09 August 2010

She Made It Christmas

Patricia Neal has died.

This noted character actress, known for her smoky voice and often gritty roles, played in many famous theatrical films, including Hud, The Subject Was Roses, and A Face in the Crowd, and her private struggles were almost as famous as her roles: in the 1960s she suffered a severe stroke and had to learn to do the simplest things again.

For me, Neal will always be remembered as Olivia Walton in The Homecoming. While Michael Learned made the character famous, it was Neal’s arresting performance that first defined her. True, Neal not only was older than the Olivia character, who should have been about thirty-six or –seven, but the after-effects of the stroke made her seem older than her forty-five years. However, she personified not only the strict but caring Depression-era mother who knew what it was like to struggle to keep her family clothed and fed, hiding her sorrow that “Santa Claus” could not deliver the gifts she wanted to give her children. However "tough" that Michael Learned played the role of Olivia in the television series (and Learned was noticably more strict in the early seasons), she never quite captured the bleakness that Neal’s Olivia must face each day with a husband away all week earning a meager living, scraping together food to feed her growing, hungry children, losing sleep to knit scarves into the evening so that each of those children would have some sort of Christmas gift under the tree. But then The Homecoming was always more gritty than the series (the novel grittier still) and Neal fit into that aspect with perfection, like Dorothea Lange’s 1930s "migrant mother" photo come to life.

Good night, Miss Neal.