Paul Greenberg

The hardest lines Patricia Neal ever had to recite in a film were "Gort, Klaatu barada nikto! Klaatu barada nikto!"

Not that the gibberish was hard to remember; it's since become something of a password among sci-fi fans. The challenge was to repeat it with a straight face in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," a B-movie made in 1951, when the spaceships were still made of cardboard and the transmissions from the moon were still fictional. A real actress in an unconscious parody, Patricia Neal kept breaking into giggles and spoiling the shot.

But the phrase, like Miss Neal itself, proved durable. Once upon a wittier time, the now defunct (more's the pity) supermarket tabloid, Weekly World News, exposed 12 U.S. senators as secret space aliens. On the list was good old Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, whose common sense did indeed make him sound alien in Washington. When asked to respond to the exposé, the senator's spokesman -- Charles Pelkey -- told the Associated Press, "We've got only one thing to say: Klaatu barada nikto." But at least he kept a straight face. Patricia Neal barely could.

There was always something special, something different, about that girl with the husky Southern drawl and worldly-wise look out of Knoxville, Tennessee. She was definitely different from the 40-D wonders who usually decorated bad movies, and even from the more celebrated stars of her time. She was a Lauren Bacall without the affectation, a Kate Hepburn without the preciousness, an Audrey Hepburn without the pixie dust -- flirtatious but removed. As if she were more amused observer than active participant.

She was spotted early on and brought to Hollywood, where her special appeal was quickly and efficiently concealed. Thanks to its genius for miscasting, Miss Neal was assigned roles in light comedy, definitely not her medium, and one-dimensional melodramas, like anything and everything Ayn Rand ever wrote. She would be given the feminine lead in "The Fountainhead," one of the gospels of Randism that still attracts adolescents of all ages. To quote the memoir an older and even wiser Miss Neal would write, "You knew from the very first reel, it was destined to be a monumental bomb. My status changed immediately. That was the end of my career as a second Garbo."


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.