10 August 2010

Patricia Neal

While many of Patricia Neal’s most acclaimed performances have thus far eluded my moviegoing, I admire everything I’ve seen of her. She was a gifted actress, past any question or doubt. And yet one reason I find her performances so compelling surely has less to do with her talent than with something beyond her control, of which she was completely unaware: when both women were young, Patricia Neal and my mother looked alike. Strangers would comment on the resemblance, and those who know Mom may see it in the photograph of Neal, above.

The resemblance grew vaguer as both women aged, and it was never more than physical. If Mom ever smoldered (as Neal typically did), I’m unaware of it and hope to remain so. Neal led a life that was worthy of a Glenda Jackson movie — something few of us can say for ourselves — while Mom’s dramas have been, for the most part, small scale and private. Now, on the heels of Mom’s birthday and my reflections on the influence of one actress, Mary Martin, on Mom’s life and my own, Patricia Neal has died. This has given me cause to consider Neal’s somewhat similar influence on our family.

In Ike Godsey’s store, with the doll that Elizabeth craves but for which there is no money, Olivia contemplates the limits of a parent’s ability to provide for her child.

Neal’s performance as the original Ma Walton, in a made-for-TV movie called The Homecoming, is not first among the credits listed in her obituaries this week, and in terms of assessing its effect on our family, I can’t divorce it from the performance of Miss Michael Learned, who stepped into the role once The Waltons became a weekly series. Learned’s Olivia Walton is more modulated than Neal’s, more sensitive perhaps, certainly less angry, and more genteel. But Learned didn’t look like my mother.

And around the time that The Waltons came to television, my mother came to realize that her son wanted to be a writer — just like John-Boy.

Most parents would prefer for their children to support them in old age, rather than the other way ’round, and Mom never really did give up hope that I might take a more serious interest in developing “something to fall back on,” such as accounting. (Really.) Herself a child of the Great Depression, Mom doubtless found absolutely nerve-wracking the prospect of a son who chose a career in any of the arts. Only when I got to CBS and began to earn a decent income from my writing did she begin to relax.

But long before that day, the models of the Walton family seemed to give her some kind of courage, optimism and assurance. And there were years when, just like Olivia Walton, Mom would offer me the Christmas present of a Big Chief notebook, something to write in, the way John-Boy did.

It can’t have hurt that, in Patricia Neal’s face, there was the possibility of self-identification. Most of us go to the movies or watch television and identify with the characters we see on-screen, whether they look like us or not. But if the actors do look like us, if they speak with an accent like ours, if they remind other people of us, then we may find it easier to put ourselves in their shoes, and to explore the thoughts and emotions of circumstances other than our own.

And in circumstances such as parenting — where there are instruction manuals, though they’re mostly worthless — it is surely helpful to find models on-screen, who act out different scenarios so that we can see the results, before we start experimenting on our children.

My parents didn’t have much warning that I’d want to write; I’m not sure they’re prepared for the idea even now. But the Waltons helped them both to take a deep breath, to give me a hug and then to step back — and to let me write.

As I say, that has only a little to do with the artistry of Patricia Neal. I might serve her better by writing about her stunning performance in A Face in the Crowd, which I saw at last only a few weeks ago. (I’ll get around to it, I promise.) But for the moment, I’m struck by the way she helped to blaze the trail that brought me where I am.

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