Geraldine Page, who died over the weekend of a heart attack at the age of 62, had that quality--which divides the superb actors from the merely very good actors--of seeming to disappear totally into the character she was playing.
There was no Geraldine Page persona that you awaited when you were going to see her perform, as there was a John Wayne and a Jimmy Cagney persona, as there is a Bette Davis and a Jane Fonda persona.
But the intrusion of the private personality is a kind of limitation on the actor, working like a set of specifications to define also what a performer is not expected to do and perhaps ought not to try to do.
Page was free of such limitations and, as a result, few actors and actresses have had such range. I think of her first as the aging but glamorous actress in the film of "Sweet Bird of Youth," doing her long telephone monologue with an unheard Walter Winchell on the other end. That woman, flirtatious, worldly, hard used but apparently getting a new lease on life, dwelt a world away from the defiant Texas woman making a last visit to her past in "The Trip to Bountiful," one of the sleeper hits of two movie seasons ago.
And that Texas woman, dumpy and spontaneous, was still another range away from the East Coast habitats of the austere and neurotic matriarch of Woody Allen's "Interiors." She was in turn different from the sexually obsessed Tennessee Williams woman of "Summer and Smoke."
So it went, a gallery of unique characters, each fully realized, each drawn from this noble actress, who was in her own right shy and self-effacing and almost chronically reluctant to face a television camera for an interview.
What you might call Page's priceless anonymity had its costs in career terms. The essence of movie stardom is the personality memorable from one role to the next. But, although Page had seven nominations and an Oscar, she was never a movie marquee name, not a bankable star. Broadway was her true metier, as the stage best became Olivier.
Yet the world of film has been changing in ways that accommodate her particular art better than ever before. "The Trip to Bountiful" was a special triumph for Page, proving that a modest film with only meager resources for promotion could command audiences almost solely on the strength of its luminous central performance.
It is becoming possible now for the star actor to emerge as a superstar, commanding a loyal retinue on the cumulative appeal of characterizations each markedly different from the others and owing nothing to the lures of plastic beauty or the notorieties of private life, but only to an intense and uncompromising dedication to the drawing of character.
And in this, no one excelled like the modest and unassuming lady who, working to the very end, left us last week.