Notes on Geraldine Page: Part One
I had only one meeting with Geraldine Page--backstage at the Promenade Theatre, which is now a gleaming, soulless Sephora. That was in 1985, after a performance of Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind, in which she gave a bracing performance of extraordinary focus. Still, she pulled up a couple of chairs and spoke to me--about Tennessee Williams, about work. There was one telephone call later that year, and then plans to sit down and "do this properly," as she put it. Sadly, the proper interview never took place: Geraldine Page died suddenly in 1987, while she was appearing in a revival of Blithe Spirit. I had hoped to see her in the play and talk to her again.
Geraldine Page dominated so many of my conversations with those who knew and loved Tennessee and the theatre and the art of acting. Tennessee felt that Page was among a holy trinity of actors he had been privileged to observe and work and fight with. Everyone had an opinion about her work, and everyone marveled at how she continued to study and to amaze.
I have voluminous notes on this actress. I am combing through them now, wondering what I might do with them. Here are some excerpts. I would like to think that these notes may satisfy those many voracious readers of my blog who write to me and ask--consistently and understandably--about Geraldine Page and her brilliant body of work.
|Geraldine Page, Julie Harris, Maureen Stapleton, Anne Bancroft, and Eileen Herlie (seated).|
Gerry was very frequently silent--for a long time. You would think she was angry: her mind, her soul, were elsewhere. She was working and thinking. It unnerved people. I got used to it. She was building a character and analyzing a play and looking at her fellow players as if they were pieces of music: Getting their notes and their sounds and marking their placement. There wasn't a spot on a stage or a moment of a performance of which she wasn't entirely aware; there wasn't a moment of stage time in which she wasn't alert and alive and intense and making it work.
She had problems with the play [Sweet Bird of Youth, in 1959]. She recognized the worth of the piece, and she recognized the worth of the role she was playing, but she could see the holes and the parts of the floor of the play that were ready to give way. She pressured herself and me and Tennessee to get it right, to get it better. She was right; she was persistent. She improved the play.
She never talked about her work or what she was doing. She simply did it. She hated career talk: It bored her, and she had a yawning/laughing sound she would make before she walked away. She was phenomenally sweet to fellow players--at least in my presence, in that play. She could shift the entire production through the force of her concentration and help someone out, push them forward. She had no patience for laziness, but if something beyond the control of an actor took place, she was the first to smooth things over, mount a rescue.
Paul [Newman] was often unsure of his performance in the play. He never fully trusted himself as Chance Wayne. He gave some rocky performances, and I noticed that when he felt confident about his work, he ran from the theatre and hopped on his motorcycle and was gone. On the nights when he felt he hadn't done so well, he would linger at the stage door, sign autographs, bask in the adulation--deserved, I might add--from the young girls who waited for him. Gerry noticed this and began to bolster him from the stage, through the performance. There were fewer rocky performances, and Paul began to mount the bike and slip off into the night. Gerry held him up, and proudly.
|With Paul Newman in the film version of Sweet Bird of Youth (1962).|
Geraldine Page made me think that I had no business at all being an actress. I would see her on the stage and I would think, What am I doing? Who am I to think that I might someday be an actress. I remember seeing her in a play called Midsummer. No one remembers it or should, but she had a moment in that play that utterly changed my life--as an actress, certainly, but also as a woman, a mother, a human being. Her character is coming home from work--back-breaking work in a restaurant--and she has a sad bag of leftover food, food that she needs and wants, but her children are awake, and they are hungry, and they need it too, and so she opens the bag and mournfully passes the food to her children. I could feel her regret and her sacrifice passing this oily meat and stale bread to her children, but when they pounced on it and giggled and showed satisfaction, her entire body glowed with pride. She was providing for her family; she was important to them; she mattered. Her tired, slow body was reinvigorated, and she could barely contain her love for these children. It gave me the chills; it gives me chills now. It was extraordinary, and she carved this character and this moment out of a play that meant very little else. She was unafraid to go deep into a character and study the most basic and private needs, and then display them for us. Over the years, in so many different things, she made me think of Laurette Taylor, another actress who humbled me and enlightened me, and made me want to be a better actress.
|Backstage at Midsummer (1953).|
|In Midsummer (1953).|
She made me think of rescue workers--you know, firemen? In a situation where a building is on fire, and before it spreads, floor plans are studied, and the firemen know every doorway, hallway, entrance or exit, and they go in and they divert the fire, destroy the fire, move around and above and away from it, to rescue and extinguish. That was what Geraldine Page was like with a play. I first wanted to say that she was like something tearing apart a piece of meat, but there is no design or study in that--that's just consuming and discarding. She was ruthless in knowing every comma and every character and where they were going. She was very tough: There was no sentiment with Gerry Page, unless it was called for in the script. She was ruthless about getting it right, and she made you work harder and study more, because I felt, I really felt, that she would kill me if I didn't get it right.
Carrie Nye/ 1990
She has the mind of a writer, which is, I assure you, the highest compliment I could pay her. She was also unafraid of honesty or silence, two things I always think of when I think of her. She didn't need approval or find comfort in silly talk or empty conversations that bond people together: She came to work and to work well. She wore herself out. Shaw writes something in his preface to The Doctor's Dilemma, I think, that always makes me think of Gerry: Use your health, even to the point of wearing it out. That is what it is for. Spend all you have before you die; and do not outlive yourself. Gerry used everything, and she was not afraid to ask everyone around her to use everything as well. She had an understanding of why we were all gathered together to create theatre that I have only found in perhaps two or three other people. She did not take a lot of things seriously, but she certainly took her work seriously, and she took herself seriously in the ruthless pursuit of getting her work to the highest level of accomplishment.
Geraldine Page is a great actress. That is not a statement one makes freely. It wasn't that she simply had talent--everyone has some bit of talent, a speck of something sparkly--she had a genius, a maddening intellect that came with a supernatural vision--of people and things.
She pushed me. We argued. We worked it out. She made me a better writer and she made my plays better plays. Friendship? I wouldn't say so: I don't think of leaning on Gerry's shoulder or calling her up in the middle of the night for comfort and a few laughs, but I would call her--and I have called her--to remind me of why we do this, why we matter, why we have to get it right.
Geraldine Page is all about getting it right, and just above that goal is getting it brilliant, which she does. A solitary genius.
|Geraldine Page in Woody Allen's Interiors (1978).|
You want to feel bad about yourself? You watch and study Geraldine Page. Seriously! Jesus, she's good. Sneaky, too. She told me that she found out--from a guy named Clifford, who did our clothes on Interiors, that Woody [Allen] had filmed footage of her character as a young woman--with another actress. She wanted to see it; she wanted to know from what sort of seed or pile of shit her character--named Eve, no less--had sprung. She was ecstatic! She came back from seeing this--whatever it was--and said she now had an understanding of her character that hadn't been there before. Now the movie comes out and there's a couple of seconds of a woman--you can't really see her--moving things around in a room. I'm dumb and I think, What's there? But Gerry built her character around something in the posture and the movements of that woman. She built parts of her character around lamps and fabrics and the way light poured in and fell on the floor. She began to think as the character would, and it was scary. Marvelous, scary, perfect.
She was the best. Great actress, great dame, great friend in a pinch. But you only approached her and spoke to her and asked for her help when you were ready for it--really, when you deserved it--because Gerry was always working; she was always ahead of you. She was always ahead of me.
|Geraldine Page's character from Interiors as a young woman. The actress is Penny Gaston.|
TO BE CONTINUED