Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Patricia Neal, Supernovae

Patricia Neal, classic-cinema era actress, has died at 84.

She made very few good movies, but even in the bad ones she was terrific. Her debut in John Loves Mary, a pleasant but forgettable outing with Ronald Reagan, showed what usually goes by the term "promise." The 1949 production of The Fountainhead showed what she was promising: vibrance, dynamism, and intelligent sex appeal. Poor choices by Warner Bros. executives, a rare misstep where a major talent was concerned, caused that promise to be squandered.

She wandered through various mediocre to bad films — The Hasty Heart, Bright Leaf, a couple of others — until being cast in what was expected to be a not-much sci-fi flick: The Day the Earth Stood Still. It turned out to be a classic that holds up well today, despite a lot of ribbing about some unfortunate alien dialogue. She was marvelous throughout — tense, determined, and an anchor of sanity in a paranoid world.

Then it was back to mostly so-so productions for a few more years. (An exception: the surprisingly good Washington Story, a love story set against a background of D.C. politics with more than usual depth.) Finally, she landed the superlative A Face in the Crowd. Her semi-cynical, semi-idealist offset to Andy Griffith's loathsome Lonesome Rhodes was a tour de force.

Even so, despite good reviews, great roles never materialized after that. Her small part in Breakfast at Tiffany's was another stunning piece of work, showing her considerable range, but the movie is mostly silly, worthwhile chiefly for the outstanding cast.

As with many no-longer very young actresses of the period, good roles were increasingly fewer and farther between. So, it was off to TV for a forgettable string of parts that paid the bills until the postmodern Hud. Her reputation rose considerably now, not surprisingly since this is one of the Anti(s) all-time favorites. (Depressed, empty people placed in a hopeless world always get that crowd excited, since that's how they see life.)

Next came In Harm's Way with John Wayne, an interesting character-driven war film made too long after the war to be great, and one in which Neal had too little to do. But what she does wows, particularly in the steamy, but underplayed, love scene.

With her next starring vehicle, The Subject Was Roses, another depressing piece of trash the Anti(s) drool over, her reputation as an actress was assured. In part, her comeback after a stroke was partly responsible. Anti(s) love it when someone beautiful and clean suffers, and everyone loves it when an individual finds the fortitude to overcome such a tragedy.

Every Golden Era Hollywood actress appeared in films that were less than stellar, but it was Patricia Neal's lot to suffer that rollercoaster more than most. Still, she always shone brightly, whether the material was poor or excellent.

Part of that was, no doubt, the result of her amazing resilience, that traditional American "never say die" grit. For giving us those few hours of a vision that reflects that spirit, Patricia Neal deserves all the praise she'll get.

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