An interview with Patricia Neal, RIP.

By Adam Lippe

This interview originally appeared in Outlook, a newspaper in Columbus, Ohio, in April of 2008. Ms. Neal died yesterday of cancer.

Husky-voiced actress Patricia Neal was born in Packard, Kentucky in 1926 and began her career in New York theater in 1946. She won the first Tony Award for best actress for her performance in the play Another Part of the Forest, and went on to a long career in Hollywood.

On April 18, Neal will be here at The Drexel Theatre for a mini-retrospective of her films — including the film that won her an Oscar, Hud.  Neal’s most famous films include Breakfast At Tiffany’s, The Fountainhead, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, but the role that got away from her was Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate.  As she told me, she had three strokes, while pregnant, just before being offered the part and didn’t feel she could do the role justice while recovering.  Her stroke eventually became the focus of her life, leading to the creation of the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Her health struggles were the subject of the TV movie The Patricia Neal Story.

In her “private” life, Neal was initially known as Gary Cooper’s mistress and his co-star in two films.  Neal later wed children’s novelist Roald Dahl and had five children during their 30-year marriage.

Speaking to me from her New York home in her trademark husk, Neal detailed her life as a performer, her current playacting on cruise ships, and her plans to be on hand at the Drexel to introduce Hud and answer audience questions.

AL: If you could work with a film director today, who would it be and why?

PN: Oh my god I wasn’t expecting that.

AL: Which director do you wish you could have worked with in your heyday and why?

PN: Elia Kazan, he was gorgeous, Marty Ritt was lovely. Those are my two favorites. I don’t see a lot of films. I just live on them.

AL: After your contracts with Warner and Fox were over, how did the climate change in terms of getting film work?

PN: I didn’t want it. I wanted to go back to New York to do theater. And I did. I had heard that Trevor Bloomgarten had done the play I had worked on, [Another Part of the Forest, for which she won her Tony], I read in the paper that he was doing The Children’s Hour, another Lillian Hellman play. I called him and said, ‘let me read for the part,’ and he said ‘sure.’ I read it so magnificently that he let me choose the part I wanted to play.

AL: You said you found working on The Day the Earth Stood Still to be initially funny, because you thought it was just another silly sci-fi movie, but that you changed your view years later. What did you find silly about it then and why did you change your view later?

PN: Oh, I thought it was hysterical. (laughs) I should not have because it is really a good film. The leading man he didn’t think it was silly.

AL: While working on The Day the Earth Stood Still, did the castmembers and the filmmakers hint to you that they aware of the commentary the film seems to be making about McCarthyism?

PN: I think yes. I didn’t realize there was anything it was meant to be. I don’t think it was.

AL: Billy Wilder once said that Ace in the Hole was the favorite film he made, and that he was not happy it was a critical and financial failure. I’ve read that A Face in the Crowd is the favorite film you made. But which financial and/or critical failure of yours do you cherish and wish it had been a success and why?

PN: I loved A Face in the Crowd. I thought it was really a beauty. And it didn’t do good business.

AL: Which of your former husband’s …

PN: I have not had more than one husband. (laughs) I want you to know that.

AL: Oh, OK. (Laughs) Which of your former husband’s novels do you wish had been adapted for you to star in and why?

PN: I don’t remember yearning to do them. I like them though, I think they’re very good. He was a very good man.

AL: There’s a scene in Robert Altman’s The Player where Buck Henry pitches The Graduate: Part 2, in which Mrs. Robinson would have had a stroke. Do you think that was a nod to your having to decline the role while you recuperated from your stroke? If so, what do you think of Altman’s comment?

PN: [With The Graduate, they] called me but I was too ill to do it. I knew Anne Bancroft because I worked with her a lot. I was in The Miracle Worker with her. I loved her. She was a gorgeous woman.

AL: Speaking of Altman, he often said that directing was over for him as soon as he cast the film. You worked with him on Cookie’s Fortune, Did he direct you, or just let you improvise?

PN: He didn’t direct me a lot, but he was a very good director.

AL: I know that Hud is the film you will be introducing at the festival.

PN: It is? Thank you for that information. (laughs) I had no idea.

AL: Larry McMurtry’s most famous film adaptations are Hud, The Last Picture Show, and Brokeback Mountain.

PN: [“Hud”] was based on a book. It was a black woman in the book. [Alma was actually raped in the book, as opposed to in the movie where it is only attempted]. Did you know that?

AL: I didn’t know that, no. That’s interesting. Well, basically, what I was asking was do you believe all three of the films treat women as sexual objects, where the men expect the women to act only as sexpots, and the women hold back their real personalities in order to satisfy the male urge?

PN: (Long laughter) Darling, I think I did the right thing. I just don’t know. I don’t like that way baby. I just do my best.

AL: Hud, much like Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy, seems mostly like a lost boytoy. But the two films were made during entirely different censorship eras, despite being produced in the same decade. How did censorship affect the making of Hud, specifically the filming of the attempted rape scene? Did you have to watch your language, considering the majority of your dialogue is loaded with sexual innuendo?

PN: No… A couple of things. The screenwriters knew what they were doing.

AL: Was there originally a scene in Hud where the Melvyn Douglas’ character consoles you after the attempted rape? He seems to have a heavy heart when he lets his men go after they kill off the sick cows, but Alma appears to be an afterthought.

PN: He didn’t have to, I’m sure. I had a scene with the boy [Brandon De Wilde] that was deleted. That’s the only one I know. I loved the boy and he sadly died. He died in a terrible car crash in Denver, Colorado. 12 hours after the crash he died.

AL: Considering McMurtry’s longstanding popularity, were you surprised at the outcry against “Brokeback Mountain” from the older guard of Hollywood when it was nominated for best picture in 2005? Are you still an active voting member of the academy and did you vote for it?

PN: I loved [Brokeback]. I thought that was a good one. One of them died, you know. (Heath Ledger died in January). It was tragic.

AL: But how did you feel about some older members who wouldn’t vote for the film on principal because of its content.

PN: (Incredulously) Oh C’mon. I didn’t even know [they] said that. But I think it’s a really good film.

AL: Are you still an active, voting member of the Academy?

PN: Oh, sure.

AL: I understand you’re currently a doing a lot of cruise ship theater, but IMDB lists a few upcoming film projects, would you like to say anything about them?

PN: I love [cruise ship theater], love it. We’re doing two this year. We’re doing one in the middle of September on a cruise. [With films] I don’t want to do them if I don’t know what it is. I like to do good things.

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By Adam Lippe

Whenever there’s a genre parody or ode to a specific era of films, such as Black Dynamite’s mocking of Blaxploitation films or Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, the second half of Grindhouse, the danger is that the film might fall into the trap of either being condescending without any particular insight, or so faithful that it becomes the very flawed thing it is emulating.

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Featured Quote (written by me)

On Cold Fish:

Though the 16 year old me described the 1994 weepie Angie, starring Geena Davis as a Brooklyn mother raising her new baby alone, as “maudlin and melodramatic,” Roger Ebert, during his TV review, referring to the multitude of soap-operaish problems piling up on the titular character, suggested that it was only in Hollywood where Angie would get a happy ending. “If they made this movie in France, Angie would have shot herself.”

Well Cold Fish was made in Japan, where Angie would have shot herself and that would have been the happy ending.