Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
Buy Tickets
24 Church Street, Box 2452, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568 | 508-696-6300

Patricia Neal Film Series Honors Big Star With Small Town Humility

By Louisa Hufstader, Vineyard Gazette

 

Patricia Neal on the Vineyard, attending Lillian Hellman’s funeral.

When Patricia Neal attended events at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse she always sat in the front row and made a point of speaking to the cast members after the show. It’s not every day an Oscar and Tony award winning actress chats with cast and crew of a local theatre group, but Patricia Neal was not an ordinary actress. The very opposite of a cloistered celebrity, Ms. Neal was known on the Vineyard for her friendly manner around town, chatting with children on the street, eating at the Edgartown diner, and graciously accepting recognition from fans.

“It’s such a glorious place,” she wrote in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine in 2003, referring to the Island. “I adore it. I’ve been in the Fourth of July parade. I love the fireworks.”

Ms. Neal died at her Edgartown home in August, 2010 at the age of 84. This month the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse has been paying tribute to her, by dedicating its first Monday Night at the Movies series of 2017 to films starring Ms. Neal. The movies are being shown on the Patricia Neal Stage, named in honor of the playhouse’s most famous and loyal fan.

“Patricia was an avid supporter of the playhouse,” said MJ Bruder Munafo, the theatre’s artistic and executive director. “She attended most of the shows here for many years.”

MJ Bruder Munafo called Ms. Neal the playhouse’s biggest fan. — Jaxon White

Recent screenings of The Fountainhead (1949), with Gary Cooper as Ms. Neal’s leading man, and the explosive Andy Griffith’s debut in A Face in the Crowd (1957) have drawn large audiences to the series, Ms. Bruder Munafo said.

Hud, a 1963 Western directed by Martin Ritt, is likely to fill even more of the theatre’s 98 seats when it shows on Jan. 23. Ms. Neal won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance opposite Paul Newman, of whom she told the Gazette in 1986 that “it was good for him to play a bastard” for a change.

The final film in the series, In Harm’s Way (1965), screens Jan. 30. Directed by Otto Preminger and co-starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, it was the last movie Ms. Neal completed before she suffered a crippling series of brain aneurysms that left her for a time unable to walk, talk, read or write.

“My soul had awakened in a body I could not command,” Ms. Neal told the audience during her only Martha’s Vineyard stage appearance, a speech at the playhouse in 2009.

Several months pregnant at the time of the strokes, she endured eight hours of brain surgery and spent three weeks in a coma before beginning what would become an epic recovery — and giving birth to Lucy Dahl, the youngest of her five children with author Roald Dahl.

With her daughter Tessa. — Peter Simon

“It’s kind of odd for me to see her in her roles when she was younger,” Ms. Dahl told the Gazette this week. “I never knew her before her strokes. That woman that I see on the screen pre-strokes is just a woman on the screen.”

Ms. Dahl said the images of her mother in those early movies sometimes remind her of her daughter or niece.

A screenwriter living in Los Angeles, Ms. Dahl now owns the Capt. Valentine Pease House on South Water street in Edgartown, the historic home her parents bought in 1980. Capt. Pease was master of the Acushnet, the whaling ship Herman Melville served aboard before writing Moby Dick.

Ms. Dahl is on Island this week and plans to attend the Hud screening Monday night, but her personal favorite among her mother’s roles is Olivia Walton in The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, the 1971 made-for-television movie that earned Ms. Neal a Golden Globe award and launched The Waltons as a TV series.

“I just love that film,” Ms. Dahl said. “Maybe I like that the most because she was who I knew her to be. She was a mother of many, and she cared a lot and worried a lot about her children.”

There was a lot to worry about. As an infant, the Dahls’ only son Theo needed multiple brain surgeries after a taxicab struck his pram. A year later, their daughter Olivia died of a rare complication from measles, for which no reliable vaccine was yet available. As a teenager working on the Chappy Ferry, Lucy Dahl crushed several ribs and suffered a collapsed lung when she missed her footing leaping aboard.

Ms. Neal became an icon for people recovering from brain injuries. — Jaxon White

And there were regrets. Before meeting Mr. Dahl, an internationally-known author whom she married in 1952, Ms. Neal had become pregnant during her years-long affair with Gary Cooper, her co-star in The Fountainhead.

“I am very sorry I had the abortion,” she told Martha’s Vineyard Magazine in 2009. “But at that time in Hollywood, I really didn’t have a choice, given the circumstances, because he was a married man.”

Ms. Neal also felt she had left the stage for Hollywood too soon in her career. “There’s only one place where you can learn how to act, and that’s in the theatre with a live audience,” she said during a Truro benefit in 1983, the year she and Mr. Dahl divorced.

But after winning five awards including a Tony and a New York Drama Critics Circle award for her work as Regina in Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest, “the Hollywood boys came swarming around,” she told the Truro audience.

Dark-haired and tall, Ms. Neal was cut from a different cloth than most leading ladies of her time, Ms. Bruder Munafo said. “She had an edge to her that was really honest. She was tall and imposing and strong; so strong as an actress and as a woman.”

Ms. Neal’s 1949 film debut, John Loves Mary, was a forgettable comedy with Ronald Reagan, with whom she also starred in the war picture The Hasty Heart the same year. In speeches and interviews later in life, Ms. Neal remembered the future president as a handsome, heartbroken man who was crushed by his recent divorce from Jane Wyman.

She continued to make several movies a year, including The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951 and Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961, until felled by her strokes in 1965. After intensive and ground-breaking physical therapy, re-learning to speak, walk, read and write, Ms. Neal returned to film acting with an Oscar-nominated performance in 1968’s The Subject Was Roses.

“I think I am by instinct a stubborn woman,” Ms. Neal told the Boston Globe in 1983. “I refuse to give up.” But she could no longer memorize long passages of dialogue, like the 25-minute speech from Tennessee William’s Suddenly, Last Summer, in which she had triumphed on the London stage.

It was in the late 1970s that the Dahls discovered Martha’s Vineyard, falling so hard for the Island that they bought their Edgartown home sight unseen. After the couple’s divorce, Ms. Neal continued her love affair with Vineyard life, wintering in New York city and residing here from April through October of most years.

Ms. Neal was inspired to write her 1986 memoir, As I Am, after she began recording her memories to audio tape as a form of therapy in the wake of her divorce. “I felt my life was over. And it was agony,” she told the Gazette.

After the book’s publication, Ms. Neal began an international speaking career and became an icon for people in recovery from brain injuries. She also continued to work as an actress in film and television, notching a Best Supporting Actress nomination from the Las Vegas Film Critics Society for her title role in Robert Altman’s 1999 movie Cookie’s Fortune.

In 2009, a sold-out audience at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse got their chance to see Ms. Neal on stage as she reminisced about her life and career. The evening ended with “the longest standing ovation I’ve ever witnessed at the playhouse,” with Ms. Neal laughing in sheer delight, Ms. Bruder Munafo recalled.

“She just sat there in that chair and laughed and waved at people. It was just thrilling. She was in her element.”

Less than a year later, Ms. Neal was having dinner with her children at the house on South Water street when she raised her glass of wine to make a toast.

“She said, ‘I’ve had a lovely time, and I’d like to go to bed now,’” Ms. Dahl said. “And she went to bed and never got up. She left us very elegantly, as she did most things, with character and gratitude. It was a nice ending.”

Monday Night at the Movies with Patricia Neal continues with Hud on Jan. 23, and In Harm’s Way on Jan. 30. Screenings begin at 7 p.m. and cost $5. Visit mvplayhouse.org for more information.

Connect with us