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A PAGE IN THE LIFE OF A FAN : A Trip to the Bountiful Years When Love Was Forever

April 06, 1986|PAUL ROSENFIELD

It's getting harder to be a fan. A die-hard true-blue fan . At 17 I fell in love with Geraldine Page wearing a pajama top, and almost nothing else, in Peter Shaffer's perfect farce "Black Comedy." Page had glamour, and cocktail-party legs, and only months earlier she'd made me cry--as a faded happy spinster in the TV film of Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory." I was all set to be a Geraldine Page fan, forever.

That's how it worked, once. Fans picked their stars. Men in the Midwest (or Southwest or Northwest) fell in love with Susan Hayward or Ava Gardner, and every year, maybe every season, there was a new Ava Gardner picture. Reinforcement. But how about now?

Let's spitball: Let's say you fell in love with Julie Christie in the '60s. How long have you now been waiting to see her with any regularity? Mia Farrow? Thanks to Woody Allen you get a yearly glimpse, but otherwise? One shudders to think. As Sally Field put it a year ago, "It takes 18 months to get one of these pictures going; it takes that long period, and don't ask why. I don't know why." And Field is bankable, the top of the heap. The problem is that it's a very small heap.

That's hard on a fan. Because there are fewer choices. I fell out of love with Geraldine Page rather quickly after college, largely because she doesn't cultivate admirers. People like me, stage-door Johnnies, had nothing to do with a working actress' career, and Page wanted to work. (Kim Stanley, conversely, didn't always want to work, and Maureen Stapleton claims she works for money.) Page didn't want to wait 18 months between star vehicles. In the last year alone she's appeared on stage in New York three times, and made two films. Page forfeited a certain brand of stardom for an actor's career--a sturdy, busy, unpredictably up and down career. Sometimes she's the backer-upper ("Pete 'n' Tillie") and sometimes she's the front ("Interiors").

Maybe it's easier to fall in and out of love at 17, but I fell out of love with Geraldine Page because of the unpredictability. And so what? A few weeks ago the backer-upper won the Academy Award for best actress in a performance that I'd already seen her give, all those years ago, in Capote's classic. (Nobody's suggesting an actress can't steal from herself, by the way; writers do it all the time.)

There's a point here, and it has to do with realities that aren't exactly new, but are increasingly true: Actors, with about a dozen exceptions, aren't really in charge of their own careers. "Nice Susan Hayward movies"--and nice Susan Hayward careers--are almost entirely a thing of the past. Even 20 years ago when Natalie Wood nodded her head, a movie got made--and Natalie Wood wasn't even a box-office megastar. ("If Elizabeth Taylor wouldn't," the saying went, "Natalie Wood.") But movie performers now are guns for hire, even the best of them. Be it Michael Caine or Susan Sarandon or Richard Gere or Cher or whoever.

And maybe that's not so terrible. When Don Ameche won his Oscar for "Cocoon," he stood backstage facing the press, and made a fascinating confession. "I wasn't like Henry Fonda. I didn't live to act," Ameche said, with the highest regard for Fonda's career. "Hank was the actor's actor."

Fonda may have been a star in spite of himself, in spite of his shyness and lack of competitiveness. But in fact he didn't live "only to act." As his widow Shirlee said to a reporter the other day, "Hank was a painter, a beekeeper and a gardener. He didn't act for money and he wasn't waiting his entire career for the Oscar. It wasn't part of his plan on any level. It just happened to happen at that time in his life."

Still, more than one generation of women fell in love with Henry Fonda, and there were about 100 movies in six decades to keep that love alive. Don Ameche inadvertently was defining stardom in admitting "I wasn't Henry Fonda." And maybe a component of stardom--as we once knew it--was its repetition.

When Spencer Tracy was told that he always played Spencer Tracy, he didn't disagree. "Who the hell else do you expect me to be?" Tracy barked at his eventual biographer Garson Kanin.

To make a short story long, that's why I didn't jump for joy for Geraldine Page on Oscar night. I'm not sure who Geraldine Page is. Is she a Peter Shaffer glamour girl or a Truman Capote bag lady or is she a Horton Foote mental traveler? It may not be any of my business who Geraldine Page is, but I miss the intimacy that was real at 17.

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