My Valentine to Patricia Neal

I got to meet Patricia Neal a year or two ago, and learning today of her passing, my sadness was mixed with gratitude for having met this special lady.

I was introducing Bruce Beresford's enchanting Driving Miss Daisy (1989) at a private event in New York City, and there she was in the front row. One of the organizers indicated Ms. Neal wanted to meet me, and I was brought over.

"Heellooo", she purred in that unmistakable voice. "After you make your little speech, you come sit here, right beside me." Which I happily did.

After the screening, there was a dinner downstairs, and I was thrilled to be Pat's escort and dinner partner for the evening.

We spoke, of course, of the old days in Hollywood -- of Gary Cooper, Martin Ritt, Paul Newman, and Elia Kazan. Her memories were vivid, and I remember thinking how she had no hesitation in speaking openly about those days, and seemingly, nothing bad to say about anyone.

Extremely unusual -- and very classy.

Reading again about the horrors she went through in her life -- the loss of a child and her strokes foremost among them -- I marveled at just how serene and self-possessed she was. She seemed genuinely grateful for all the opportunities, all the good things that had come her way, and she was not about to dwell on the bad.

And most striking of all: even though she was clearly in declining health, she remained completely young in spirit, with a ready laugh and a wonderfully flirty way about her. ("I love men," she confided at one point.) And -- why not?

We all know that rare thing called good character is no prerequisite for a great actress, but Patricia Neal had this quality, in spades. We will not see her like again.

Thanks, Pat, for our date. I will never forget it. And I sense you wouldn't want any sad goodbyes, so, since I'll never stop watching your films anyhow, I'll just say "farewell".

(My five top Patricia Neal picks all warrant revisiting, though with the last one, for obvious reasons you might want to wait a few months.)

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) -- One eventful day, an alien spaceship lands in Washington, and from it emerges an emissary from another world (Michael Rennie) who has assumed human form. He has a message for the inhabitants of Earth, but won't reveal it unless all nations of the world are present to hear it. The being chooses a mother and son (Neal and Billy Gray) to convey this directive; unfortunately, it's not one a divided world can readily accept. Will humanity's inability to unite spell its destruction? Admittedly short on action and effects, Robert Wise's groundbreaking science-fiction classic may seem quaint on the surface, but this subtly paranoiac tale of a world in crisis is still unnerving. Day in fact transcends its genre, taking aim at the pervasive distrust and intolerance of the time, as characterized by McCarthyism and the Cold War. The director, who edited Citizen Kane and went on the direct The Haunting and The Sound Of Music, coaxes solid performances from his cast. A must for fans of '50s cinema.

A Face In The Crowd (1957) -- Local radio interviewer Marcia Jeffries (Neal) decides to interview transients at the local jail for a human-interest story. There, she spots a drunken Arkansas hayseed named Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes (Andy Griffith), whom she discovers has a rare gift for gab and song. Before long, due to Marcia's initial boosting, "Lonesome" becomes a wildly popular network TV star. Little does she know she's creating a monster. This engrossing and sobering tale about the precarious and poisonous nature of fame in our mass-media age seems even more timely today. Budd Schulberg's script literally sizzles, and Neal is superb. As to Andy, this role made him, but he sure is a long way from Mayberry! The sterling supporting cast includes a young Lee Remick as Betty Lou, Lonesome's baton twirling, clueless child bride, Tony Franciosa as a slimeball talent agent, and the legendary Walter Matthau as a wise but weary network executive. This is one Face you'll never forget.

Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961) -- Charming, bubbly Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) leads a peripatetic life in Manhattan, attending swanky parties and living off the largesse of her gentleman acquaintances, who keep her attired in the very best designer outfits. Intrigued by Holly's coming and goings, as well as her bouts of wistful loneliness, upstairs neighbor Paul (George Peppard) falls for the neurotic socialite. But is there something hidden behind Holly's sophisticated facade? Adapted from Truman Capote's novella, Blake Edwards's fleet-footed romantic comedy would not be the cultural touchstone it is without the effervescent presence of Hepburn. As Holly Golightly, a small-town Texas girl with her feet planted firmly in the glitz of New York's party scene, Hepburn is irrepressibly charming, a vision of elflike beauty in Givenchy and pearls. But she is also a frail creature harboring secrets, and Hepburn plays both sides exquisitely. Peppard is solid and likable as writer Paul, Holly's admirer and confidante, while Neal chews on her steely role as Paul's wealthy older mistress. A chic, iconic romance, memorably set to the Oscar-winning strains of Henry Mancini's "Moon River."

(1963) -- This modern-day psychological Western concerns unfulfilled, resentful Texas rancher Hud Bannon (Paul Newman), and his uneasy relationships with distant, steely father Homer (Melvyn Douglas), sexy, weathered housekeeper Alma (Neal), and impressionable nephew Lon (Brandon de Wilde). Keeping everyone at arm's length, Hud believes in looking out for himself alone, even when events at the ranch take a turn for the worse. Strikingly photographed by James Wong Howe, Martin Ritt's uncompromising, anti-hero Western broke new ground for a genre which, in the early '60s, was still stuck in tired old conventions. The movie endures due to Newman's brilliant lead performance as Hud, an arrested adolescent in a man's body. All the acting is excellent -- especially Oscar winners Patricia Neal as the sad, sensuous Alma, and Douglas as the leathery, principled father. Finally, Newman's ability to inject pathos into such a cynical, unsympathetic character speaks volumes about his own talent. A spare and powerful film.

The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (1971) -- On a Christmas eve during the Depression, matriarch Olivia Walton (Neal) and her large brood, including eldest son John-Boy (Richard Thomas), wait anxiously for patriarch John (Andrew Duggan), who's been forced to take a job in the city far from home, with no reliable transportation to bring him back. With inclement weather making roads impassable, will he be able to return in time for Christmas? Based on the autobiographical novel by Earl Hamner, Jr., Fielder Cook's heartwarming, award-winning TV drama The Homecoming spawned the long-running series The Waltons. Patricia Neal is superb as matriarch Olivia, who soothes her children's anxieties while dispatching John-Boy, winningly played by wholesome actor Thomas, to find their father. Cook's evocative, touching film delivers an important holiday message, underlining the importance of family love and solidarity over material possessions. An enduring Christmas staple -- and deservedly so.

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