Happy Birthday, Patricia Neal!

ShearerRevision6.inddBorn on this day in the small mining town of Packard, Kentucky, screen legend Patricia Neal would have turned 90 today. Throughout her life, this talented actress overcame adversity, shocking personal tragedy, and devastating illness through determination, bravado, and wisdom.

This excerpt from Stephen Michael Shearer’s Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life shares her reaction to the widespread acclaim that she received for her role as Alma in Hud (1963) and to her Academy Award win in the Best Actress category:

Patricia told British columnist Sylmar Welder, if not completely candidly, “It’s strange to find myself suddenly in demand again. . . . I’m not an ambitious woman, and had been very happy just living with my family in the country, perhaps making a film every couple of years or so.”

Patricia told Parade’s Lloyd Shearer in London, “What I want most of all is good health for my family and peace of mind. When I started out in the business I was exceedingly ambitious, but life has tempered my drive and has taught me what is truly important. I don’t want money or fame. I just want—and now I’m speaking for myself as an actress—a continued sense of duty to my work. When people say I did a fine job in Hud, that makes me feel wonderful, but it’s even better if I know in my heart I’ve done my best.” About wedded life she said, “The secret of a happy marriage lies in choosing a partner of quality. That’s what I’m going to tell my children. It’s not so much what you do as whom you do it with. If a girl gets a good man, a man with character and a sense of duty and responsibility, then not very much can go wrong. I really don’t think you can tell children very much. You can show by example. I want [my daughter] Tessa to want to give something to life and this world. And I want her to have a nice person to do it with. I have, and that’s why I am a happy and fulfilled woman.”

[ . . . ]

Hud seemed a sure bet to capture a share of the 1964 Academy Awards, and Patricia was considered a favorite for the Best Actress Oscar. After all, she had already received numerous pre-Oscar accolades, including Best Actress awards from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle, Best Supporting Actress from the Cleveland Critics Circle, and Best Foreign Actress from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

There had been some speculation about whether Patricia would be nominated as Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, recognizing the dramatic importance of her role in Hud, placed her in the more prestigious Best Actress category, along with Rachel Roberts for This Sporting Life, Natalie Wood for Love with the Proper Stranger, Leslie Caron for The L-Shaped Room, and Shirley MacLaine for Irma La Douce.

Hud was passed over in the Best Picture category, but it received six nominations other than Patricia’s: Best Actor (Paul Newman), Best Supporting Actor (Melvyn Douglas), Best Director (Martin Ritt), Best Cinematography for Black and White (James Wong Howe), Best Art Direction for Black and White (Hal Pereira and Tambi Larsen), and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.).

Patricia, awaiting the birth of her fourth child in England, would not be able to attend the April 13 Academy Award ceremony in Hollywood. Hedda Hopper wrote in a column published March 11, “Pat Neal writes me from her home in Buckinghamshire, England: ‘I have been basking in glory! Glory that I never dared hope since “Hud” was released. I knew it was a lovely part in a splendid film but never dreamed of any further honor than the joy of doing it. Thank you for your part in my success of the moment.’” Not to be outdone, Louella Parsons reported March 18 that Patricia “sounded great when we talked via phone between Beverly Hills and London. I told Pat she may well be an Oscar winner as well as a new mother by June. ‘I hope so,’ she said, adding, ‘It would make me very happy.’”

When Gregory Peck stepped up to the podium at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to announce the Best Actress winner, Hud had already received two Oscars, for Douglas and Howe. When he read Patricia’s name, Annabella Power rushed to the stage to accepted the Oscar on Patricia’s behalf. “I chose Annabella Power to accept my award for me because she is so lively,” Patricia told the press. Hedda Hopper said Annabella “seemed jet-propelled when she raced to the stage to receive Pat Neal’s Oscar.”

Patricia got the news in a 5:00 a.m. phone call from her high-school friend Charley Adcock. “Patsy, you won! You won!” she screamed. Then she heard from her agent Harvey Orkin. “We knew we would be awakened by the telephone if I’d won,” Patricia told the press. “But if we woke up without hearing it, then I’d lost.” Throughout the morning the telephone continued to ring. “I didn’t realize I had so many friends who wanted to congratulate me,” she told the reporters. “I couldn’t be more excited. These things happen once in a lifetime. But I’ve got to keep a cool head. I’m expecting a baby in six weeks and if I get too worked up over this award, who knows—I might bring on baby in the middle of tonight’s celebrations.”

Annabella sent Patricia’s Oscar statuette to London, and on her last outing before the birth of her baby, Patricia took the train to London to fetch the package. Stepping onto the platform at Marylebone Station, Patricia was blinded by flashbulbs. “Good heavens, I feel just like Elizabeth Taylor!” she exclaimed. Wearing Gary [Cooper]’s mink and sporting a huge smile, Patricia was asked by the newsreel press how it felt to have won the Oscar. “Well, it’s something I do think every actor dreams about always. You have fantasies about it your whole life, and then when it really happens it is quite unbelievable.” Was she expecting to win? “No. No. I loved the role and I thought it was beautifully written, and I knew I was being wonderfully directed. But I didn’t even think of it that way. I just loved doing it.”

When asked if the events of the past three years had in any way influenced her acting, Patricia candidly replied, “I really don’t know. It is not pleasant to think that you are better at your profession—one simply wouldn’t want to be better—because of such things happening to those who are so near and dear to you. I think I am probably a better actress than I was—but not for that reason.”

By honoring a mature woman for her role as an integral character in a dramatic film, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences turned the spotlight on a performance that helped change the view of modern woman in American film—from melodramatic victim to survivor. Millions of filmgoers recognized Alma as a very real human being, someone they could empathize with, be comforted by, and, most important, care about. The sound of Patricia’s voice, the depth, warmth, and suffering found in her eyes, the maturity earned through experience—all these qualities characterized a different type of actress: a victorious survivor with whom audiences could identify.


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