A succession of tragedies has marked the life of Patricia Neal, whose bright promise on Broadway in the mid-1940s took her to Hollywood and into a succession of lackluster films, as well as a desperate love affair with actor Gary Cooper and marriage to British writer Roald Dahl.
In 1945, with $60 and a burning ambition, Neal went to New York. She got an understudy’s job in “The Voice of the Turtle” on Broadway but basically earned her livelihood as a cashier, clerk and model while trying out for parts.
Playwright Eugene O’Neill took an interest in her, and that led to her being hired by the Theatre Guild to appear in the summer tryout of a play in Westport, Conn.
There, she was seen by Lillian Hellman, who wanted her for “Another Part of the Forest,” and by Richard Rodgers, who wanted to cast her as the female lead in “John Loves Mary.” She chose the Hellman play — and that 1947 engagement brought her five major awards, including a Tony and the New York Drama Critics’ Award.
It also brought her several screen offers. She signed with Warner Bros. and landed in Hollywood in December of 1948 to star in the film version of the play she had turned down in New York — “John Loves Mary.”
She made nine films in three years, the most notable of which probably was “The Fountainhead” (1949), in which she portrayed the spoiled, neurotic Dominique of Ayn Rand’s novel. Her costar was Cooper. She was sneered at by the critics, who also panned “The Bright Leaf” (1950), the second film in which she starred with Cooper.
Having been suspended by Warner Bros. for refusing to star in a western with Randolph Scott, Neal decided to leave Hollywood. Later she recalled that she just wasn’t ready for the movies the first time around. “I blame nobody but myself and my immaturity,” she said.
She returned to New York, where in December 1952 she opened in a revival of “The Children’s Hour.” She then played off Broadway in “School for Scandal.”
As she rebuilt that career, she played Broadway in “A Roomful of Roses,” was associated with the Actors Studio and was chosen by Elia Kazan to fill in for Barbara Bel Geddes in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
She also scored a film success in “A Face in the Crowd” with Andy Griffith. In 1960, she had a small part in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
But that same year the first tragedy struck. Her infant son, Theo, was being wheeled across a New York street by a nurse when the stroller was struck by a passing cab. The child underwent a series of operations and was left with water on the brain.
Two years later, her daughter, Olivia, 7, died from brain inflammation after a case of measles.
In February 1965, at the age of 39, after the first day of filming for “Seven Women,” Patricia Neal suffered a brain hemorrhage while giving her oldest daughter, Tessa, 8, a bath.
She had two more strokes after her arrival at UCLA Medical Center, where she underwent a seven-hour operation.
Late in November 1966, on a day she remembered clearly from then on, she suddenly “wanted to live again.” She said, “When I ‘woke up’ and had been ill for 18 months, I began to like life again.”
Although initially reluctant to attempt stage parts because of her difficulty memorizing lines, Neal was cast in the 1968 film “The Subject Was Roses” with Jack Albertson and Martin Sheen. She portrayed a hateful, pitiful woman worn down by 25 years of marriage.
It was regarded as a triumph and resulted in an Academy Award nomination.
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