“Way back in stock [theatre], when I was in my 20s, I played Come Back Little Sheba and I was talking to somebody about how fun it was to play older parts and they were looking at me like, ‘What are you talking about?’ They thought I was really that old.”
That story from the superb actress Geraldine Page neatly sums up the sort of roles she played in her forty-year career — mature, eccentric, and often downright peculiar women. “They did cast me as an ingenue once, and the novelty was nice, but I said, ‘’There is nothing here to play!’ I really like getting into the meat of a role.” If you think that’s an exaggeration, her multiple Tony, Emmy, and Oscar nominations entirely consist of character parts.
Brooks Atkinson, the former New York Times theatre critic, perhaps summed it up best when he wrote: “Miss Page is not a forceful woman; she does not impose herself on the parts she plays. But somewhere behind and beneath the modesty and prosiness of her personality lies an extraordinary perception, which illuminates the characters she plays.”
Born November 22, 1924, in Kirksville, Missouri, Page grew up during the 1930s depression, mainly in Chicago. Her first interests were to be a musician and then an artist, but after performing on stage at age seventeen she found her calling. “The minute I got into my first play, which was called Excuse My Dust… I knew that this was what I’d been looking for… it was the first time what I had in my head came out the way I intended it.”
Her death at sixty-two was unexpected (she died of a heart attack while performing on Broadway in Blithe Spirit, for which she received her fourth and final Tony Award nomination). Still very much in her prime, it hurts to imagine what other Page performances we were denied. Just think what it would be like if we lost actresses of a similar age such as Emma Thompson (62), Angela Bassett (63) or Frances McDormand (64). Gratefully, two of Page’s finest stage performances were captured on screen and (surprisingly) not cast with so-called “name” actresses, as is Hollywood’s norm. In the film adaptations of 1961’s Summer and Smokeand 1962’s Sweet Bird of Youth, her damaged and mercurial Tennessee Williams heroines were captured for posterity.
After the smash hits of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams suffered a setback with Summer and Smoke, a failure on Broadway in 1948. Though when it was revived in a tiny Greenwich Village theatre and reevaluated four years later, it not only made critics take notice of Williams’ words, but of the wonder that was Geraldine Page. Hailed as an overnight success, Page shot that misnomer down saying if it were true “then that was one long night.” In 1952, the Off-Broadway theatre movement was just beginning to flourish, led by visionary producer Theodore Mann and the brilliant director Jose Quintero. Their Circle in the Square Theatre marked the emergence of Broadway-caliber theatre downtown.
Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), in which Page co-starred in both stage and screen versions with Paul Newman, allowed her to create one of the most memorable women in the Tennessee Williams panoply. Alexandra Del Lago (who travels under the name Princess Kosmonopolis), is an aging film star in the throes of a self-perceived career setback. Hung over, sexually voracious, and needy beyond all measure, the Princess has provided a field day for many actresses over the years including Irene Worth, Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall, Kim Catrall, Marcia Gay Harden and Diane Lane.
Here Williams’ characters may have led to a misperception of Page only playing fluttery and vulnerable types, although that is easily counterbalanced by such roles as lacerating portrayal of a spurned woman in Woody Allen’s Interiors (1978). Or the brutal manner with which she portrayed a chain-smoking mother-to-end-all-mothers in 1984’s The Pope of Greenwich Village (both films brought her two of eight Academy Award nominations). Notably, Pope was only eight minutes of on-screen time. Check out what Page does with three of them here:
In 1985, The Trip to Bountiful, an extended film version of a 1953 Horton Foote teleplay, allowed for the hope that Page might finally take home that elusive Oscar. At the time, she was the only actress to have received seven nominations without a win. By year’s end Whoopi Goldberg’s film debut in The Color Purple, and Meryl Streep in that year’s eventual big winner at the ceremony Out of Africa, made for steep competition. But when the envelope was opened, F. Murray Abraham (the previous year’s Best Actor winner for Amadeus) smiled and said, “Ah. I consider this woman the greatest actress in the English language,” all that was left for Meryl Streep to do was lead the tumultuous standing ovation.
I honestly don’t think acting gets any better than this sequence from Trip to Bountiful. Take these four-and-a-half minutes to luxuriate in the gifts Page brought to this breathtakingly simple performance, which only an actor of enormous skill and technique can capture.
Other notable stage triumphs were The Immoralist (James Dean’s second (and last Broadway appearance), cut short by his death at twenty-four; The Rainmaker; revivals of O’Neill’s Strange Interlude and Chekhov’s Three Sisters; British comedies Black Comedy and Absurd Person Singular, and Agnes of God — eighteen Broadway plays over a thirty-four-year period. Devotedly, she even created her own theatre companies beginning as a young woman in Chicago, and later in life Off-Broadway with the Sanctuary and Mirror Rep.
And let it not be forgotten that she voiced Madame Medusa in the 1977 Disney cartoon The Rescuers. Not only is Page hilariously funny, I find it hard to believe that the animators didn’t borrow a LOT of the Princess from Sweet Bird of Youth when they drew her character, even though it was said that animator Milt Kahl based her on his much-hated ex-wife.
In all honesty, there are too many great performances of Page’s to list, but a few still need to be mentioned. The one-hour television movie A Christmas Memory (1966) is available on YouTube. As Miss Sook, Page portrayed a character by Truman Capote, first memorialized in short stories, based on his favorite relative. Its sequel, The Thanksgiving Visitor(1968), was another critical success and earned Page a pair of Emmy Awards. They are both short, simple and elegant examples of the types of things network television once had an interest in. Other significant film performances are Hondo (1953), (which garnered the first of her Academy Award nominations) where she played opposite John Wayne, as well as Toys in the Attic, The Beguiled, You’re a Big Boy Now (Oscar nomination), Pete ’n’ Tillie (Oscar nomination), The Day of the Locust and White Knights.
On June 18, 1987, a memorial service for Page took place on the stage of the Neil Simon Theatre where, up until the time of her death, she had been performing in Blithe Spirit. It began with her actor husband of thirty years, Rip Torn (and yes, their mailbox really did say TORN/PAGE). When he looked out to the full house of 1,400 people, Torn said, “Yeah, Gerry would like this.” The audience responded by rising to its feet for a sustained ovation. Among her contemporaries and friends who spoke were F. Murray Abraham, Richard Chamberlain, Anne Jackson, James Earl Jones, Amanda Plummer, Cicely Tyson and Sissy Spacek (who was Torn’s first cousin).
It was perhaps Anthony Torn, one of Page’s twin sons, who painted the most vivid portrait: “My mother was my best friend. She also was my teacher, in every sense of the word,” he said. He then told of being with his mother on the last day of her life where he attended one of the acting classes she recently started teaching — at the bargain rate of $5 for three hours — and “having the usual burger with the class,” before accompanying her to the evening performance of Blithe Spirit,” which was to be her last. “It was muggy and rainy, and I commented on what an awful day it was, and she said, ‘Oh, no . . . it’s so atmospheric.’”
If you care to give it a listen, the entire ninety-minute memorial has been uploaded to SoundCloud by Mr. Torn. Many thanks.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.