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She Was Something

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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."

Miss Neal's one notable achievement in that role was to fall hopelessly in love with her co-star, a married man 25 years her senior named Gary Cooper. Even 40 years later, she would look back and sigh, "He is one of the most beautiful things that ever happened to me in my life. I love him even now." She would recall her "quiet evenings with Gary. ... He would whip up a scrumptious guacamole dip. After supper we just sat and listened to records." They must have done other things as well, since she would become pregnant -- but choose not to have the baby.

A woman whose approach to life was that of an American Edith Piaf ("Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien"; "No, I Regret Nothing"), she did regret that one decision. "If I had one thing to do over in my life," she would say later, "I would have that baby."

They say abortion is a quick, simple operation that solves the problem and leaves women free to live their lives. Maybe, in the interests of full disclosure, they ought to copy that one heartfelt sentence from Miss Neal and post it in every abortion clinic. As a cautionary note, and in the interests of informed consent.

Very much wanting children, she would marry a brusque former RAF pilot with a macabre sense of humor, the talented Roald Dahl. They did have children, and her life turned into a series of trials. One son was left brain-damaged when he was crushed by a taxicab as an infant. Two years later, her seven-year-old daughter would contract measles and die within a day.

Ever the trouper, she soldiered on, appearing on Broadway and even returning to Hollywood, where she had started to shine in roles she was suited for, like the savvy reporter who recognizes the Huey P. Long potential of a guitar-playing disc jockey in Elia Kazan's even savvier "A Face in the Crowd." A case study in classic Southern demagoguery, it still pops up now and then on middle-of-the-night television. (Who knew her co-star, Andy Griffith, could be a serious actor?)

Then came the role that would make Patricia Neal a permanent part of celluloid literature. She played -- no, she was -- Alma Brown, the wry, world-weary yet beguiling, motherly yet alluring housekeeper in "Hud." She shared billing with a talented cast, including the riveting Paul Newman. ("Oh, wasn't he gorgeous?" she would remember. "I was attracted to him, but I knew I'd better leave that alone.")

The movie is a classic lesson in how a society loses its bearings. The contrast between the old virtues and the new temptations it depicts is as old as Sophocles. In "Hud" -- Larry McMurtry wrote the book -- the choice is between the grizzled old Texas of dust and cattle and honor, and the new one of oil and money and glitz, between a society as rooted as live oaks and one as featureless as an interstate.

If I start quoting lines from "Hud," I'll never stop, but I can't resist one from old Homer Bannon, the real hero of the movie, who's played to an end-of-career Texas T by Melvyn Douglas. It's a line applicable to any society but certainly to ours now: "Little by little, the look of the country changes because of the men we admire," the old man tells his grandson. Indeed it does.

The most inspired moment of the film, completely impromptu, is wordless. It occurs when Paul Newman's irresistible Hud comes on to the cook and housekeeper. Patricia Neal as Alma responds to his kiss by ... swatting a fly that she'd noticed had wandered onto the set. Perfect. That kind of put everything in perspective.

After her triumph in "Hud," tragedy. In the middle of shooting a Western in 1965, Patricia Neal suffered one, two, three strokes, and fell into a coma. Her prognosis was so dismal that Variety reported her death. But her husband wouldn't let her go. He bullied, pestered, drove and generally browbeat her into recovering -- with the help of various neurosurgeons and three therapists a day. And one day she decided she wanted to live. "I knew at that moment," she would later recall, "that Roald the slave driver, Roald the bastard, with his relentless scourge, Roald the Rotten, as I had called him more than once, had thrown me back into the deep water where I belonged." And she thrived once again.

In the end, the stormy 30-year marriage didn't last, for the usual reason. (The male animal tends to roam.) But if she was bitter, she was also strong. And imbued the characters she portrayed with her own unmistakable, muliebral strength.

At her death at 84, an actress to the end, Patricia Neal left behind a life not only lived but willed. "I am an actress," she once said, "and I will take any good part as long as I can stand up. And when I can no longer do that, I will take them lying down." The challenge for writers was always to write lines as strong as she was.

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