NEW YORK — Geraldine Page peered out from behind her dressing room door, her shrewd eyes brightening, her expressive mouth widening with a smile at the sight of a familiar face. . . . "How have you been all these years?" she asked a reporter of long acquaintance.
The "dressing room," a skimpy cubbyhole of a backstage space at Off-Broadway's Promenade Theater, where Page now is appearing with an ensemble cast in Sam Shepard's latest play, "A Lie of the Mind," did not live up to the image of stardom. Nor did Page when she emerged, her long, brown hair cascading down her back under hand-knit woolens and a well-worn fur coat. But the immediate impressions were very much in keeping with an actress who has made a 30-year career out of acting.
Page has been a major star of the New York stage since first conquering it in a 1952 Off-Broadway production of "Summer and Smoke." Tears came to her eyes at the memory of the landmark role in the Tennessee Williams play. However, in spite of seven Academy Award nominations for her many and varied film roles, her current starring role--in Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful"--marks one of the few times that she seems to have caught the full attention of the film Establishment.
Critics from coast to coast have called Page's portrayal of Carrie Watts "the performance of a lifetime," and the actress is being widely touted as a shoe-in for a record eighth nomination, and, perhaps for the first time, for the Oscar itself.
"If I don't seem all that excited by all this reaction, it's because in the past when I expected something to come of it, it didn't," said the 61-year-old actress, who seemed full of energy over a midnight supper after a performance in the demanding, four-hour Shepard play. She also seemed abundantly pleased by her spot in the limelight; it was just that her smiles were knowing.
Page seemed to resemble a younger version of Carrie Watts, her latest simple, small-town character. Yet, in her sharp-witted, worldly wise sophistication, she was different. "After all, I take all my characters out of me ," she said, "and yet I never look for similarities. I always look for the differences. We're all like snowflakes."
Always unpretentious and straightforward, Page speaks her mind, even when it comes to applauding or criticizing her own work. She pointed out that her first two starring roles in the movies--in "Summer and Smoke" and "Sweet Bird of Youth"--resulted in her first two Oscar nominations but in little subsequent work in Hollywood. She acknowledged her "disappointment" in the film versions of the two roles she had created on stage.
"I thought I was wonderful in 'Interiors,' " she said, referring to her starring role in Woody Allen's 1978 film, which led to another Oscar nomination--and "a string of two-minute roles." These included her seventh Oscar-nominated performance in "The Pope of Greenwich Village"--"I was right on the mark in that one!"--and her most recent cameo roles, in "Bride" and "White Knights."
Page was even overlooked for the recent film version of "Agnes of God," despite her Tony nomination as the Mother Superior for her performance in the Broadway play (Anne Bancroft played the role in the film). "Norman Jewison (director of the Columbia film) called me in to look at me, and he asked, 'Can you do film ?' " Page recalled the moment with an air of indignation. "I said, 'Well, maybe at first, I had a problem, but not now.' I wanted to say, 'After all, I've been nominated seven times.' "
The actress emphasized that she definitely was not complaining, however. "To be employed as I have recently is very nice."
In the little time she finds herself free, Page says she sketches, visits museums and " tries to clean up" the large house in the Chelsea section of Manhattan that she has long shared with her husband, actor Rip Torn. Their twin sons, Tony and John, now in their 20s, make a cameo appearance together in "The Trip to Bountiful." Between her frequent, if brief, appearances in recent major films, she has worked steadily: in movies for Home Box Office and in movies for network television, a medium that has awarded her two Emmys, for Truman Capote's "A Thanksgiving Visitor" and "A Christmas Memory." In February, she will be seen on public television in an "American Playhouse" production of "Huckleberry Finn." She has appeared in independent feature films, such as the recent "Flanagan" and now in "Bountiful."
"I wish they would up the pay a little," she said of her recent work, "but I'd rather have the experience.
"I have always had a great will to work. From the minute I found how pleasurable acting was, I have been greedy for more," said Page, who after graduating in 1945 from Chicago's Goodman Institute appeared in hundreds of plays in stock companies throughout her native Midwest, before coming to New York in the 1950s.