Monday, August 09, 2010

A Fond Farewell: Patricia Neal 1926-2010

I was fortunate enough to meet Patricia Neal in person last February 18th at the Egyptian Theater's showing of A Face in the Crowd during a Elia Kazan 100th birthday tribute. Ms. Neal was interviewed after a showing of the film, and she signed copies of books and memorabilia before the screening. This enduring star was just as I hoped she'd be: both down-to-earth and larger-than-life. I admit I became a star struck, grinning idiot once I spied the lady of the hour as I waited in line for an autograph; I‘d admired Ms. Neal for both her onscreen performances and for the personal fortitude which had seen her through many tribulations in life (many times over, this women earned the right to proclaim "You think you've got it bad," but her attitude always remained extremely positive), and it was awesome to see her in person. One of my earliest film viewing experiences was watching Neal staring Gort down with a forceful "Klaatu barada nikto." Waiting in line to get an autograph, I observed she was so down-to-earth and well, Patricia Nealish with everyone (when the woman in front of me mentioned to Ms. Neal she‘d met the star a year ago at an event, Ms. Neal replied, “Oh, I thought you looked familiar“ in such a polite, sincere manner it didn‘t really matter if she remember the fan or not), it was easy to relax a little before meeting her. When I made it to the signing table, she seemed pleased I had a copy of her autobiography, As I Am, along with the book featured at the signing, Stephen Michael Shearer's Patricia Neal- An Unquiet Life (she stated "THAT'S the original" before signing As I Am). I managed to mention The Day the Earth Stood Still was one of the first films I saw repeatedly and, in that warm, rich, deep voice she replied, “And how old were you, darling?” That pretty much did it for me but, I stated her work in Hud was one of my favorite performances before stepping to the sidelines to observe her working her way through the many well-wishers. While standing in line, I managed to captured a little video of her as she good-naturally chastised her assistant at the book signing:

Unfortunately I didn't realize my camera captured sound along with video, so I didn't record the post-film interview with Ms. Neal (it must be out there somewhere, though). However, I did jot down some notes, and here are some of Neal's observations:

On The Day the Earth Stood Still: "I love it. I think it's a fantastic film. I really could hardly keep a straight face making it."

On Earth's director, Robert Wise: "He was an editor. He didn't really know how to talk to an actor. He was a lovely man otherwise."

On A Face in the Crowd's director, Elia Kazan: "I loved him. He was a beautiful man- a beautiful man. He was a gorgeous director. He used to be an actor, don't forget that. If you're an actor you know what an actor's made of."

On Face costar Lee Remick: "Gorgeous, gorgeous girl. I really loved her. She was a beautiful woman. I'm so sorry she's no longer with us." When a audience member (correctly) mentioned Remick did not do all her own baton twirling in the film, the loyal Neal insisted Remick carried it off solo, then charmingly stated "Don't take anything away from her."

On her most famous scene in A Face, wherein Marcia reveals Lonesome Rhodes' true nature to a television audience by turning on the sound, then grabbing a hold of the soundboard's control panel while a group of employees fight in vain to pull her away: "Oh, it was fantastic. He (Kazan) didn't want me to ever let go."

On the initial public reaction to A Face: "I don't think people wanted it to be successful. The communist thing was still very much alive. But I think it's beautiful."

On overcoming her personal tragedies: "Almost killed me, baby. Roald (Dahl) shoved me back into it. He wanted me to work. I loved it. I'd like to have a job. If anyone hears of one, let me know."

Possessing an indomitable spirit until the end, Neal stands tall among the bravest, most admirable women to ever be found on, or off, a stage or screen. My love of Neal has lasted well beyond those childhood viewings of Earth; on film, Neal only got better after her early screen appearances, possibly reaching her zenith as Alma in Hud. Martin Ritt's 1963 western drama has been a touchstone film for me, largely due to Neal's impressively understated work. It's a textbook example of great film acting- Neal has no false moments, and she never appears to be straining for truth in the role- she's relaxed, open, funny, and totally in sync with Alma's situation. Neal was surprised at the accolades she received for a film in which she had no "big" scenes, but her work is more memorable than many a more 'dramatic' Best Actress winner. Alma's lazy, humorous method of keeping Hud in his place while fending off his amorous advances, the motherly warmth she displays with Lon, and her weary, despondent goodbye to Lon at the bus stop stay with a viewer due to Neal's quiet-yet-powerful work. Like Alma, the image of Neal as a strong, independent and endearing survivor lingers in the memory.


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