Cooper that she counted him as the great love of her life. Really the only man she ever loved. Her entire book ends with Neal going out to lunch with Rocky, the two of them talking about Gary, and Rocky seeming to understand what it was that Neal had lost (after all, she loved him too) and it felt good for the two of them to sit there and reminisce about him. Rather extraordinary. Neal writes:

This was the one man I loved passionately, the one I had fought to get. But the bond of his marriage was stronger than our passion. And I was forced to submit to that. I am now grateful that I did. If I had not married Roald Dahl, I would have been denied my children, even my life, because he truly saved me and I will be forever grateful to him for that.

In 1963, Patricia Neal played Alma, the earthy humorous housekeeper in Hud. How I love that performance. Her scenes with Paul Newman should be studied by anyone who is interested in acting. Obstacle, objective, decisions being made on the fly, impulses followed or ignored, subtext stronger than text … not to mention a three-dimensional characterization, a living breathing complicated woman before us. Neal won the Oscar for Best Actress. It’s also fascinating to see such an unglamorous performance by someone who is the Leading Lady of the film, the “one that got away” for Hud. Brave. But then, Neal was always brave.


The year before, her 7-year-old daughter Olivia had died, unexpectedly, from measles encephalitis. Neal was still struggling, at the time of filming Hud, with an almost baffled sense of grief, how do you incorporate such an event into your life, how on earth do you go on?? Watching her as Alma is a true testament to the power of art as some kind of healing force. She is not “playing” her own biography here. Alma is a tough Texas woman, with some miles on her, a divorce in her past, and yet a philisophical attitude which allows her to hang out with tough men and be one of them. Despite her housekeeper status. It’s a marvelous portrayal – three-dimensional in its scope and a constant surprise. Her grief about her daughter was somehow mysteriously channeled into that performance … It was like Neal needed to lose herself in her work, and boy, did she ever.

She describes a chilling moment with Newman, at the beginning of filming the movie:

We had not yet played a major scene together. In fact, we may have been discussing the work to come. Suddenly, I found myself not talking about the picture at all. I was telling him about Olivia. I went on about her loveliness and talent and her fragility and how much I loved her …

“My sisters-in-law took charge of everything. They did not let me do a thing. I didn’t even see Olivia.” I found myself admitting. “Do you think that’s right?”

Paul didn’t answer.

“I just saw that damned closed coffin. I should have taken a stand at the time, don’t you think? I was her mother. I had a right to see her.”

Paul finally looked at me. For a long moment, he just stared through me with those blue eyes. Then he got up and said quietly, “Tough,” and walked away.

Neal was devastated. But then something began to happen as they acted together, as they started to create that relationship.

I began to realize that although I had poured out my heart to Paul Newman, it was Hud Bannon who had responded.

That takes a hell of an actress to make that realization: that Newman may have been closed to her, but the character was not. The magic of acting. Not always easy. She could have let that moment make her petty and resentful, which would have affected the character. She didn’t. She incorporated it. Neal and Newman remained friends to the end.

Here’s the killer last scene between Newman and Neal:

“Don’t you be lazy now.” She’s so good.

In 1965 she had a debilitating stroke. Actually, she had three strokes – which left her in a coma. It was thought she would never come out of it. She was 39 years old. A long road to recovery followed, and she credits much of it to Roald Dahl, who shouted at her until she could do nothing else but fight back. He would not let her be weak. Whatever issues they had in their marriage (and who knows, maybe Dahl sensed all along that he was her second choice) it did not stop Dahl from insisting that she get strong. If she had to hate him in the process, then maybe that would be good for her, motivational.

Neal describes sitting and watching the Academy Awards in 1965 – post-stroke – where, if she hadn’t been incapacitated, she would have been there to present the award to the Best Actor – it was her spot, because she had won the award the year before. Audrey Hepburn gave out the award in her place, and Neal – still sick, still unable to form or remember words – had the expectation that Hepburn would at least acknowledge her – would say something nice about her, to remind the audience, “This should have been Patricia Neal presenting …” but Hepburn didn’t say a word. Just gave out the award. Neal flipped out. She and Dahl were sitting on the couch at home, and Neal started shouting at the television, expressing her anger at being so forgotten and ignored. It hurt her. But because of the stroke, what came out was gibberish – she couldn’t remember any words for anything – but the sentiment was clear.

Dahl took that as a wonderful sign. That Neal had a memory of something outside of her own sickness, and was invested enough in it to be pissed off … He thought that was great. A sign of health. Being able to say, “Goddammit, that is so UNFAIR” is a sign of mental health (I’ve often thought so … when we stop having the ability to rail at the unfair-ness of things, we lose a lot of our fire …). I think Dahl was on to something – and perhaps he didn’t really love her (sure doesn’t sound like it) – but perhaps it was that very DISTANCE from her, the fact that he could remain separate from her, and see her clearly, that he didn’t feel the need to hover over his poor darling, cooing over how sick she was … that made him such a great and enormous help in her recovery.

She was offered the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate but she turned it down, feeling that it was still too close to her stroke. Neal rebuilt her life. She worked with a speech therapist, she worked with neurologists … and she came back. When she returned to work, in The Subject Was Roses, she was again nominated for an Academy Award.

Her memories of Gary Cooper are so tender that it makes my heart crack. She does not spare Dahl in many respects. He had an affair with her best friend – which was what finally ended their 30-year marriage. He laughed in her face when she told him her heart was broken. I don’t think he ever really recovered from his daughter dying … it made him twisted and mean. So Neal just tells it like it is. But, and this is grace, she does not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Dahl MADE her get well, MADE her recover, on her own, from the strokes that should have killed her. And so, like she says, she owes him her LIFE. Pretty amazing.

In 1959 Patricia Neal was cast in the play Miracle Worker, directed by Arthur Penn. She was a big enough star at that point that she was hurt that she was not offered the role of Annie Sullivan. She played Helen’s mother. BUT: Neal took the role, knowing that she needed to work and yes, her ego took a blow … but I love her grace here, and also her honesty. It was not easy to back off and not be the star. But she did.

EXCERPT FROM As I Am: An Autobiography, by Patricia Neal

It was April in 1959 when I heard from Arthur Penn, the director. He was casting William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, about the young Helen Keller. Everyone knew it was bound to be one of the biggest hits of the season and the vehicle of a lifetime for the actress who played Annie Sullivan, Helen’s teacher.

The only problem was, Arthur was not offering me that part. He thought I would be wonderful as Helen’s mother. It was not a starring role, but I hadn’t done a play in the United States in four years or a film in three. I was in no position to command the star spot and I knew it. I could fantasize all I wanted, but if I was to keep working I would have to go with what was offered.

The star of Miracle Worker was Anne Bancroft. Like me, Anne had left Hollywood and returned to New York to make a new start. I first saw her at The Studio and admired her as an actress. Later I got to know her socially at the Strasberg parties. She was great fun and I liked her very much. Our paths were destined to cross many times.

We were in rehearsal only a few days when Anne and Arthur invited me for a drink. Arthur asked me quite candidly if I resented not playing the star role. I was equally candid. I admitted that I did, indeed, find it tough to step down, but I was trying my damndest to do it graciously. They breathed sighs of relief. Both of them thanked me for being honest and assured me they knew how difficult it was. I can truthfully say that the fact that I adored Anne and Arthur helped. I felt better than I had in days for having gotten it out. It was one of the happiest companies I ever worked with. It also afforded me a reunion with Phyllis Adams, of my pavement-pounding days. Phyllis was now married to George Jenkins, our set designer.

Near the end of rehearsals I saw Fred Cox, our producer, in the auditorium with a man and a woman. I couldn’t see their faces from the stage, but the man kept waving at me. Finally I walked down the aisle to see who he was.

“Do you recognize me?” he asked with a tinge of wickedness. “We met in Chicago.”

I searched the familiar face for a name.

“I’m the fellow you told not to go into show business.”

“Oh yes,” I said, nodding. “Michael …”

Fred helped me out. “Nichols.”

The woman with him, of course, was Elaine May.

I had gone six weeks without my family and we were just beginning out-of-town previews in Boston when Roald arrived with the girls. I could not wait to see my babies, and as they got off the elevator, I bellowed my welcome. Olvia looked at me with fright and Tessa let out a terrified wail. They obviously had no idea they were coming to see me and, in fact, did not seem to know why I had been absent from their lives for so long. I was annoyed with Roald for this oversight, but later, when all was well and we laughed it off, I scolded myself for making too much of it.

Eventually Roald came to the show. Following the performance, Arthur appeared at my dressing room. He was shaking with anger. “He’s quite a fellow, that husband of yours. He doesn’t think we have much of a play. Of course, he gave us his recommendations. We’d appreciate it if you’d see that he doesn’t come again.”

I was humiliated. And so angry that when Roald came backstage, I seethed. “This has nothing to do with you. Will you keep your fucking nose out of my business and let me make my own enemies!” We did not speak again about the progress of the play.

The Miracle Worker opened on October 19, 1959. Our reviews were as great as everyone hoped. Especially for Anne and little Patty Duke, who played Helen.

I got pregnant on opening night. Obviously Roald did not hold grudges.

Patty was older than the six-and-a-half-year-old Helen she portrayed on stage. I used to take her home with me and she was the perfect guest, completely charming and gracious. She loved to read stories to the girls, who adored her. Her visits spurred Olivia’s pestering to come and see Mummy act for the first time. I arranged for Sonia to take her to a matinee but asked that she kept in the lobby during my first scene, fearing my frantic screams for my stage child might set up a howl from my own. After the performance, she looked at me very seriously and said, “I loved you, Mummy. You were jolly good.” At that moment I didn’t mind that Anne had gotten all the reviews. I had just gotten the most important notice of my life.

A classy lady and a talented actress. She will be missed.

Two other tribute posts you will not want to miss from The Self-Styled Siren (and check out the comments) and Tony Dayoub.


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18 Responses to R.I.P., Patricia Neal

  1. Phil P says:

    I love Patricia Neal. Not a brilliant comment, but I just had to say it. I particularly loved her in A Face in the Crowd, one of my favorite films. And The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Hud, of course. She didn’t have a huge filmography but was one of those actors who made an indelible impression from just a few roles. The Fountainhead wasn’t a great film, but I loved her tormented character – if she had worked more in the theater I could imagine her as a great leading lady in tragic roles, like Medea, or Hedda Gabler.

  2. nightfly says:

    When I heard the news last night, I knew that one person in particular would have the most fitting tribute and a heartfelt remembrance. Thank you for this essay.

  3. Andrea says:

    Great article, loved it.

  4. The Siren says:

    I think that the graceful, wise Neal would have appreciated the generous way you approach the two men of her life. And as always, your performance descriptions are the next best thing to running the film back through the projector. Superb, Sheila, truly.

  5. Donna says:

    What a beautiful tribute, reading it brought tears to my eyes.

  6. gmoke says:

    She got more beautiful as she got older. Too bad our culture does not recognize it.

    Great lady who worked hard and had a difficult life. She gave us a lot of wonderful performances.

  7. sheila says:

    Siren – Thank you, thank you. Your comment means so much. She was a very special and individual actress, and I wonder with whom she could be compared today. That sort of homespun unglamorous (and yet very sexy) appeal was very much her own.

    I remember her from childhood when she was in the Walton’s Christmas special – she played Ma Walton. This was before it became a series, and she LOVED doing it – and was very hurt that they didn’t choose her to do the series. It was a bitter moment for her, in a long line of bitter moments. Who knows why these decisions are made. The Walton’s Christmas is on Youtube, so you can take a look at her work – it’s lovely. She was always good when she was part of a strong ensemble.

  8. sheila says:

    Phil – I love your comment about the possibilities of her as a great tragic actress on stage. It’s so unfortunate that that didn’t happen – I agree, she had great possibilities in that area. I should have mentioned Face in the Crowd – she was terrific in that.

  9. Phil P says:

    Thanks Sheila. Apart from her great talent she had such a haunting face – like no one else. Even when she was young and at the peak of her beauty it had an original quality; it didn’t have that bland, generic quality youthful beauty often has, in men or women, but radiated a certain intelligence and force of character. That’s why I imagine her as a great literary heroine, not any one in particular I’ve read, but some ideal composite image. And that voice too!

  10. sheila says:

    My cousin Mike has always said that Patricia Neal reminded him of our grandmother on the O’Malley side. It’s a very specific look (Tallulah Bankhead has it too) – there’s something peaked and weary about the face – or maybe not weary – but knowing. Thin, strong.

    And yes, nothing like that voice! Who knew Ma Walton smoked 3 packs a day!

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  12. Phil P says:

    Knowing! That’s just the right word for it.

  13. Jaquandor says:

    I read her autobiography on the basis of a previous time you recommended it, and what an amazing book. I wish I had a copy here to quote right now (I read the library’s copy), but I remember a lot of wry humor throughout, such as when she had thought “The Fountainhead” would be her ticket to stardom, to being the “next Greta Garbo”, and then, when the film tanked, she writes in the book something to the effect of “So much for me as the next Greta Garbo.”

    I’ve seen her in a lot of stuff, actually, but what I remember most is an episode of “Little House on the Prairie” she did. It’s a two-part episode, but she’s only in the first one. She’s a dying widow looking for a home for her three children. I’ve never forgotten that performance, which I saw the first time when I was nine or ten when the show was in syndication.

  14. sheila says:

    Jaquandor – wonderful. I love those performances we see as children that make an impact. We have no idea who the person is, and it doesn’t matter: we remember them.

    I loved that Garbo line you mentioned from the book. Ha!!

  15. lynD says:

    A lovely post, as usual, and a touching tribute.

  16. John says:

    Patricia as Livey Walton will always be remembered my me. She comes across as strong yet weary, worried yet hopeful, so complex. I have seen that movie many, many times and never tire of it. It was interesting to read about her disappointment in not getting the tv series. It is fascinating to think about what the show would have been with her in it. I liked Michael Learned but…….

  17. sheila says:

    John – I liked Michael Learned, too – Neal brought something very different to the part. Clearly, they just wanted to go in a different direction for the series – but it is, like you said, fascinating to think what the series would have been with Neal as Ma.

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