Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life

Why would someone publishing the bio of an actress famed for her intelligent performances and unconventional beauty choose an unflattering cheesecake photo that makes her look like an airheaded starlet for the cover?

Why would someone publishing the bio of an actress famed for her intelligent performances and unconventional beauty choose an unflattering cheesecake photo that makes her look like an airheaded starlet for the cover? And why would the aforementioned actress entrust her personal papers and reminiscences to a writer capable of only the shallowest comments about her career? These are only two of the mysteries left unplumbed in this disappointing portrait of the electrifying Patricia Neal. Luckily for the author (and readers), her life has had so many tragic twists it makes for compelling reading even in the least competent hands.

Born in 1926, in rural Kentucky, Neal was only 20 when she capped her theatrical apprenticeship with a starmaking turn on Broadway as Regina in Lillian Hellman’s “Another Part of the Forest.”

At 22, she nabbed the female lead in Warner Brothers’ much-hyped film version of Ayn Rand’s bestselling novel “The Fountainhead” — and embarked on a steamy affair with her considerably older (and married) co-star, Gary Cooper. Warners, which never knew quite what to do with Neal, dropped her contract just as she found herself pregnant.

At 27, still nursing bitter memories of her abortion and Cooper’s refusal to leave his wife, she married British writer Roald Dahl. Their troubled union endured a number of tragedies, including a dreadful accident that left their four-month-old son with brain injuries; the death of their seven-year-old daughter; and Neal’s near-fatal stroke at age 39, shortly after winning an Oscar for her warm, world-weary performance in “Hud.” Dahl’s nine-year affair with a family friend finally prompted their divorce in 1983.

Nothing in her films — an offbeat list that includes Hemingway’s favorite version of his work (“The Breaking Point”), a sci-fi classic (“The Day the Earth Stood Still”) a political satire that still has bite (“A Face in the Crowd”), and a portrait of a faltering marriage that must have struck uncomfortably close to home (“The Subject Was Roses”) — could ever match the drama of Neal’s personal life.

What a pity that first-time author Shearer has so little of interest to say about either. A few examples of his critical failures will suffice. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is one of the smartest, most philosophically provocative sci-fi pics ever made, but few would call it “undoubtedly the one motion picture for which Patricia Neal will always be remembered.” As for “Hud,” the single film for which she probably will be best remembered, you have to wonder why Shearer feels it necessary to inform us that “one of the dresses Patricia wore in the film was purported to have cost $3.95” or that the actors’ low-budget attire “wasn’t much of a stretch” for costume designer Edith Head.

His analysis of Neal’s marriage settles for painting her husband as a creep; Dahl certainly could be difficult and nasty, but he goaded his wife to battle back from a stroke few thought she would survive, and no relationship lasts 30 years without some benefits to both partners.

Shearer final summation is characteristically trite: “Never an ingenue and never forgotten, Patricia Neal will remain forever — a star.” Surely it won’t be too long before some better-equipped author does justice to an actress who brought a new measure of womanliness, maturity and adult sensuality to the screen.

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