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Page Gives A 'Bountiful' Performance

January 04, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

There seem to be two wide agreements on the film year 1985. One is that even the brightest gems have had imperfections, large or small. The other is that it has been a superlative year for actresses doing excellent work in well-written roles (the latter, always, making the former possible).

The list--it is a listing time of year--includes Meryl Streep, of course, in "Plenty" and "Out of Africa," Jessica Lange in "Sweet Dreams," Anne Bancroft, Meg Tilly and Jane Fonda in "Agnes of God," Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery and Ophra Winfrey in "The Color Purple," Sissy Spacek in "Marie," Vanessa Redgrave in "Wetherby," Fionnula Flanagan doing not one but six of "James Joyce's Women," Sonia Braga in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," Jessica Tandy, Maureen Stapleton, Gwen Verdon and Herta Ware in "Cocoon" and Kelly McGillis in "Witness."

Leading or supporting, all splendid. But, at that, the performance I think will linger with me longest is Geraldine Page as Carrie Watts in "The Trip to Bountiful," the stunning film of what began life nearly 33 years ago as a "Goodyear Television Playhouse" offering. (For all it has achieved since, television has never matched the glory of those weekly dramatic anthologies.)

Horton Foote, who writes about Texas as sensitively and comprehendingly as Flaubert wrote about France or George Eliot about England, provided a text that must be an actress's dream, first for Lillian Gish and now Page.

Carrie Watts is a wispy eccentric with a will of steel, singing hymns accompanied by her vacuum cleaner, enduring life in the confinements of a Houston apartment with a loving but timid son and his nagging shrew of a wife (except that, in Foote's writing, nothing is either all black or all white; there is purpose lurking within the eccentricity, strength amid the timidity, a rising compassion taking the edge off the shrewery).

"The Trip to Bountiful" is about the pursuit of old dreams. Carrie endures the present, plotting the while to return for a last, loving visit to the hamlet where she grew up and where she imagines there are old sights and old friends to greet her.

But Bountiful is all but a ghost town, abandoned when the exhausted soil would hardly grow weeds anymore. Somehow we know all this when she gets on the bus (it doesn't even list Bountiful as a stop anymore), but if you could wish the town into prosperity you would, for Carrie's sake; to meet her is to root for her.

In the end, "The Trip to Bountiful" is about reconciling yourself to vanished dreams, lost hopes, disappointments--accepting what is and making the best of it. The victory is in the courage to accept, and the journey is inward, within Carrie Watts.

This is to say that it is some trip, funny, adventurous, suspenseful, perky, endearing, saddening but ultimately uplifting as a demonstration of the human spirit and of the art of acting.

Page has, by my count, seven Oscar nominations, the first for "Hondo" back in 1953 (by some coincidence, the year "Bountiful" played on television), the most recent for her characterful cameo as a cop's tough, boozy mother in "The Pope of Greenwich Village."

She is a star actress, but if she is even now not a film star in the marquee sense, it is because she's so good that she disappears into each role. She is often unrecognizable from one portrayal to the next. The aging, peroxided actress flirting on the telephone with Walter Winchell in "Sweet Bird of Youth" is hardly to be confused with the intense and clinically depressed matron in Woody Allen's "Interiors," although the good, plain woman of Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory," for which she won an Emmy, might be thought to have ties with Carrie.

Carrie is a performance, a precisely conceived and calculated turn by a gifted professional always aware of what she is doing and the effects she's creating. But the test of acting always is that you forget this, surrendering to the certainty that you have been transported back to 1947 and that dark apartment, and are then riding the bus toward Bountiful in the company of this warm and loving old woman. (Page, 61, is, not so incidentally, playing a woman at least a dozen years older.)

The film gives us an unforgettable portrayal. It also reaffirms the importance of the independent production to the vitality of the motion picture form.

The idea took shape at the Sundance Institute, where actor/stage director Peter Masterson, his wife Carlin Glynn (who was to be the excellent, shrewish daughter-in-law) and their daughter Mary Stuart Masterson (from "Heaven Help Us") were participants.

Masterson, anxious to try his hand at a film, was advised by Robert Redford to choose a piece of material that he loved and that was relatively easy logistically. (Redford had taken his own advice with "Ordinary People.")

Masterson, from Texas originally, remembered the stage version of "Bountiful," put the project together and found backing in Dallas. It is one of the year's most beautiful films (Fred Murphy was the cinematographer). And, like Foote's "Tender Mercies," it celebrates the possibilities of kindness, compassion, change and growth--qualities that, in current films, have to be prized for their rarity.

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