Sunday, July 19, 2009
Film star Patricia Neal was born in a little spot in the road in Kentucky called Packard, in Whitley County.
She went on to study drama at Northwestern University in Illinois, then found fame virtually right out of the gate. Her first film, 1949's John Loves Mary, she had a small part playing opposite Ronald Reagan, and by only her second film, 1949's The Fountainhead, she was already headlining as a star with Gary Cooper. The Fountainhead was based on the novel by the always controversial Ayn Rand, who also wrote the screenplay for this adaptation herself.
During the shooting of The Fountainhead, Neal began having an affair with the then-married Cooper. She was 23, he was 48. Neal became pregnant by Cooper and had an abortion. Their secret relationship went on until 1950, when Cooper's family got wind of it somehow. His wife sent Neal a threatening telegram, and his daughter berated and spat on Neal in a public event.
In 1951, playwright Lillian Hellman introduced Neal to Roald Dahl, the British author who would go on to write Man from the South in 1959, James and the Giant Peach in 1961 and Charlie & the Chocolate Factory in 1964.
Neal and Dahl married in 1953, and their marriage produces five children. Unfortunately, their household was an ill-fated one. In 1961 their infant son Theo was badly injured when a taxicab slammed into his carriage Neal was pushing. They lost a daughter to measles in 1962. In 1965 Neal herself suffered a series of brain aneurysms and was in a coma for weeks. It took her three years to recover, with Dahl patiently helping her rebuild herself.
In 1983 Neal divorced Dahl when she discovered he had been having an affair with Felicity Crosland, a mutual friend. Whether or not Dahl reminded her that she herself had been on the rebound from a very ugly extramarital affair with Gary Cooper when she met him, we can only wonder.
After that, Neal became extremely religious. She converted to Catholicism shortly after her split from Dahl, and later become a "born again" Christian. Today she is still very active in showbiz, at the age of 83.
Though she's best known for her appearances in the films Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Hud, for my money, her crowning glory is A Face in the Crowd. Here, she found herself at the center of one of the most important pieces of 20th century film history, in the Elia Kazan story of an evil and manipulative drifter (Andy Griffith) who - shock, shock, duh - becomes even more evil and manipulative after they mold him into a successful radio/television star with a cornpone Tennessee Ernie Ford-type program called "Cracker Barrel". Throw Walter Matthau, Tony Franciosa, Lee Remick, and Grand Ole Opry ventriloquist Rod Brasfield (pictured below) into the mix, and what a pip it was.
The film Psyche 59 is another especially noteworthy notch in the Neal oeuvre. It's a peculiar noir-ish psychological drama that was way ahead of its time, way too dark and way too weird for audiences of that era. Neal's character suffers psychosomatic blindness due to emotional/sexual trauma (I betcha Pete Townshend saw this movie before he wrote Tommy), and makes a nearly-naked appearance in a scene that somehow amazingly got past the censors of the day.
It also starred Samantha Eggar (The Collector, Walk Don't Run, Doctor Dolittle) and Nazi concentration camp survivor Curd Jürgens (The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, The Spy Who Loved Me, and the Wernher Von Braun bio-pic I Aim At The Stars).
In one eerily prophetic scene in Psyche 59, Neal's character is asked what's wrong with her vision. She replies, "There's nothing wrong with my eyes. It's in my head. Pressure on the brain center from a brain hemorrhage."