The Subject Was Roses (1968)
January 31, 2020 | by Shannon
There are a couple things to remember when watching The Subject Was Roses (1968) that make this more obscure, yet beautiful film, all the more remarkable:
- It’s a very faithful screen adaptation of Frank D. Gilroy’s play of the same name. As such, there are times throughout the course of the film that you feel as if you’re watching a play, not a movie.
- It was Patricia Neal’s first film after surviving three debilitating strokes a mere three years earlier.
I will spend the majority of this post sharing Patricia’s amazing life story during the years surrounding The Subject Was Roses and filming. Patricia’s exceptionally strong spirit at this time of her life is particularly inspiring, and I am excited to highlight it.
I’ll tell you right now,The Subject Was Roses is really just one of those films you have to see. A detailed plot description won’t do this rather melancholy, touching, and somehow hopeful story justice. The Subject Was Roses, at its core, is really about the complex relationships between family members, and the amazing ability of a family unit to accept the imperfections of each family member and just, well, roll with life.
The Subject Was Roses is set in The Bronx borough of New York City, post-World War II. Timmy Cleary (a very young 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.
John Cleary (Jack Albertson) is a traveling salesman whose infidelities over the years have deeply hurt his wife, Nettie (Patricia Neal). And though Nettie (in my opinion!) is definitely the more injured and innocent party in the relationship, she, as her son points out, could have done more to understand her husband throughout their marriage.
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, and after a fight with Timmy, she disappears for some soul searching on the Jersey Shore, not telling anyone where she is 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 Nettie left: the fight with Timmy was merely the catalyst for Nettie’s departure. The real motivation behind her momentary running away stems from her dissatisfaction with her home life, the culmination of Nettie’s emotional needs not being met year after year.
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, and Timmy 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, though wishing their son would stay with them indefinitely, 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 not just Timmy’s departure, but also with the shortcomings of each family member, and the acceptance that these shortcomings, however painful, are not likely to change.
February 17, 1965
Let’s backtrack a bit in Patricia Neal’s life to February 17, 1965.
While bathing her seven-year-old daughter Tessa, Patricia suffered a stroke. She was 39 years old.
Once at the hospital, Patricia suffered two more strokes. The last stroke proved nearly fatal, and her doctors did not think Patricia would survive the brain surgery.
But she did.
For nearly three weeks after the surgery, Pat was in a coma. Once conscious again, she learned that the strokes had been brought on by a congenital aneurysm.
The stroke paralyzed Patricia on her right side, and left her with double vision and no control over her body or speech. In the coming years, she would have to re-learn how to talk, walk, read—basically re-learn how to do everything we take for granted every day.
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 Pat left the hospital a month later, she had to re-learn how to live and function while four months pregnant.
I can’t even imagine.
Once home, Pat’s husband, Roald Dahl, and neighbor, Valerie Griffith, put Patricia on a regiment that would work both her mind and body, keeping Patricia busy at all times so she would stay motivated with the recovery process.
There were of course intense highs and lows throughout her recovery, but after two years of Dahl’s and Griffith’s pioneering therapy, Patricia had re-learned just about everything 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.)
Pat Neal is Back
Pat’s triumphant return to Hollywood on April 10, 1967 to present the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film was a huge confidence boost for her. She looked beautiful, spoke perfectly, and received a nearly one minute long ovation from the audience that night, an unexpectedly long homage that, according to Patricia’s agent, cost the network $40,000!
But was Patricia ready to begin acting again? Could her mind and memory, definitely 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.
An Important Clarification
Now 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 Patricia’s autobiography, Alicia’s statement that Patricia “was not about to let this opportunity slip by again” could not be further from the truth.
Of playing the role of Nettie in the film version of The Subject Was Roses, Patricia shared that
“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.”
But as much as she did not 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.”
So not only was Patricia only three years out from her debilitating strokes and committed to do a film she did not want to make, the other two actors in the film had originated their roles on Broadway, and had benefited from years of Broadway performances to perfectly develop their characters and memorize the script.
I don’t know about you, but I can completely understand Patricia’s not wanting to make this film!
But if I’ve learned anything about Patricia Neal this month, it’s that she never EVER gave up. And so she made up her mind that
“I was going to prove to myself that I could do it [acting] again.”
A Poignant Performance
And so Patricia, with the help of her friend Valerie who accompanied her to NYC, began studying her script day and night, skipping meals and even sleep to commit her lines to memory. The hard work paid off, and Patricia began to gain confidence in her ability to not just keep up with her co-stars, but to excel in her role.
And boy does she! Patricia’s Nettie is the first character we meet, right as the film starts. There are absolutely no words, just Patricia’s world weary, contemplative face as she goes through the motions of her morning routine and checks on her son, who just returned home from war the night before. Patricia’s acting is subtle perfection: no words are needed for her to get us, the audience, intrigued and completely in her court.
When I watched the film this week, Patricia had me from the first second her regal face filled the screen, and my amazement at her beautiful performance in The Subject Was Roses only grew from there. Patricia has a five-page monologue at the end of the film, which she shot in one take without need of a teleprompter. She delivers this monologue with such genuine feeling and confidence with the words, you’d never guess that a mere three years before, Patricia was unable to talk or communicate even the most basic human emotions.
There’s a scene in the film where Patricia’s Nettie dances with her son, and an incredibly touching scene of Nettie walking alone on the beach with her thoughts as she contemplates the disappointments of her life. It’s hard to imagine that Patricia’s whole right side had been paralyzed, and that she’d been unable to command her body, only three years earlier. Knowing Patricia’s struggle to regain these physical abilities—and her self-consciousness about a perceived limp and “awkward right hand” (in Patricia’s own words) just makes the physical aspects of her portrayal of Nettie all the more poignant.
A Hope for Stroke Victims Everywhere
A quick side note that I find so very heartwarming is that while the cast and crew of The Subject Was Roses were filming in the NYC area and the Jersey Shore, Patricia 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.”
And so Patricia took on a new role, that of inspirational stroke survivor. It was a mantle she would wear with pride for the rest of her life, bringing hope to countless stroke survivors that they too could make a full recovery.
Patricia's Rave Reviews and Personal Triumph
When The Subject Was Roses premiered in October of 1968, Patricia earned rave reviews. The common consensus among the critics was that Patricia not just kept up with her seasoned co-stars, she outshined them. According to Roger Ebert’s review of the film in the Chicago Sun-Times:
“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.”
Vincent Canby of The New York Times similarly wrote that
“Miss Neal’s presence…gives the movie an emotional impact it wouldn’t otherwise have.”
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 she did! Patricia even earned her second Academy Award nomination for her performance. (Tough year to be nominated though! Pat, Vanessa Redgrave, and Joanne Woodard lost to Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) and Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl).
That's It For This Month!
Well, I’m sad to say it, but this wraps it up for my January spotlight of our lovely Star of the Month, Patricia Neal. I could not have asked for a more inspirational, talented, and beautiful soul to begin 2020 with.
Learning about Patricia this month and having the chance to share her miraculous life story and spirit has been such an amazing opportunity. To say I have beome a great fan of this remarkable woman would be an understatement.
Macarons and Mimi Rogue Star of the Month!
Be sure to check back next week as I begin highlighting our February Star of the Month.
If you follow the TCM Star of the Month schedule as I do, you know that TCM spends the month of February focusing on the Oscars (in one way or another) in recognition of this annual awards ceremony that occurs each February.
This year I’m doing something completely different by highlighting a personal favorite star of mine who happens to have seven films playing throughout February on TCM. This star was also overlooked by the Academy time and again, and her great acting talent was unfortunately under-utilized for most of her career because she was just so drop dead gorgeous!
Stay tuned next month as I spotlight the beautiful, glamorous, talented, and too often underrated Miss Lana Turner.