An American Beauty and the Big but Not-So-Freindly GIANT Who Broke Hert; When Actress Patricia Neal Met the 6ft 6in Roald Dahl, She Was on the Rebound from Gary Cooper. Now, a New Film Tells the Story of a Marriage Scarred by the Loss of a Child and Finally Destroyed by the Author's Adultery

Daily Mail (London), May 23, 2020 | Go to article overview

An American Beauty and the Big but Not-So-Freindly GIANT Who Broke Hert; When Actress Patricia Neal Met the 6ft 6in Roald Dahl, She Was on the Rebound from Gary Cooper. Now, a New Film Tells the Story of a Marriage Scarred by the Loss of a Child and Finally Destroyed by the Author's Adultery


Byline: Michael Thornton

THE legendary Oscar-winning Hollywood star Patricia Neal, whom I knew during some of the many vicissitudes in her astonishing life, once said of her tempestuous 30-year marriage to the writer Roald Dahl: 'Our life together was the stuff of which movies are made.' Her remark was prophetic. In 1981, while they were still married, the couple became the subject of a TV movie, The Patricia Neal Story, starring Glenda Jackson as Neal and Dirk Bogarde as Dahl.

Now, with both of them no longer alive, an infinitely more penetrating account of their frequently traumatic, sometimes brutal, and ultimately tragic marriage is soon to be released, starring Keeley Hawes as Neal and Downton Abbey's Earl of Grantham, Hugh Bonneville, as Dahl.

Based on Stephen Michael Shearer's biography, Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life, the film is titled To Olivia, the name of the Dahls' adored daughter who died at the age of seven from measles-related encephalitis.

Neal was a beguiling character and the least theatrical actress I have ever known. Willowy, sardonic and deeply intelligent, she had beautiful green-brown eyes, an unforgettably husky voice resonant with the timbre of her Kentucky and Tennessee origins, and an explosive barmaid's laugh.

A tough, gritty realist, conversationally she fired from the hip - never prevaricating and slugged her way through a life that veered irrationally from triumph to tragedy and back again.

After passionate but ill-starred affairs with the future American president Ronald Reagan, and screen legend Gary Cooper, she drifted reluctantly into marrying without love the writer Roald Dahl, one of the most complex men of his generation, a wartime secret agent, a serial womaniser, and a ruthlessly detached, cold-blooded character who was capable of extreme emotional cruelty.

Their life together was undermined by a series of devastating tragedies. One of their five children, Theo, was brain-damaged in a horrifying road accident. This was followed by the loss of Olivia, who died within a few days of contracting measles.

At the peak of Neal's career, only two years after winning her Oscar for her portrayal of Alma Brown in the 1963 western Hud, she suffered a series of massive strokes that left her paralysed, unable to walk, partially blind and with badly impaired speech.

Her career appeared to be over, but Dahl, at his most ruthless, imposed a gruelling recovery regime on his wife that has since largely been adopted as the standard therapy for all stroke victims.

Neal, against all expectations, returned to the screen to win a further Oscar nomination and worldwide admiration that bordered on heroine status. She even had a rehabilitation centre named after her.

PATSY LOUISE NEAL had the most untheatrical debut in life imaginable. Born in 1926 in a mining camp in Packard, Kentucky, she was the daughter of a transportation manager for the Southern Coal And Coke Company.

In spite of this, she would later say: 'I was one of those people born to be an actress. I remember being about 11 and going to church to give a monologue, and I said to myself, "This is what I want to do".' She left Northwestern University in Illinois in 1943 to go to New York to play a role in Eugene O'Neill's A Moon For The Misbegotten. She met O'Neill in person after he attended one of her performances.

'I think his interest was personal,' she recalled. Even then she had no illusions about the ways of the world. 'Flirting was a tool of the trade and I was an expert. It's terrible what I did in those days. I don't know what happened to my morals. If I wanted someone, I wanted them.' After understudying on Broadway at 19 in The Voice Of The Turtle, she won the first-ever Tony Award for her performance as the calculating opportunist, Regina, in Another Part Of The Forest, and her career lifted off at the age of 20. When Jane Wyman announced that she was separating from her husband, Ronald Reagan, Warner Brothers gave Neal the role Wyman was to have played opposite Reagan in John Loves Mary. …

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An American Beauty and the Big but Not-So-Freindly GIANT Who Broke Hert; When Actress Patricia Neal Met the 6ft 6in Roald Dahl, She Was on the Rebound from Gary Cooper. Now, a New Film Tells the Story of a Marriage Scarred by the Loss of a Child and Finally Destroyed by the Author's Adultery
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