In the short-attention span of popular culture, Patricia Neal’s stage and screen career is unfortunately now lost on several younger generations. But you only need to take a glance at her storied body of work to see she made arts history.
For 41 years, Neal stood as the only Kentucky native to win an acting Academy Award for her performance in 1964’s Hud until George Clooney took home the gold in 2005’s Syriana.
But that was merely a highlight in a career that made her 2007 Governors Award in the Arts seem overdue. As we mourn Neal’s passing Sunday at age 84 in Martha’s Vineyard, Kentuckians can take pride in a star who was a tribute to her home state.
Neal was born in 1926 in Packard, Ky., a Whitley Co. mining town that no longer exisits.
“I’d like to go back in time and see what’s not there.” Neal said when she visited Frankfort in 2006 to sign copies of Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life, Stephen Michael Shearer’s biography of her, at the Kentucky Book Fair.
Though she moved from Kentucky to Knoxville when she was 3, Neal said she often came home to visit relatives when she was growing up in Tennessee.
“We used to go back twice a month to visit my grandfather, who was the Packard doctor,” said Neal. “My Aunt Maude lived in Williamsburg, Ky., and twice a month I went to be with her, and, oh, did I love it.”
During that Frankfort visit, she noted that even late in life, she still went back to visit her parents’ graves in Williamsburg. The Knoxville News Sentinel reported Neal had planned to travel to the site of Packard, Williamsburg and Knoxville this week.
Not long after getting her first taste of the stage in Knoxville, Neal was off to New York, getting her second role in the Broadway production of Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest. Under Hellman’s direction, at age 20, Neal earned a Tony Award for her portrayal of conniving Regina Hubbard.
Hellman was the first of many legendary stage and screen artists Neal would work with, including Elia Kazan, Robert Wise, Robert Altman, Blake Edwards, Audrey Hepburn and Paul Newman.
Neal made unintended headlines through her affair with Gary Cooper, her married and much older co-star in her second film, an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.
That film marked the first of a string of personal crises over her career. She and her husband, children’s book author Roald Dahl, suffered through a serious injury to their son Theo and the death of their daughter, Olivia. Then, in 1965, shortly after winning her Oscar, Neal suffered a devastating stroke. Triumphantly, she returned to the screen and earned a best actress nomination for The Subject was Roses in 1969.
Back home, Neal later helped establish and was active with the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center for people who have suffered strokes and spinal cord and brain injuries in Knoxville.
That will remain one of Neal’s lasting legacies, along with her many great movies.
While awards certainly are sign posts marking success in a career, a true measure of greatness can often be found in the work that was not rewarded, buth has endured. And from the original The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Cookie’s Fortune (1999) Neal amassed a timeless body of work. When we asked her about her favorite of her own films in 2006, she cited Kazan’s political media drama A Face in the Crowd, a film that is as relevant today as it ever was, as her favorite.
Neal’s death is a sad occasion, but also an occasion for some very rewarding film appreciation.