Until this past week, I had never paid attention to Patricia Neal’s post 1949 “Fountainhead,” work, when she became less a movie star than an actress. The truth is that just now I didn’t want to risk being seduced by another female performer’s reality. (I see enough theatre, on and off the stage.) The complications inherent in performing–in being–female in front of the camera is, of course, deeply compelling, intergral to the history of cinema and to the history of men like myself who have often been attracted to the inconsolable–a word a director friend used recently to describe the wiring of at least two female performers we knew. Their inconsolability, he said, had something to do with their need to be made complete through drama, or, at the very least, being central to a drama they controlled. My director friend went on to say that our shared acquaintances constant need for the high of love as the primary emotional component made them feel they existed, somehow. But outside the screening room or theatre, a performer’s various needs can be exhausting: the camera, which is to say a world of attention, must always be focussed on the star in order to reinforce their existence, even if she is not being “herself.” Generally speaking, to love a performer means becoming a kind of camera–the eye of love. But no man is a camera: a relationship is a two hander, which can be confusing to the performer: if the camera is looking at us, what will happen to my I?
Still, Neal’s “I” would not be ignored. Nor her shimmering inconsolability. Both are on full display in Martin Ritt’s 1963 film “Hud.” Based on Larry McMurtry’s 1961 novel, “Horseman, Pass By,” I watched the film because I’m just coming under the spell of this iconoclastic, Texas-based screenwriter and novelist. (I come to McMurty late, and started with his 2010 memoir, “Hollywood.”) In this emotionally hard and beautiful motion picture, brilliantly shot by James Wong Howe, we find ourselves in a black and white town in Texas, post War, a world of cars and steers, a supermarket, a movie theatre where the audience sings along with the bouncing ball, a town filled with various levels of inconsolability. In the film, Neal plays Alma, a housekeeper looking after the late Branden De Wilde, Melvyn Douglas, and Paul Newman. That all the stars in this film are dead reinforces it’s elegiac tone, the ghost-like visuals that sometimes feel as wind swept as the roads. I’m less interested in Newman in the film–I’ve never liked his voice, it has a Leonardo Di Caprio-like squeak when he’s “passionate”; besides, he is not visually interesting to me; his physicality is that of a boy trying to dress itself up as a man–than in watching the relationship of the three men to Alma, who rarely wears shoes, makes biscuits, and becomes the proto mother and lover none of the men can deal with as directly as she deals with them.
We first see Alma just after Hud’s run his car up near Douglas’ house (Douglas is perfect as the nefarious Hud’s decent, moral, father and De Wilde’s loving grandfather). Alma is in the kitchen making lunch. She asks no one in particular why Hud runs his car up in her flower bed. It’s the first of many double entendres that light up the perfect script. Hud wants to sleep with Alma, but she doesn’t want to be another of his conquests–a string of pearls thrown into his bitter soup of conquest. Basically, Newman knows how to play to Neal, which is to say he lets her go; he’s the straight man to this approaching-middle-age beauty, whose eyes are made wide by her knowledgeability, sense of humor, and slightly bruised sexuality. (Alma’s been married before, with a man who ran off with her gas charge card.) Neal, whose husky mournful voice was one of the glories of the cinema, speaks less than anyone in this film and says the most; her characterization is in her body. She not only feels Alma, she knows her. Like Alma, Neal was a Southern girl, born in Kentucky and raised in Tennessee. Therefore the actress is familiar with the heat that can hit you like a fist in those “Hud”-like Southern towns, and how the body doesn’t rush through a brutal atmosphere without collapsing altogether. Langour and know-how are Alma’s middle name.
A year after Neal received the Best Actress Oscar for “Hud,” she suffered a delibitating stroke. She was pregnant with her last child by writer Roald Dahl (the two met in 1951 and married two years later). The marriage was strengthened but ultimately undone by tragedy. In 1960 the couple’s only son, Theo, was struck down in his baby carriage by a taxi driver; he died not too long afterwards. Two years later, their daughter, Olivia, passed away from measles encephalitis. Every actress brings what experience she has to her work, and by the time Hud sees Alma off on the bus that will take her away from his appetite for destruction, she knows how to look at him with loss and regret; life has taught her that.
As I watched Neal in “Hud”–when she leaves, she takes the movie with her–I recalled an earlier experience with her work, an experience I had completely “forgotten,” given it’s power. It was 1971, and Neal was playing a mother named Olivia, in the television movie, “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story.” Neal’s realness in the part felt black to me. That is, her strength and longing and isolation as a woman who doesn’t know if her husband is dead or alive during one particularly dark, Depression-era Christmas, was not unfamiliar to me. She was not too far off from my mother, a woman who raised me on very little by way of resources, except for her imagination, and her will that her children prosper and survive. So, it was interesting to discover that while thinking about the actress, and about my mother’s own unspoken inconsolability, how Neal and the only Mrs. Als I’ll ever know, were born on the same day: January 20th.