Patricia Neal Stroke Survivor & The Subject Was Roses (1968)

January 31, 2020     Updated February 14, 2022

patricia neal

Patricia Neal Survives a Stroke While Pregnant, Gets a Standing Ovation at the Oscars, & Continues to Inspire Stroke Survivors.

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The Subject Was Roses (1968) is a beautiful film.  It’s remarkable for a few reasons:

  1. It’s a very faithful screen adaptation of Frank D. Gilroy’s play of the same name.  At times, you feel as if you’re watching a play, not a movie.
  2. It was Patricia Neal’s first film after surviving three debilitating strokes a mere three years earlier.

Patricia Neal Stroke Survivor

 A detailed plot description of The Subject Was Roses won’t do this melancholy, touching, and somehow hopeful story justice.  At its core, the film is about the complex relationships between family members, and the incredible ability of a family unit to accept the imperfections of each family member, and go on with life.

You can rent or purchase the film here on Amazon [aff. link].

Let’s get to the plot, then go behind the scenes to Patricia Neal’s stroke and inspiring recovery.

The Plot

The Subject Was Roses is set in The Bronx borough of New York City, post-World War II. Timmy Cleary (Martin Sheen) has just returned home after three years of military service to find that his mother and father, whose relationship has always been strained, have grown even father apart in his absence.

A very young Martin Sheen as Tommy Cleary in The Subject was Roses (1968).

John Cleary (Jack Albertson) is a traveling salesman whose infidelities over the years have deeply hurt his wife, Nettie (Patricia Neal).  Although Nettie is certainly the more injured party in the relationship, as her son points out, Nettie could have done more to understand her husband through the years.  Neither spouse is without fault for the current state of their marriage.

The marriage of John Cleary (Jack Albertson) and Nettie Cleary (Patricia Neal) has become even more strained during Timmy's absence.

Nettie Runs Away

Though closer to his mother before entering the armed forces, when Timmy returns home, he finds himself more sympathetic to his father’s point of view.

This deeply hurts Nettie.  After a fight with Timmy, she leaves home to do some soul searching on the Jersey Shore, not telling anyone where she’s going.  When Nettie returns late that night, her son is drunk—the way he’s started to handle all his worries—and her husband is incapable of understanding the bigger reasons for why she left.  The fight with Timmy was merely the catalyst for Nettie’s departure: the real motivation behind her running away stems from Nettie’s dissatisfaction with her home life, the culmination of her emotional needs not being met year after year.

Patricia conveys all of Nettie's disappointments with her life in this touching scene walking alone on the beach.

A Difficult Realization

After his mother returns home that night, Timmy realizes just what an affect his parents’ difficult relationship has had on him over the years.  He decides he must leave home now, or he never will.  Timmy backtracks on these words the next morning and says he’ll stay home for just a few more days. But his father and mother realize that for Timmy to grow, he must leave home.

It’s a sad, yet somehow liberating realization for all three of the Clearys. 

The film ends with the Cleary family at peace with Timmy’s departure.  A melancholy, yet hopeful tone is set as each one of the Clearys accepts their respective shortcomings, and the painful fact that these shortcomings are not likely to change.

Pat with John Wayne behind the scenes of In Harm's Way (1965). It was Patricia's last feature film before suffering three debilitating strokes.

Patricia Neal Stroke: February 17, 1965

While bathing her seven-year-old daughter Tessa on February 17, 1965, Patricia Neal suffered a stroke.  She was 39 years old.

Once at the hospital, Pat suffered two more strokes.  The last stroke proved nearly fatal.  Pat’s doctors didn’t think she’d survive the brain surgery that followed.

Patricia Neal Stroke
Happier times for the Dahl Family, before daughter Olivia's death in November 1962 from the measles, and Patricia's series of strokes in 1965. Olivia, Pat, and Tessa admire baby Theo. Roald looks on.

But she did.

For nearly three weeks after the surgery, Pat was in a coma.  Once conscious again, she learned that the strokes were brought on by a congenital aneurysm.

The strokes paralyzed Patricia on her right side.  She was left with double vision and no control over her body or speech. In the coming years, Pat would have to re-learn how to talk, walk, read; all the skills and abilities we take for granted everyday.

Patricia Neal Stroke
Patricia with one of her doctors, learning to move her body again after the strokes. Pat had also just begun the second trimester of her fifth pregnancy.

To add another variable to 39 year old Patricia’s already unique situation, she was three months pregnant with her fifth child when the strokes occurred.

So when she left the hospital a month later, Pat was re-learning how to live and function while four months pregnant.

Patricia Neal Stroke
Patricia with Roald, Theo, and Tessa. Pat had double vision following her strokes, and wore a patch for some time to help her vision return to normal.

Patricia Neal Stroke Recovery

Once Pat was home, her husband, Roald Dahl, and neighbor, Valerie Griffith, put her on a regiment that worked both her mind and body.  The new regiment kept Pat busy at all times so she would stay motivated with the recovery process.

Patricia Neal Stroke
Patricia learning how to read again following her stroke.

There were intense highs and lows throughout Pat’s recovery process.  After two years of Dahl’s and Griffith’s pioneering therapy, Patricia Neal had re-learned just about everything that the strokes had made her mind and body forget. 

And, in case you were wondering, Patricia gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Lucy Neal Dahl, on August 4, 1965.

Patricia with Roald and new baby Lucy, six months after Pat's series of strokes. Thanks to her parents' protective care and determination, Lucy was born healthy and without complications. Patricia's hair had been shaved down to "fuzz," in Pat's own words, for the brain surgery following her strokes. By Lucy's birth Pat's hair had grown to a rather stylish pixie cut.
Patricia Neal Stroke
A gracious Patricia at the 1967 Academy Awards.

Pat Neal is Back

Patricia’s triumphant return to Hollywood on April 10, 1967 to present the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film gave her confidence a boost.  Pat looked beautiful, spoke perfectly, and received a nearly one minute long ovation from the audience that night.  It was an unexpectedly long homage that, according to Patricia’s agent, cost the network $40,000.

Patricia Neal Stroke
Patricia looked stunning at the 1967 Academy Awards.

But was Patricia ready to act again? 

Could her mind and memory, still in the process of adjusting to everyday life, handle memorizing the lines necessary for film work?

Her husband certainly thought so: when Roald was approached by The Subject Was Roses director Ulu Grosbard to see if Patricia would be up to playing Nettie Cleary in the film adaptation of the play, Roald’s answer was a resounding affirmative. 

Patricia Neal Stroke

An Important Clarification

If you watched Alicia Malone’s introduction to The Subject Was Roses on TCM Tuesday night, you probably remember her positively stating that Patricia had been “offered a role in The Subject Was Roses on Broadway before, and was not about to let this opportunity slip by again.”

It’s true that Patricia had been offered the role of Nettie Cleary on Broadway in 1964, before her stroke, and that she turned the offer down. 

But according to Pat in her autobiography, Alicia’s statement that Pat “was not about to let this opportunity slip by again” could not be further from the truth.

Patricia Neal vehemently did not want to make the film.

Patricia Neal Stroke

Pat Didn't Want the Role

As Pat writes in her autobiography:

“I hated the idea, but that did not stop anybody.

There was no celebration when I signed the contract…I was terrified of the work to be accomplished and the possibility—no, probability—that I would not be able to do it.  I was secretly pleased that everyone knew I didn’t want to do the film in the first place, so that if I failed, Roald and Val would get the blame.”

Patricia Neal Stroke
Pat studies with Roald.

Patricia's Fears

But as much as she didn’t want to make the film, Patricia found herself on an airplane to NYC in early 1968 to begin filming.  She felt even more unprepared for the daunting task of acting in a feature film on the first day of rehearsals:

“On the first day of rehearsals for The Subject Was Roses, I seethed in a cold anger towards Roald and Valerie.  I could not believe they had put me in this position…my stroke had put me in another rhythm for the past three years, and my clumsy body was out of the acting habit.  Jack and Martin were repeating their stage roles and were letter-perfect in their lines…I was totally stymied by trying to remember even a few…I could find no excitement in me for acting.  I wanted to go home.”

Pat on the set of The Subject Was Roses (1968) with Martin Sheen.

So not only was Pat committed–against her will– to make a feature film a mere three years out from her debilitating strokes, the other two actors starring with her in the film had originated their roles on Broadway.  While Pat struggled just to remember her lines, Martin Sheen and Jack Albertson now benefited from years of Broadway performances to perfectly develop their characters for the screen.

No wonder Patricia Neal did not want to make The Subject Was Roses.

But if Pat could endure the terrible car accident that nearly killed her infant son and the eight brain surgeries that followed; if she could endure the tragic death of her seven-year-old daughter from measles; if she could survive three debilitating strokes and re-learn how to function afterwards, she could certainly memorize a film script.

Patricia Neal never gave up.  She made up her mind that:

“I was going to prove to myself that I could do it [acting] again.”

Patricia's Poignant Performance

With with the help of Valerie, who accompanied her to NYC, Patricia studied her script day and night.  Pat skipped meals and lost sleep in her quest to commit her lines to memory. 

But the hard work paid off, and Pat began to gain confidence in her ability to not just keep up with her co-stars, but to excel in her role.

And excel she does.  Patricia’s Nettie is the first character we meet, right as The Subject Was Roses begins.  There are no words, just Pat’s world weary, contemplative face as she goes through the motions of her morning routine and checks on her son, who returned home from war the night before. 

Patricia’s acting is subtle perfection: she doesn’t need words to draw us into the film, or make us feel for Nettie, who’s obviously on the verge of being pulled under by her troubles.

Patricia in the touching opening scene of The Subject Was Roses (1968).

Patricia even memorized her five-page monologue at the end of the film, which she shot in one take without need of a teleprompter.  Pat delivers this monologue with such genuine feeling and confidence, you’d never guess that just three years earlier, she was unable to talk or communicate even the most basic human emotions.

The dance between Nettie and Timmy in the film is all the more poignant considering Patricia's amazing physical recovery in the three years since her stroke.

A Real Pro

There’s a scene in the film where Nettie dances with her son, and another touching scene of Nettie walking the beach alone, contemplating the disappointments of her life.

These very physical scenes are made all the more poignant by the knowledge that three years earlier, Patricia Neal’s whole right side was paralyzed.  Just three years earlier, Pat was unable to command her body and yet, here she is onscreen, dancing and walking as if she’d never had to re-learn how to do these things. In The Subject was Roses, you’d never guess that Pat was self-conscious about a perceived limp and, in Pat’s own words, an “awkward right hand.”

The fight between Nettie and Timmy is the catalyst for her running away from home.

Patricia Neal Gives Hope to Stroke Victims Everywhere

While The Subject Was Roses filmed in New York and the Jersey Shore, Pat noticed that:

“People who came to watch us were not only fans who wanted to see a movie being made.  Many were stroke victims, some in wheelchairs, some relearning how to walk and talk, and all seemed to take pride and pleasure in the fact that their Patricia was making it again.  The outside world was becoming an intimate place for me.”

Patricia Neal Stroke
A later pic of Pat, husband Roald Dahl, and Valerie Eaton Griffith. Dahl's and Griffith's pioneering work in the field of stroke recovery is still used today.

Patricia Neal took on a new role, that of inspirational stroke survivor.  It was a mantle Pat proudly wore the rest of her life.  Patricia Neal and her inspiring recovery continue to bring hope to countless stroke survivors today.

Pat's Rave Reviews

When The Subject Was Roses premiered in October 1968, Patricia earned rave reviews.  The common consensus among the critics was that Pat not only kept up with her seasoned co-stars, she outshined them. 

According to Roger Ebert’s review of the film in the Chicago Sun-Times:

A publicity shot for The Subject Was Roses (1968).

“Albertson and Sheen…talk loudly, their movements are too obvious, they are trying to project…Miss Neal, who knows the movies, is better suited to the medium.  She holds back, she suggests more than she reveals, and when all three actors are on camera her performance makes the other two look embarrassingly theatrical.”

Similarly, Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that:

“Miss Neal’s presence…gives the movie an emotional impact it wouldn’t otherwise have.”

For her performance, Pat earned a second Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

Patricia Neal Stroke Survivor and Beyond

And on a personal level, The Subject Was Roses held a special place in Patricia’s heart:

The Subject Was Roses turned out to be one of the most satisfying experiences of my career.  I had been sure I could not do it, but I not only did it, I did it well.”

That's it for Our Month with Patricia Neal

And that wraps up our month with the Inspirational Survivor, Patricia Neal.

Join me next week as I introduce our new Star Spotlight, the glamorous Lana Turner.

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