AWFJ Women On Film – Patricia Neal, 1926-2010 – Betsy Pickle comments (Exclusive)

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Academy Award winner Patricia Neal, who died Sunday at her Martha’s Vineyard home, may seem to have been one of the last of her kind, but she actually was one of a kind.

At 84, Neal was active and making plans, despite battling lung cancer. She had beaten pneumonia in April and had scheduled an August visit to the South to visit landmarks from her past as well as her legacy, the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, Tenn.

Neal was one of the last great leading ladies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Her co-stars ranged from Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan to Tyrone Power and Van Johnson to Andy Griffith and Paul Newman. She triumphed on Broadway before making her mark on Tinseltown.

Yet, she became perhaps even more celebrated for her personal triumphs over tragedy than for her professional achievements. Most impressive was her recovery from a trio of strokes, an experience that turned her into a champion of the handicapped and an advocate for rehabilitation.

The future screen idol was born Patsy Louise Neal in the coal-mining town of Packard, Ky., on Jan. 20, 1926. Her parents moved the family to Knoxville, Tenn., shortly before her third birthday. As a child, Patsy became known for her dramatic abilities as well as her looks, and by high school she made her first real steps toward establishing herself as an actor by earning an apprenticeship at the famed Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va.

She studied acting at Northwestern University in Chicago but left after two years to try her luck in New York. She had the same rough start as thousands of young hopefuls, but within a year she was becoming known as “Patricia” Neal and had won a role on Broadway in Lillian Hellman’s “Another Part of the Forest.” Look magazine named her “the best bet of the stage for stardom during 1947,” and she won the prize for Best Featured or Supporting Actress (Dramatic) at the very first Tony Awards for her performance.

Neal was determined to establish herself on stage before going near Hollywood, and when she did head for the West Coast, it was after a studio bidding war that resulted in her getting a seven-year contract with a hefty weekly salary from Warner Bros. Her first film, the lightweight “John Loves Mary,” paired her with Reagan, who would later be her leading man in the more meaningful “The Hasty Heart.”

It was her second film that changed her life. She and Gary Cooper fell in love on the set of “The Fountainhead,” and after shooting ended they began a full-fledged romance. The movie did not fare well with critics or the public, but the affair burned brightly for three years, ending after Cooper persuaded her to have an abortion and refused to leave his wife.

Neal was devastated and had a breakdown after the split.

Neal had not had the success Warner Bros. expected, and the studio released her from her contract early. Aside from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “A Face in the Crowd,” the highlights of her 1950s work were onstage.

In 1953, Neal married British writer Roald Dahl, later of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach” fame. In her 1988 autobiography, “As I Am,” written with Richard DeNeut, she said that she didn’t love Dahl, but after seeing photos of his nieces and nephew she was convinced he’d make “beautiful babies.” They went on to have five children, though their life together was far from storybook perfection.

While she loved being a mother, Neal always saw herself as a breadwinner as well. She worked constantly, whether in films, on stage or on television. She earned respect for her acting early on, and she was regarded as one of the lucky ones for the breaks she had. With the dawn of the 1960s, however, she seemed to become the central figure in a Greek drama, as one tragedy after another struck.

She and Dahl refused to give up on their 4-month-old son, Theo, after he was hit by a cab in New York in December 1960, sustaining brain injuries that required numerous surgeries over 30 months.

After the family relocated to the supposedly safer environs of the English countryside, their oldest daughter, 7-year-old Olivia, died of measles encephalitis in November 1962. Neal lamented that had they stayed in New York, Olivia would have been able to get the vaccine that would have prevented her illness.

Neal hit the peak of her profession when she won the 1963 Academy Award for Best Actress in “Hud.” She was unable to attend the April 1964 Oscar ceremonies because she was eight months pregnant with her fourth child. And she didn’t get to fulfill the traditional duty of Best Actress by presenting the Oscar to the next year’s Best Actor winner because of another life-changing event, her biggest hurdle yet.

In Los Angeles on the night of Feb. 17, 1965, after her fourth day of shooting John Ford’s “Seven Women,” Neal suffered the first of three strokes. She was paralyzed on her right side and suffered double vision, and she was three months pregnant with her fifth child. She spent a month in the hospital and many more doing therapy, first in L.A. and then at home in England. She credited Dahl’s relentless bullying for keeping her going.

Hollywood was amazed at Neal’s recovery, and she was even offered the role of Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate,” but she didn’t think she was ready. When she did make her comeback, in 1968’s “The Subject Was Roses,” she was rewarded with another Best Actress Oscar nomination, but she lost to co-winners Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand. In 1969, she held the top spot on Good Housekeeping magazine’s list of most admired women.

During the 1970s, Neal was seen most often on the small screen, earning three Emmy nominations for her work in telefilms. She also became widely recognizable as the spokeswoman for Maxim coffee. She traveled a lot both for work and as an advocate for stroke and brain and spinal-cord injury rehabilitation, so it took a while for her to recognize — and admit to herself — the signs that her husband was having an affair.

Neal and Dahl divorced in 1983, and Dahl married his mistress, who had come into the couple’s lives as a coordinator for the ad agency working on Neal’s Maxim campaign. Dahl died in 1990.

Neal never remarried. Instead, she continued acting and advocating. She welcomed stage roles, whether they were in theaters or on cruise ships. Her last major film role was in 1999’s “Cookie’s Fortune,” directed by Robert Altman, but she appeared as recently as 2009 in the TV movie “Flying By” with Billy Ray Cyrus.

Neal received numerous accolades including two BAFTAs, a Golden Globe and a Helen Hayes Award. She was feted at film festivals and honored with lifetime achievement awards.

The Patricia Neal Golf Classic will take place Aug. 16 in Knoxville, as scheduled. Over the past 25 years, the pro/am event has netted more than $3 million for the rehabilitation center named for the actress. Neal frequently visited and encouraged patients at the center, which opened in 1978.

According to the center’s Web site, on the eve of her death Neal told her family, “I’ve had a lovely time.”

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Betsy Pickle

Betsy Pickle is a freelance film critic and journalist. She was the film critic at the Knoxville News Sentinel from May 1985 to November 2008. A Knoxville native, she graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.S. in communications. In 1992, Betsy co-founded the Southeastern Film Critics Association, a group that has grown to more than 40 members in nine states. She served as SEFCA's president 2001-2004. She is a past member of the advisory council of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission and has served as a judge at the Nashville Film Festival, the Asheville Film Festival and the late and lamented Valleyfest Film Festival. Her reviews and features have appeared in newspapers from Atlanta to Anchorage and Stuart, Fla., to Sacramento, Calif.