Patricia Neal, 1926-2010

A great American actress is gone. Patricia Neal, the inimitable leading actress in Ayn Rand‘s film adaptation of The Fountainhead (1949), Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), and Earl Hamner‘s Christmas story for television, The Homecoming (1971), reportedly died at her New England home on Sunday. Miss Neal, who had been born in Kentucky, premiered opposite Ronald Reagan in John Loves Mary (1949), married writer Roald Dahl (James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and made a remarkable comeback after suffering a serious stroke, was known by her distinctive drawl and consistently powerful performances. I have nothing but affection for her as an actress. I think I first saw her as the mountain family mother in The Homecoming, a small story based on Mr. Hamner’s novella about a poor family’s Christmas Eve which I still enjoy, and later I thought she was perfectly cast as newspaper columnist Dominique Francon in The Fountainhead opposite Gary Cooper as Howard Roark, though I would like to have seen Barbara Stanwyck, who brought the picture to Warner Bros., in the legendary role. As Marcia Jeffries falling for Andy Griffith’s Bill O’Reilly-like populist in Kazan’s brilliantly biting A Face in the Crowd, she ran the gamut of emotions and she just got better with age, whether playing soulless patron to gigolo George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, fending off drunken lout Paul Newman in Hud, or tending to son Martin Sheen in The Subject was Roses. The last Patricia Neal picture I saw in the theater was Cookie’s Fortune (1999) in which she played an ornery old Mississippi woman and she was the best thing about the movie. She lived an incredible life, she created some of the most memorable characters on screen and, somehow, Patricia Neal combined strength, femininity, and passion in nearly everything she did.

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