Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The day I met Patricia Neal

Forgive me, my blog title is a bit of a misnomer. I never truly "met" Patricia Neal, who died on Sunday  - at least not in the sense that I walked up to her, shook her hand  and chit-chatted.

However, I did get to see her in the spring of 2008, when she paid a visit to the Sci-Fi Marathon in Columbus I go to most every year. She was there because the marathon was playing the film for which geeks know her best: The Day the Earth Should Still. On the strength of probably the most famous non-English line in the history of film -  "Klaatu barada nikto"  - she earned a place in cinema immortality. 

But she was so much more than that. She was a fascinating mixture - a striking beauty whose face could express a cornucopia of emotions in only a few seconds. She had real sass; she was the kind of lady who could probably be called a broad, and she'd take it as a compliment.

And then there was that VOICE of hers. The one that didn't sound quite feminine or quite masculine. I've heart it described as "husky" or "molasses," but to me it was like fine sandpaper - rough around the edges but smooth to the touch.

As any of her obituaries will tell you, she had to endure more trauma than even a lowlife should have to. And yet, through her steely will, she managed to bounce back and hang tough.

And she was that way when I saw her. She was already in frail health and had to be brought in on a wheelchair. Her memory seemed a bit foggy, but what she lacked in recall she made up for in personality. She hadn't lost an ounce of that. She was vivid and playful as she recalled her career - especially the time she fell in love with Gary Cooper when they made The Fountainhead. Even all those decades later, she still had a dreamy quality in her voice when she talked about him. Who could blame her?

When it came to The Day the Earth Stood Still, she recalled how at the time, nobody had any idea they were making anything that would last - yet last it has. When her interviewer brought up the fact that the movie was being remade (wretchedly, it turned out) with Keanu Reeves in the lead, she queried "Who??" 

The crowd ROARED. I don't think Neal was really trying to be funny, but the WAY she said it, with that voice, was priceless. 

She said her favorite movie of hers was Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, and that is a very fine choice. Its demonstration of how the power of the media can make millions buy into a charlatan seems more prescient than ever these days. 

However, the movie in which she gave her best performance was, for me, the one for which she won her Oscar - 1963's Hud. Not many actresses could play haunted sensuality, but Neal could - vividly. 

Toward the end of that film, Paul Newman says to her, "I'll always remember you, honey - you're the one that got away." 

We'll always remember Patricia Neal, but she'll never get away, as long as there's a movie screen to flicker somewhere, on the faces in the crowd.

For more fine reading, check out EW's list of her essential performances, and critic Joe Leydon's recollections of Neal.

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