What makes the camera love a particular face mystifies even those who spend their careers searching for that quality. In Patricia Neal’s case, though, the best bet would be her eyes. Wide-set and dark, they dominated her full mouth and delicate jawline. But it wasn’t just their beauty; they telegraphed intelligence, a watchful quality. Those eyes helped her build a career in American films during the 1950s and 1960s, though many of her greatest dramas took place offscreen.
Born in Kentucky in 1926, Patsy Neal grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., and took to her future vocation through the usual school plays and regional theater productions. After studying drama at Northwestern University, she wound up in New York, picked up the more patrician-sounding Patricia, and soon found success on Broadway. She won a Tony Award for Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest in 1947, the first year the awards were presented, before heading for Hollywood.
Her role in the 1949 film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead transformed her life. The film brought Neal her first true renown, and it propelled her into a torrid affair with her co-star, married Hollywood icon Gary Cooper, then more than 20 years her senior. While she later referred to Cooper as the love of her life, the ill-fated romance took a steep toll on her personally. Cooper’s family reviled her, and Cooper himself talked her into aborting their child.
Despite the resulting behind-the-scenes scandal, various rifts with studio heads and producers over roles, and a brief retreat to Broadway, she extended her budding streak of memorable film performances. In the 1951 sci-fi hit The Day the Earth Stood Still, she personified the sort of kind, calm, intelligent human an extraterrestrial visitor might trust. (Her husky voice underwrote her mature appeal.) In Elia Kazan’s undersung 1957 classic A Face in the Crowd, she was the well-educated East Coast sophisticate who should have been too savvy to fall for Andy Griffith’s populist shtick, but his magnetic draw on her character was right there in those eyes for anyone to see. That conflicted, should-know-better quality helped her win a Best Actress statuette for her performance as Alma, the put-upon housekeeper flirted with, harassed and ultimately broken by Paul Newman’s title scoundrel in 1963’s Hud.
Neal’s personal life had stabilized after her 1953 marriage to writer Roald Dahl, but the ’60s brought a series of devastating blows. Their infant son Theo suffered brain damage after his stroller was struck by a taxi in 1960, and they lost daughter Olivia to a sudden illness in 1962. In 1965, Neal, then not yet 40, was felled by a massive brain bleed. Some media outlets prematurely reported her death as she lingered in a weeks-long coma. Pregnant at the time, she survived both the coma and brain surgery and eventually gave birth to daughter Lucy. At Dahl’s not-always-welcome prodding, she painstakingly learned to walk and talk all over again. The story of her illness and recovery was turned into a TV movie in 1982; Dahl and Neal divorced the next year after three decades of marriage.
Neal devoted much of the rest of her life until her death from cancer on Aug. 8 to advocacy for stroke victims, but she recovered enough to return to acting, most often in television. She made her last significant screen appearance in Robert Altman’s 1999 farce Cookie’s Fortune, playing the title eccentric Southern dowager. Her character’s death sets the cockamamie plot in motion, so she isn’t onscreen long, but her few scenes revealed something rare in those eyes. She looked like she was having fun.