Though the film is anything but a musical, "The Subject Was Roses," based by Frank Gilroy on his play, stops suddenly for a song about halfway through. The voice of Judy Collins, both aching and angelic, sings "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" while Patricia Neal, star of the 1968 film, wanders around a vast old seaside resort.
Neal's portrayal of anxiety and loneliness in this sequence and the rest of "Roses" seem especially authentic because three years earlier she'd survived a series of near-fatal strokes, and "Roses" marked a return to movies that many people doubted she would ever make.
Who indeed does know where time goes, once it's been used up and the disc can no longer be recorded? The name of Patricia Neal isn't nearly as familiar as it once was -- encountered now mainly on late, late shows or in Tinseltown tattle prattle. But tonight, at 8 and again at 11, the still-living legend is given more suitable attention on "Private Screenings," a series of specials produced by TCM, where the priceless past of Hollywood is kept on perpetual display.
TCM host Robert Osborne, who appears to have known Neal for years -- and whose Rolodex must be humongous -- chats with her in his usual familiar but not excessively flattering way. He avoids fatuous fawning (a la James Lipton on "Inside the Actor's Studio" and the phony, posed confrontations of the "Today" show). Because Osborne maintains a chummy relationship with most of the stars, however, he tends to hold back, failing to follow up on questions that might make the guest a little uncomfortable but fascinate those of us watching at home.
In Neal's case, even a bowdlerized version (and this isn't) would smack of fascination. Neal, 78, endured so many hard knocks along the way that you've got to be impressed she is still here to talk about them, and without apparent bitterness or resentment.
Among the traumas: three devastating strokes suffered within days of one another -- attacks that threatened her career as well as her life. Neal was 39 and pregnant (secretly, so she wouldn't lose her job on a minor John Ford movie, "Seven Women") when stricken. She spent 21 days in a coma once she reached the hospital. There was much speculation that if she survived, her blue-velvet voice might not, or her abilities would be limited.
Neal became a study in courage and tenacity, and she tells the story of those years with plenty of candor but no melodrama or self-pity. Her husband, the late writer Roald Dahl, all but forced her to return to work on "Roses," knowing that work was the best possible therapy. She was cranky and uncomfortable at first, and unable to remember dialogue. By the end of shooting, Neal says, "I was just the happiest woman alive."
Her hill-and-valley life continued its undulating ways, however. Dahl, who had nursed her back to professional happiness, announced that he wanted to divorce her. "I could have killed everybody," Neal recalls. But of Dahl (who wrote "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and other children's books) she confesses, "I'll never get over him" and "I still love him."
The same, only more so, goes for Gary Cooper, impossibly dashing darling of the screen who was married to another woman when he launched a red-hot affair with Neal. They were making "The Fountainhead" with director King Vidor back in the '40s, and their affair was so civilized that Cooper's wife almost became Neal's friend -- they became especially close in later years, after Cooper's death, though Neal says the couple's daughter "loathed me."
When she first encountered Cooper, Neal says, she thought him "the most ravishingly beautiful man I had ever seen in my life." Even today men aren't often described as "ravishingly beautiful," but clips and stills from "The Fountainhead" show Neal and Cooper looking the epitome of effortless elegance. The movie, from a dippy pip of a novel by Ayn Rand, has dated -- laughably at times, almost always enjoyably -- but Cooper, were he alive, could walk down Fifth Avenue with Neal today and both would look entirely stylish. Cooper and Neal wore clothes as if men and women were actually intended by God to wear them.
Neal talks about some of the other men she worked with -- if not had love affairs with. Ronald Reagan she found to be "a fabulous man," vigorously likable, but apparently not irresistible to her. George Peppard, who played her personal gigolo in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," was, she says, "a horror," and mean to her on the set. She and Paul Newman set off showers of sparks on-screen in "Hud," which earned Neal her Oscar for Best Actress.
Ejected by Warner Bros., Neal went to 20th Century Fox in the early 1950s for "The Day the Earth Stood Still," Robert Wise's sophisticated sci-fi thriller. In previous interviews, Neal has insulted and ridiculed the film, but somebody finally plopped her down in a chair and made her watch it. Now she concedes it's "really good," especially for its genre.
At these and many other junctures, viewers may long to hear more detail and richer recollections. Either Neal isn't particularly adept at summoning them, or Osborne elected to treat her with too much delicacy, which would be a kind of honorable pity. A woman who's been through what Patricia Neal has been through isn't going to be injured by a cranky query or two. No attention, oddly enough, is paid "A Face in the Crowd," another performance for which Neal might well have won an Oscar, and probably should have.
Though a few of Neal's films will air this month on TCM, the collection falls short of satisfying. It doesn't help that the rights to "The Day the Earth Stood Still" belong to 20th Century Fox, which showed the film just last week on its comparatively tacky Fox Movie Channel. With all the money Rupert Murdoch makes off bad taste, you'd think he might operate Fox's movie channel as a smart and classy loss leader -- token quality.
Instead, the channel relies on relatively few titles, crummy prints, clownish on-air personalities and cable's gift to humanity: repetition-repetition-repetition.
As always, conditions for movie lovers are ideal at TCM. Though this "Private Screenings" comes off as oddly hesitant, it still tells Neal's story effectively. Her career spanned eras, fads and studios. And she personally survived more ordeals and misfortunes than many made-up heroines on ice floes of the silent screen. Who knows where the time has gone? Thanks to movies, it needn't go anywhere -- and Neal can wander around that old hotel forever.