With her rich honeyed voice, smoky beauty, and off-screen life as tragic, eventful, and improbable as that of any soap opera heroine, Patricia Neal was an actress who won’t be forgotten any time soon. The Tony, Golden Globe, and Oscar-winning Kentucky native, who passed away yesterday from lung cancer at age 84, leaves behind a indelible on-screen legacy that lives on for anyone who appreciates screen acting at its best. Here’s a look at her five essential movie performances:
*The Fountainhead (1949) In King Vidor’s adaptation of Ayn Rand’s bestselling novel, Neal plays Dominique Francon opposite Gary Cooper — a role Barbara Stanwyck reportedly wanted badly. The movie may seem a bit melodramatic today (and maybe it was back in 1941, too), but Neal, then 23 and in only her second big-screen role, acts circles around her costar, oozing romantic desperation and battling her pride. Off-screen, the romance between the two leads was equally heated (and doomed). Neal fell head over heels for Cooper, then 48. But, in the end, he refused to leave his wife for her.
*A Face in the Crowd (1957) Elia Kazan’s film about the corrupting nature of celebrity and the media is as good as it gets — especially if you grew up too late to think of Andy Griffith as anything but Matlock. Here, Griffith gives a go-for-broke performance as a troublemaking Arkansas musician named Lonesome Rhodes, who rises to power and fame speaking truth to power and then letting it all go to his head. Neal, as a radio reporter, who helps him rocket to fame before she realizes the monster she’s created, is, quite simply, brilliant.
*Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) Neal doesn’t have the biggest role in this Audrey Hepburn classic, but man does she pack a wallop when she comes on screen, playing a wealthy benefactor who reminds George Peppard’s gigolo just how cheap and for-sale his services and his life are. Watching her toy with him, it’s easy to imagine why she was the first choice to play Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate several years later. Although Neal, recovering from a stroke, had to pass on the iconic part.
*Hud (1963) Any discussion of Neal’s work on film begins and ends with this Paul Newman masterpiece. Neal won the Best Actress Oscar playing a long-suffering woman who won’t give in to the blue-eyed cowboy casanova’s charms. A year later, she suffered a series of strokes that left her in a coma, unable to walk and talk for several years. Ever the fighter, the actress not only battled to regain the power to do both, but defiantly (and miraculously) returned to acting. You can watch this whole clip, or just start at the four-minute mark to see Newman and Neal’s onscreen sparks.
*The Subject Was Roses (1968) After recovering from the stroke that many thought would end her career, Neal earned another Oscar nomination in Ulu Grosbard’s adaptation of a hit play, where she plays a embittered mother who wars with her husband (Jack Albertson) as their son returns home from war. Her performance is all the more astounding since her impaired memory made it nearly impossible for her to remember dialogue. It’s acting as force of will.
Also: Patricia Neal dies at 84