Just yesterday, before either one of us had heard of 84-year-old Patricia Neal's death in Martha's Vineyard, the Siren was having an email exchange with a friend about Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the new book about it by Sam Wasson. And the Siren mentioned that one of her several problems with the film is the treatment of Neal's character, a rich woman paying George Peppard's every bill while he works, theoretically, on a novel. She's given a nickname that shows what she means to him--an apartment number, 2E--and we're meant to see Neal as an obstacle to his destiny as an artist, not as someone trying to make things easier for a lover and getting barely concealed contempt in return. She leaves him money, the harpy! How's he supposed to write if she's doing things like that?
But, as always with Neal, there are more things in that face and that voice than the lines or blocking are meant to suggest--a pained vulnerability, the idea that Peppard's shameless use of her is a wound she covers with brittle chatter and a sophisticated attitude.
In her films, as well as in her life, Patricia Neal always seemed to be giving more than she got.
In Bright Leaf, the 1950 Michael Curtiz epic about tobacco farming, Neal is the one character simmering with emotion, attracted to Gary Cooper but determined to destroy him. The scene where she turns on Cooper is the most dramatic in the movie, their sexual chemistry roiling even as she confesses how much she has hated him. When he rides out alone in the end, it seems wholly fitting, not just because he couldn't keep faith with truehearted Lauren Bacall, but also because he wasn't man enough to do anything with the passion that had been flying off Neal the entire time. He didn't deserve either one of them.
She made one earlier film with Cooper, The Fountainhead. The Siren feels obligated to mention that one, but much as she loves Neal, in truth the Siren cannot bear that movie, King Vidor or no King Vidor. Ayn Rand's fans sometimes complain the film strays too far from her novel; the Siren thinks it's a visual match for Rand's writing style, and that is no compliment. Even so, the Siren still sees Neal's warmth and intelligence glimmering behind her risible lines and motivations.
During the filming of The Fountainhead, and continuing through and after Bright Leaf, Neal had an affair with Cooper that brought her agony, as Cooper's Catholic wife refused a divorce. Cooper urged Neal to have an abortion when she became pregnant, a decision Neal grieved over for the rest of her life. Her later marriage to Roald Dahl was marked by a horrifying taxi accident involving her four-month-old son. Theo survived, but Neal's seven-year-old daughter Olivia later died of complications from measles. In 1965, as she was in the early stages of shooting John Ford's Seven Women (a part that might have been perfect for her), she suffered a catastrophic series of strokes while she was pregnant with daughter Lucy. The effects on her speech, her body and her memory were devastating, but Dahl, with savage dedication, nursed her back to life and to acting.
Less than twenty years later, they divorced when Neal discovered Dahl's longstanding affair with her best friend. Betrayal haunted Patricia Neal off-screen as much as it did on.
Her misfortunes, her philanthropy and her courage became perhaps even more famous than her work, and tinge the perception of something like The Subject Was Roses, her first major role after the strokes and a beautiful performance. But simple nobility is almost never enough on screen. Neal always showed you the struggle, how damn hard everything was--but in a way that told you pity would be an insult to such a woman. It's evident even in an earlier role, such as her magnificent work in A Face in the Crowd, where you feel her revenge on Lonesome Rhodes as a blow for every woman who ever wasted time, intelligence and love on a worthless egomaniac.
She was one of those actresses whose beauty became softer and more inviting, not less, with age. In Hud, her housekeeper character Alma fends off Paul Newman's advances with the torment of loving him emphasizing every line on her face, and yet it only adds to her magnetism. Later parts became more like Alma, such as warm, gentle Olivia Walton in The Homecoming.
Always there was that voice, its timbre joining the Tennessee accent to create a sound you anticipate the way you might yearn for a close-up of another actor. The Siren has spent this morning collecting the adjectives. Corncrake, said David Shipman (a bird, evidently--the Siren had to look that one up). Molasses, says the Times. Throaty, husky, sandpaper. And the Siren can hear all that even just reading a printed interview with Neal, like the one where she explained the fears of a young contract player at the old Warner Brothers: "Bette Davis was queen of the studio, and you couldn't just go up to her and ask her to solve your problems.
"They were real stars in those days, babe."
(Postscript: You will most definitely want to read Sheila O'Malley's tribute.)
An overdue update: Reader Carol wrote the Siren some time ago to point out that contrary to her original post, Cooper was not Catholic at the time of his affair with Neal, and that the Siren's rather harsh allusion was in error. Research shows that Carol is right. The Siren regrets the error, and the sideswipe at Cooper. Mea culpa.