Patricia Neal: Five essential film performances

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. ┬áHere’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. ┬áThe 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

Comments (65 total) Add your comment
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  • weeay1

    A classy lady who will be missed. R.I.P., Ms. Neal. They don’t make them like this anymore.

  • markus

    what an actress, although I would probably have included her bravura performance in THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES over her more peripheral role in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. either way, she’ll be missed…

    • george records

      Absolutely correct. The Subject Was Roses was an outstanding role…one of the best.

      • Lee H.

        I, for one, think they should have “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in place of “The Fountainhead”.

    • Frank

      The Subject Was Roses is included here.

  • Joe

    They forgot that she was in the first originally brilliant, The Day the Earth Stood Still!!!!! And what about her long romance with Gary Cooper? Like no one knew about that. It was similar to a Hepburn-Tracy romance.

  • Stormy

    I realize it was TV not film, but her performance in The Homecoming which was the pilot for The Waltons was wonderful.

  • Angela

    “The Day The Earth Stood Still”.

    • fw1421

      Gort:Klatu Barada Nickto!

  • Larry

    Let’s not forget her powerful performance in the scifi thriller The Day The Earth Stood Still. I still like the scene where she is carried by the robot Gort (although Ms Neal had to be hoisted by wires to make it look like the robot is carrying her).

    • justjack

      I agree… one of her great roles.

  • Pat Fox Hatfield

    Ms. Neal grew up in Knoxville and went to school with some of my aunts.
    My Dad thought she was beautiful from seeing her then and he named me after her.

  • jimhi

    I have to say it. She was the original Mrs. Walton and I loved her in the Christmas episode.

    • besimon

      Me too.

  • diddo

    In Harm’s Way–a relatively small role, but she knocks it out of the park as usual. What a great broad–we’ll miss you!!

    • Anne

      Amen! I first saw “In Harm’s Way” as a child and I remembered it for 2 reasons — everyone dies and Patricia Neal. Her relationship with John Wayne in that film is a grown-up one! It’s really the only time I have considered Wayne “sexy,” and it’s totally because of his interplay with Neal. To this day, if I am flipping channels and “In Harm’s Way” is on and we’ve hit the point where Patricia Neal’s “Maggie” has been introduced, I will drop everything and just watch.
      An I’ve wanted a voice like hers all my life.

    • alan smithee

      Normally, I’d be all up in arms by your use of the term “broad.” But there are some women, especially these remarkable actresses from years gone by, that the term broad is the grandest compliment.

    • john

      She was great on that role

  • Sgt. Rock

    “Hud” is one of the best westerns of all time, right up there with “Shane”. Now Patricia’s gone, along with Melvyn Douglas, Paul Newman and Brandon DeWilde. I have “Hud” on videotape–I’m going to pull it out and watch it again, it’s one of my favorite movies and I consider it one of the Top 10 movies of all time, right up there alongside “Citizen Kane”. They just don’t make good movies anymore, it’s as though movies have morphed into something else– computer generated special effects or something. I walked out of “Avatar”, it was just a rip-off of old science fiction stories. When are we going to get back to making good movies?

    • Stacie

      Loved Neal in Hud, but overall didn’t care much for the film.

  • ana mayer

    a generation of actresses that are no more…..Ms Neal, Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn….they do not “make” them like that any more…an example to follow, Ms Neal, both in the personaland professional sides of her life…may she rest in peace…

    • millie

      They make them like that — but these days, any actress (and nearly any actor) who isn’t generically whisper-thin and bland gets weeded out. Instead of casting real women (like Patricia Neal) and real men the way they did in classic films, Hollywood moguls just go for boys and girls — or older performers sadly Botoxed and scissored up to look like parodies of youth. Entertainment is poorer for this.

      • dropper

        Well said Millie.

      • jag1018

        Well said indeed.

      • Jack

        Compare, for example, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” – BOTH versions: 1951 – Michael Rennie, Sam Jaffe (As Professor Barnhart), and, of course, Patricia Neal; 2008 – Keanu Reeves (Keanu Reeves!!!!??!!), John Cleese (!) and Jennifer Connelly (sp? – sorry). Now, I like Jennifer C., but, really, as Millie put it – these are boys and girls compared to the human adults cast in the far better original.

  • jords

    An amazing lady, who turned tragedy into a triumph and a god-send for others. I have multiple friends who were treated at Patricia Neal in Knoxville and wouldn’t have survived without the center.
    Having met this wonderful angel on a flight once to NYC I can truly say the world is a sadder place without her. Rest in peace, your gentle spirit will be missed!


    My dad acted with her in A Face in the Crowd. He said she was generous to the other actors and was charming too Boot!

  • Terry

    Hud, my favorite movie of all time.

  • Mark

    as Maggie in “In Harms Way”…the confedence she shows when she pops those shoes off…that look on her face..those eyes…saw that when I was a kid and haven’t been the same since..

    • Anne

      She really does seem too much for John Wayne in that moment, doesn’t she.

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