Monday, August 09, 2010

Patricia Neal, Like Marcia Jeffries, Has Left

Another classic film actress is gone: Patricia Neal, who was 84.

Of all the many difficult parts she took on and did brilliantly, one of the most difficult may have been the one that made her a star in the first place: Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest, her prequel to The Little Foxes. The part of the young Regina Hubbard called for a young, relatively inexperienced actress who could be convincing as the character Tallulah Bankhead and Bette Davis had already made famous. It's too bad Neal wasn't chosen to do the film version, but the movie was made by Universal and Neal was under contract to Warner Brothers. (Universal gave the film to a former Warner Brothers player, Ann Blyth; I guess they were figuring she could do what she did in Mildred Pierce.)

Neal came to Warner Brothers at probably the worst time to be a contractee at that studio: most of their best people were leaving (directors, producers and stars) and they had little ability to develop young actresses into stars -- Doris Day managed it, but she had her singing career to help force Warners into giving her starring roles, plus her first starring film was a hit. New contractees seemed to get one shot at stardom and if it didn't take, the studio seemed to give up on them: so as Neal said, when The Fountainhead flopped, her chance to be a big star was over. (Even though she did what she could with a terrible part.) Her other Warners films didn't make much of an impact; The Hasty Heart was based on a good play -- her role in it isn't much, though -- and I remember liking The Breaking Point, which was Warners' attempt to do a To Have and Have Not movie that (unlike Hawks's) had something to do with the book.

Her career after leaving Warners follows a typical arc for the '50s: one good film as a freelancer, The Day The Earth Stood Still; some other not-so-successful freelance films, and more emphasis on theatre and New York-based TV, plus the occasional film that utilized a lot of New York talent (A Face In the Crowd is a Hollywood film, but made with mostly New York-based actors). Her theatre work helped get her back into a film industry that had more respect for theatre and TV success, until she suffered the strokes that derailed her career in its prime.

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