Patricia Neal dies: Oscar winning star of 'Hud' was 84

Patricia Neal, the husky-voiced actress who won an Academy Award for 1963's "Hud" and then survived several strokes to continue acting, died Sunday after a battle with lung cancer.
By Adam Bernstein
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Patricia Neal, 84, an Academy Award-winning actress who masterfully portrayed intensity and vulnerability in her screen roles and became a widely admired symbol of courage after recovering from three strokes at her career peak in the mid-1960s, died Aug. 8 of lung cancer at her home in Edgartown, Mass.

Over a 50-year career, Ms. Neal was a sporadic presence in movies. She starred in fewer than 30. But the high caliber of her dramatic work -- especially in "Hud" (1963) and "The Subject Was Roses" (1968) -- gave her an enduring reputation for excellence. Washington Post film critic Richard L. Coe once called her "our most undervalued major actress."

She had won a Tony Award at 20 playing the scheming Regina Hubbard in "Another Part of the Forest," Lillian Hellman's prequel to "The Little Foxes." The role brought her to Hollywood, where the husky-voiced beauty began a tormented relationship with actor Gary Cooper, with whom she starred in two movies (1949's "The Fountainhead" and 1950's "Bright Leaf"). Later she married Roald Dahl, the English writer of macabre fiction and children's classics including "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

Ms. Neal won the Oscar for leading actress in "Hud" as an earthy housekeeper who sexually jousts with Paul Newman's Texas ranch lothario.

She was also compelling in Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), as a reporter who shapes the rise and crashing of a TV huckster (Andy Griffith); as a Navy nurse in "In Harm's Way" (1965) with John Wayne; and in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961), as a society matron who pays a handsome writer (George Peppard) for his companionship.

To many, her most stunning accomplishment was "The Subject Was Roses." Her alternately heart-wrenching and scornful portrayal of a disillusioned Bronx housewife and mother prompted film critic Judith Crist to grope "for superlatives to surpass all the superlatives we had applied in the past to the performances of Patricia Neal."

The film was Ms. Neal's long-awaited return to the screen after her strokes. Three years earlier, after her nightly martini and bathing her daughter Lucy, she had strokes that nearly ended her life. She was three months pregnant at the time.

A difficult recovery

Ms. Neal recovered slowly, having lost much of her ability to speak and move. She tried to memorize poetry to regain her mental strength. She used a teleprompter to ease her own panic of setting back production on "The Subject Was Roses," which was based on Frank Gilroy's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama.

She later wrote of desperately wanting the part: "I understood her frustration with her husband and her maternal struggle for her child. She was a woman with calluses on her ego. I knew I could play her."

Ulu Grosbard, who directed the Broadway and movie versions, insisted on casting Ms. Neal for the film and waited for her to recover.

"We were all jumping into the unknown. But at the first reading of the script I knew I was right," Grosbard once said. "She is so subtle she can play from a subdued note to a wild and open anger. . . . I would rather do six extra takes with her and get what she gives than use someone else who couldn't approach her range in 72 takes."

Ms. Neal earned an Oscar nomination for the role; Jack Albertson won for playing her miserly husband.

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