In 1963, I was a pre-adolescent obsessed with movies and the people who made them. When a film called “Hud” was released, in a rather low-key manner, I was intrigued because of the star, Paul Newman. This was not due to childish admiration of his physical persona (I was much more interested in The Beatles), but because, even at my tender age, I respected him as an actor.
I have since reversed my absurd and rather arbitrary opinion of his celebrated attractiveness, although I still prefer George Harrison. But in 1963, on viewing “Hud” with the harsh, critical faculties of a pre-teen, the person I was most impressed with was Patricia Neal. She very deservedly won the Academy Award for her performance. Her remarkable career was halted shortly afterward by a devastating, near-fatal cerebral aneurism. Though she lived, recovered, worked again and was even nominated for another Oscar, her illness obliged her to relearn every physical action she had ever taken for granted, to become, in effect, a new person.
Neal was a product of her family’s Kentucky gentility and her own ruthless ambition. At age 10, she left the following message for Santa Claus: “Dear Santa, what I want for Christmas is to study dramatics.” By 1942, although still in high school, Neal was accepted as an apprentice at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va. There followed the theater arts program at Northwestern University and then, of course, Broadway. Neal landed squarely in the mainstream of New York theater. She was cast instantly upon arrival in “Voice of the Turtle.” Role after role followed, overlapping one another, until her inevitable hegira to Hollywood, which was not the humble pilgrimage it is for so many others but a triumphal entry into Rome.
Neal’s first film was an utterly forgettable venture with Ronald Reagan called “John Loves Mary.” Her next film, “The Fountainhead,” was ravaged by the critics but established her in Hollywood and transformed her acquaintance with Gary Cooper into one of the more notorious studio romances. A married man, Cooper appeared to have neither the desire nor the fortitude to endure a permanent separation from his family. It is difficult to imagine the strong-minded and healthily vain Patricia Neal becoming the victim of a love triangle, but victim she was and victim she has remained for most of her life, indelibly marked by this doomed passion.
During this time, Neal met Roald Dahl, the Norwegian writer. Known in Hollywood as much for his caustic wit as for his macabre stories, Dahl presented a formidable figure: From a height of 6 feet 6 inches, his acid manner of expression took on Godlike proportions. They married in 1953 and had five children, though only three grew to normal adulthood. Their firstborn, Olivia, died in England of complications from measles. Their only son, Theo, was struck by a car as an infant in his stroller, suffering extensive brain damage.
Neal would spend a good deal of her life attempting to please Dahl, who told her he loved her a total of three times during their marriage and whose frequent disagreements with family and friends created rifts healed only by the Dahls’ divorce. A casual remark by Neal on Dahl’s completion of the screenplay for “You Only Live Twice” reveals much of their relationship:
“ ‘It’s marvelous to go shopping now that Papa’s so rich,’ I told friends. ‘Do you know he made more money writing that one movie than I ever made in my career?’ Of course I would always add, ‘although I won the Oscar.’ ”
The challenge of her marriage and her career, however, were no match for what awaited Neal the evening of Feb. 17, 1965. She suffered the first of several debilitating strokes while bathing her daughter Tessa. Unaware of what was happening to her, her last lucid memory for a very long time was of her husband reaching for the telephone. She was pregnant at the time.
With help, luck and unbelievably hard work, Neal regained her speech, memory and motor functions. She was delivered of a girl, Lucy, that August. Her recovery was painfully slow; at one point, she trained with flash cards originally intended for her brain-damaged son. Gradually, major breakthroughs like remembering the word “cigarette” or walking without a limp began to add up. A year later, she was speaking at a charity dinner in New York for brain-injured children. The following spring, she appeared as a presenter at the Academy Award ceremonies, to a standing ovation.
Neal says that at this point, she realized that her life had been given back to her for something more than she had imagined, although she had no idea what that could possibly be. It has turned out to be her ceaseless work on behalf of the brain-injured. She regularly tours Europe and North America for appearances and speaking engagements, describing her personal ordeal and offering hope to those similarly afflicted.
We all face risks of our own choosing. It takes special courage to confront the crises one does not choose. Neal writes with dignity and clarity about the courageousness of survival.
“The Subject Was Roses” turned out to be one of the most satisfying experiences of my career. I had been sure I could not do it, but I not only did it, I did well.
Not that I had doubted my talent. No, I had never once during my illness believed the stroke had affected the talent. Memory and movement, yes, but my brain never stopped understanding how people think and feel. . . . At the beginning I struggled with every single line, and by the time the production ended I could master five pages without the help of a monitor.
I remember one sequence written for the film in which Nettie “runs away” for a day. She takes a bus and goes back to the little beach town where she spent her honeymoon. Most of the day she just walks along the shore, thinking. Ulu kept the camera on me as he talked me through the scene. There was no dialogue, but the audience must feel what she is feeling. I don’t ususally quote reviews, but I couldn’t have been more pleased when one reviewer said, “I have never seen acting in a purer form than that walk down the beach.”
On October 13, 1968, “The Subject Was Roses” premiered in New York City. Roald made a rare appearance as my escort. The moment I entered the theater, there was a standing ovation. It was amazing. I was being applauded before I performed or even uttered a word. I was a hit--just for being alive.”
. . . I stopped in Chicago to fulfill a promise I had made to Henry Betts, the head of the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute, to speak at the ground-breaking ceremonies for their new hospital. I shall never forget that day. It was very cold and dark as I lifted the first shovelful of dirt. But when I started to speak, the sky was suddenly pierced by a shaft of sunlight. It was as if the light spoke an imperative: This hospital will be a great success.
Following the speech, I was taken to talk with some of the Institute’s patients. More than half of the seventy people there were stroke victims, many paralyzed and confined to wheelchairs or stretchers. I found I was very comfortable with them. We were all damaged.”
--From “As I Am”