Tuesday, May 19

Geraldine Page

She had been an Oscar trivia question: what actress has been nominated for seven Oscars without a win?  It was all to change at the 1986 Academy Awards when F. Murray Abraham, the previous year's best actor winner, opened the envelope and declared... ah, I consider this woman the greatest actor in the English language.  The winner is Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful.  Meryl Streep, a nominee for her superb performance in Out of Africa, jumped out of her seat and led the long standing ovation.  Hollywood had finally acknowledged Gerry.  It was long overdue.

She had wanted to be an actress since her pre-teen years in Chicago.  She was born in Missouri in 1924 to a prominent osteopathic doctor and his wife and had tried her hand at numerous endeavors in the arts but all fell by the wayside once she discovered acting in church plays.  She never looked back.

She only made 29 theatrical movies because her great love was the stage.  While she appeared on Broadway and off-Broadway, she did much regional theater work and it was her great love.   Throughout her career she also did television, lots of it.  When many of the top Hollywood echelon poo-poohed doing television, Gerry jumped right in, feeling that to keep her instrument tuned, she needed to act.  It didn't matter what medium it was.  She didn't care about the size of the part either.  She only cared about the worth of it.  Could she bring it to life?  Could it bring her to life?  She never succumbed to the star trappings.  She lived modestly and rather privately.  She just wanted to be known as a working girl.

After high school graduation, she attended the Goodman School of Drama for three years and also worked for a children's theater group.  As she was performing in her first play with Goodman she said I always wanted to be good at something, to be somebody.  The minute I got into my first play, I knew this is what I had been looking for.  She and some other students formed their own summer stock company which invigorated her, whetted her appetite for New York and she soon traveled there but couldn't find work.  She returned home but tried again a year or so later, joining a Woodstock company of actors.  From there she secured acting jobs in off-Broadway plays, all largely unseen.

As she took some acting jobs she was studying her craft first with Uta Hagen and then at the Actors Studio.  Page was Lee Strasberg-bred through and through.  Over the years she would also teach classes there.

The skies opened up for her in 1952 when she opened off-Broadway in Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke as a repressed spinster in love with her nextdoor neighbor.  The play and she caused a sensation in The Big Apple and while off-Broadway had been in existence for a time, it is this production that made it all something to reckon with.  She was still working on the stage when Hollywood came calling... and in a way that still seems hard to believe.

Her first Hollywood leading man was The Duke himself, John Wayne.  The film was Hondo (1953) and for her role as a pioneer wife and mother living in the midst of warring Apaches, Page would earn her first supporting Oscar nomination.  I am not sure why it was supporting, which usually means the part is quite small or you are billed lower than someone else of your gender.  Neither was the case.

I sense Page was hired because of her looks.  Well, we know that is SOP in Hollywood, but there's a twist here.  She looked like a pioneer woman ought to look, perhaps... not pretty, a bit weather-beaten and surviving a rough life among tough people.  It would have been a whole-nuther picture with Rhonda Fleming in the part. 

It was shown in a new process called 3D and when those Indian lances came hurling through the air, I ducked!  At the center of the action was a kid (Lee Aaker).  What does this paragraph mean?  Ha.  It means I loved Hondo and I was likely quite the good boy around the house so I could cajole the parental units into letting me see it several more times.  What it also did was introduce me to Geraldine Page.  I knew she wasn't Rhonda Fleming and I didn't care.  I have always credited Page as being one of those who turned my head on the acting process. 

But what did she do?  She didn't make another film for eight years.  Of course that is no way to establish oneself in Hollywood but we know that she didn't really care.  She returned to her love... the stage, but also to live television and she seemed to appear in all the big important shows and always to much acclaim.  During this time she also married for the first time, to a violinist.  It was short-lived.

When she did return to the silver screen, it was to repeat her role in Summer and Smoke (1961).  I recently did a posting on it so we won't gag you with more info except to say that this is the film that truly laid in her lap a whole new audience.  In her time away from Hollywood, she had also done Tennessee Williams play, Sweet Bird of Youth, to great acclaim and she had become known as a Tennessee Williams heroine.  Lots of stars got labels as they gained popularity and a Tennessee Williams heroine isn't so bad and it's a helluva lot better than The Oomph Girl or The Queen of Technicolor.

Lots of big Broadway stars didn't repeat their Broadway roles for films.  You could have checked with Ethel Merman or Mary Martin or Carol Channing.  Page was fortunate that Hollywood didn't insist on some comely contract player at the producing studio.  But Page had Williams on her side.  He was enchanted with her ability to play characters whose lives had been marginalized but who stood up for what they believed in if in a whacky, obsessive sort of way.  Page knew how to pull out all the stops whether she was playing a refined ladylike type or a crazed hellion. 

I would count myself as one of those who have said she certainly played a lot of neurotic characters and very well, too.  But she rejected that saying it's a myth based on nothing.  A lot of people say I play neurotic women.  Well, who doesn't play neurotic women?

Washed-up in Sweet Bird of Youth

One of them was Alexandra Del Lago in the film version of Sweet Bird of Youth (1962).  The part of a booze-soaked, washed-up actress who spends time with a male hustler to nurse her career wounds might have gone to Ava Gardner (whom I think would have been wonderful) but Williams prevailed.  So did Paul Newman, her Broadway costar, when he was signed for the film.  I thought it was stunning although I have always been invested in the works of Williams, whether on screen or stage.  An added perk was that she married one of her costars, Rip Torn, a union that lasted until her death and produced three children.

The following year she made Toys in the Attic, but again, I just did a posting on this one.  She is the main reason I listed this film as a good 60s film.

A real change of pace came in 1964 when she costarred opposite Glenn Ford in a charming comedy, Dear Heart.  As Evie, a spinster-postmistress at a convention it New York, she becomes romantically entangled with another hotel guest whose fiancée has come to join him.  Page played Evie as being too honest, if not tactless, but not lacking in certain charms.   We know I retch at romantic comedies but this one rather delighted me.  Jack Jones warbling the title song didn't hurt.

Two years later both Mr. and Mrs. Torn would join the cast of Francis Ford Coppola's You're a Big Boy Now.  He gathered an entire cast of actors who were either just a teense off-center or who gravitated to such characters.  How about Elizabeth Hartman, Karen Black and Julie Harris for starters?  It was a madcap romp, not always coming quite together as I see it, but certainly earnest in capturing the antics of a young Manhattan dude.   He needed to grow up and meet some nice girl, according to Torn, his father, but according to Page, his mother, he needed to stay home with her and forget the girls.  The cast keeps the audience feeling lively.

She and a few of her Actors Studio buddies, Kim Stanley, Shelley Winters and Sandy Dennis, filmed a Studio version of Chekhov's The Three Sisters (1966).  It's not for everybody but it certainly would prove a boon to students and lovers of good acting.  I saw it at a small theater in Hollywood some years later and Shelley Winters was in attendance, loud and shrill and creating a fuss of some sort.

 Murderous widow in Aunt Alice

In 1969 Page jumped into the horror-thriller film genre, giving a tour-de-force performance-- and my favorite Page role-- in What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?  Oh I suppose I should use this acclaim for The Three Sisters or the Tennessee Williams films, but I got it bad for Aunt Alice.  She bloody creeped me out as a penniless Arizona widow who hires a succession of older housekeepers, cons them out of their life savings and kills them.  It was another acting jubilee with Ruth Gordon on board as the feistiest of the help.  Watching Gordon and Page together, stalking one another, was a thrill.

The lady stuck around in the thriller genre to play a nasty harridan in 1971s The Beguiled, Clint Eastwood's haunting tale of a Union officer being held prisoner in a Confederate girls boarding school.  When things turn nasty and sexual taboos are explored, one knows Page is at the center of it.

In some ways, the remainder of her movie career took a backseat to theater work and especially television, some of the latter being among the best work of her career.  On the big screen she was mesmerizing as an Aimee Semple McPherson type in John Schlesinger's ode to Hollywood, The Day of the Locust (1975) and again excellent as a suicidal ex-wife in Woody Allen's grim Interiors (1978).  

About to end it all in Interiors

Her big Hollywood moment came, of course, when she finally won the Oscar.  Even then she was considered a dark horse but win she did... and in the nick of time, as it turns out.  The Trip to Bountiful was written by Texas-born Horton Foote from his own successful play.  Having written such pieces as Tender Mercies, The Chase, Hurry Sundown, Baby the Rain Must Fall and adapting Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird for the screen, he certainly knew his way around a good story about southern folk. 

She played the elderly Carrie Watts who is not having such a good time living with her son and daughter-in-law.  She strikes out on her own to return to her hometown one last time, a town that has virtually disappeared, just as she will.  In his review of the film, Vincent Canby said that Page has never been in better form or in more control of that complex, delicate mechanism that makes her one of our finest actresses.  It was a dazzling performance.

The remainder of her Oscar nominations, for the record, were for Hondo, Summer and Smoke, Sweet Bird of Youth, You're a Big Boy Now, Pete & Tillie, Interiors and The Pope of Greenwich Village

Mr & Mrs. Torn

Sadly, Geraldine Page would only live two more years after her triumphant night at the Oscars.  She was on Broadway playing Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit opposite Richard Chamberlain and Blythe Danner when she missed two performances.  Alarmed, someone went to her apartment and discovered she had died of a heart attack.  She was only 62 years old.

Page wasn't the most popular actress in Hollywood.  Perhaps some of that was because she was never really a part of it.  Perhaps some of it was because she was never confused with Rhonda Fleming.  But for those of us who appreciate great acting, she could act most people off the screen.  She once said the main thing is the ability to control your instrument, which in the actor, is yourself.  Look the way you want the character to look.  Sound the way you want the character to sound.  Once you've trained the instrument to do what you want, you're in control and you're free.

Next posting:
A Good 60s Movie


  1. Maybe it's because I loved Geraldine Page immensely, but I do believe that with this one You wrote Your best Posting. BRAVO!

  2. Carlo, you are so kind. Grazie. I didn't know you were a big GP fan, too, but so glad to hear.

  3. Ha!! My favorite Page performance is in Aunt Alice as well...she and Ruth Gordon had terrific chemistry; black humor at its best.

    My second favorite Page film is Interiors...one of Woody Allen's masterpieces. Every actress in it deserved an Academy Award, especially Miss Page!

  4. You and me and Gerry and Aunt Alice...?!?! I suppose there are those who would look askance at the two of us but we shall stand proud in our beliefs that this was a tour-de-force performance. And you are right about all the "Interiors" actresses. It was a study of brilliance, wasn't it?