xml:space="preserve">

Patricia Neal, who died yesterday at 84, poured her craft, smarts and intuition into a string of movies that helped define baby-boomer culture.

Her early film career peaked when, as David Thomson put it, she was "effectively wooed  by Gary Cooper and a pneumatic drill" in "The Fountainhead" (1949).

Advertisement

But a quartet of films that aired on TV and played in theaters in the early 1960s made her a boomer legend.

She was the widowed single mom who responded with kindness and intelligence to the alien Klaatu in the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still." That 1951 hit became a boomer sci-fi benchmark when it aired on the first season of NBC's prime-time "Saturday Night at the Movies." For nine- or ten-year-olds like me in early 1962, what a thrilling moment it was to see this passionate and intelligence actress face a glittering giant robot and command, "Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!" (That's Neal above, right, watching Gort tend to Klaatu.)

Elia Kazan's 1957 "A Face in the Crowd," starred Neal as the small-town radio personality who falls for a talented yokel (Andy Griffith) and helps turns him into a media phenomenon -- only to see him become a kind of demagogue. A syndicated, edited-for-broadcast version of that box-office disappointment became many boomers' first experience of charged, satiric social melodrama. Keith Olbermann has given Glenn Beck the name of Griffith's character, "Lonesome Rhodes."

In "A Face in the Crowd," Neal vividly embodied romantic anguish as her character saw Rhodes slipping away from her, and in 1960's "Breakfast at Tiffany," she epitomized urbanity as the woman financing handsome young writer George Peppard in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

So for many of us in 1963 it seemed inevitable that she would win the Best Actress Oscar for playing the savvy, sensuous rural-Texas housekeeper who withstands first the charm and then the drunken assault of Paul Newman's title character in "Hud." Pauline Kael wittily called her "the first female equivalent of the 'White Negro' in our films: Patricia Neal plays Alma as the original author Larry McMurtry described the Negro housekeeper, the 'chuckling' Halmea with 'her rich teasing laugh.' "

Much will be written in days to come about Neal's formidable comeback from the series of strokes she suffered just a year after her Oscar, as well as about her tragedy-streaked romantic and family life. (Neal, photographed below in 2008, had an ill-fated romance with Cooper for three years, and was married to writer Roald Dahl for 30 years before they divorced in 1983.) But right now I want to remember her simply as I saw  her for a few intense years on the big and small screens: as a woman who could embody everything from ideal motherhood in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" to ravaged sexuality in "Hud" -- and make it all multifaceted and real.

How did you get to know Neal as a screen presence? What are your fondest memories of her work?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement