Thursday, August 12, 2010

Klaatu Barada Nikto: Remembering Patricia Neal

There are three reasons why I fell in love with the science-fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) when I was nine years old. One was the quiet, thoughtful presence of Michael Rennie as Klaatu, the man from space, who came to Earth to warn us of our destructive habits (i.e. nuclear warfare). The second reason was the eerie score by Bernard Herrmann which introduced me to the wondrous and evocative world of electronic music. The third reason was actress Patricia Neal, who became Klaatu's soul mate in getting the proper attention paid to the consequences of ignoring his warning. Her most famous scene, of course, would be preventing his robot Gort from destroying the planet through these famous words: Klaatu barada nikto. But I was taken by something else in Patricia Neal, who died a few days ago from lung cancer at the age of 84.

Given that I first saw the film in 1960, I was already getting used to the predominant image of the suburban mother through TV sitcoms like Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet. Besides being maternal to the point of being docile, these mother figures came across as blandly nurturing caregivers who were happily becoming part of the wallpaper in their environment. But Patricia Neal in The Day the Earth Stood Still was a different story. For one thing, she was a single mother raising a son. And although she looked the fifties suburban parent, there was a bold undercurrent that set her apart from the typical mom. She also wore her independence without being strident about it. For example, she accommodated her boyfriend, but when he tried to coerce her, she balked. Patricia Neal broke the stereotypical image of the Betty Crocker ideal in half and made her character flesh and blood, with a spirit that was soulful in its irreverence. In her scene with Gort, lying helpless before him on the grass, she commands his attention by paying honest respect to her fear. She isn't simply a damsel in distress, she knows that if she fails, all is destroyed. Her fear fuels her determination to survive - so the Earth will survive, too. Without Patricia Neal, The Day the Earth Stood Still might have been simply a competent cautionary tale instead of an impassioned appeal to ideals and reason.

Over the years,  I came to adore Patricia Neal's work, but sporadically, and from radically different points in her career. No matter which period I encountered, though, there was always a continuity of soul from role to role. In the lunacy of King Vidor's adaptation of Ayn Rand's megalomaniacal The Fountainhead (1949), for instance, Neal made Dominique Francon's passion for the uncompromising architect Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) into something tangible and electric. (She even survived the hilarious camp of swooning lustfully at the lust-less Cooper while he digs symbolically into the open earth with his electric drill.) In Martin Ritt's Hud (1963), she brought a sublimated eroticism to the middle-aged housekeeper Alma, who is attracted to the lone wolf Hud (Paul Newman), but not to the point of becoming one of his conquests. Neal rarely wore her sexuality on her sleeve, but instead she demonstrated the art of thoughtful suggestion. She implied that she knew more than her characters would be willing to admit. But we always knew that these women, almost world weary, understood the world all too well and had sacrificed some part of themselves without becoming defeated in the process. This is one reason why when Alma leaves the family farm at the end of Hud, it isn't an admission of shame for Hud's attempted sexual assault on her. She'd just rather not be acquiescing to his desires. (Hud apologizes to Alma for his drunken assault, too, but not for his attraction to her.)

Over the years, Patricia Neal's movies would turn up on television where you would find memorable glimpses of her in unmemorable pictures; her wounded desire for Curt Jurgens in the awful Psyche 59 (1964), or the sexual hunger of her spinster in The Night Digger (1971), which was also made notable due to Bernard Herrmann's typically dirge like score. But I would have forgotten about my secret passion for Patricia Neal, where I'd assumed that she'd just had vanished into movie lore, until Robert Altman cast her in Cookie's Fortune (1999). In the picture, Neal played Jewel-Mae "Cookie" Orcutt, a wealthy, widowed dowager in a small Mississippi town. Having grown tired of being alone, she takes a pistol from her late husband's cabinet and kills herself. When she is discovered by her niece (Glenn Close) and her younger sister (Julianne Moore), they plot to cover up the suicide to look like a murder in order to preserve the family reputation - and, of course, inherit the spoils.

Neal's part in Cookie's Fortune is small, but not negligible. She casts a looming shadow over the rest of the movie. For Cookie's suicide is not portrayed as an act of self-loathing, but rather a release from a life that had grown less meaningful. Looking more fragile, Neal brought a certain dignity to the character which contrasted sharply with the lack of dignity expressed by her living survivors. She may have actually drawn part of that experience from her life. In the early sixties, she and her husband, author Roald Dahl (who adapted The Night Digger), had suffered through grievous injury. Their son Theo, four months old, died after acquiring brain damage when his baby carriage was struck by a taxicab in New York City. In 1962, their daughter, Olivia, died at age 7 from measles encephalitis. While pregnant in 1965, Neal suffered three-burst cerebral aneurysms, and was in a coma for three weeks. It was Dahl who directed her rehabilitation and she subsequently helped her relearn to walk and talk. Patricia Neal certainly knew suffering, but in her roles, she brought forth a dignified hunger to survive. In Cookie's Fortune, her suicide even failed to kill her memory and her lasting legacy. Her absence continued to dominate the picture. Patricia Neal's best films bring forth the same lasting riches and they yield the same fortune.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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