Best Actress 1961: Geraldine Page in "Summer and Smoke"
Geraldine Page has the advantage of a complex and demanding character in a well-written story by Tennessee Williams – ultimately, this means that all the problems in this performance are actually coming from her own work because they can neither be found in the script nor in her character. And this leads to the most confusing aspect of her work – that all these faults, as obvious and distracting they may be, somehow are able to slide in the background and get lost behind Geraldine Page’s already mentioned ability to show all emotions and feelings in her characters. Yes, it’s done in an obvious way and these feelings of artificiality do not get lost as the movie goes on but somehow it seems that they become less important and the whole result is still much more satisfying than expected at the beginning. Geraldine Page is simply a master in her own area of acting – like Susan Hayward, she excelled in her specialty. Susan Hayward was always over-the-top but she was so good at it that it somehow almost never mattered. Geraldine Page may display an aura of ‘Look how it’s done’ much too often but she was so good at it that it somehow almost never mattered. She maybe doesn’t disappear in Alma but she still creates her, brings her to life, makes her her own. The role of the sexually frustrated spinster with a domineering mother is a cliché in movie history as been done before (think Deborah Kerr in Separate Tables) and would be done again (think Joanne Woodward in Rachel, Rachel) but she still does the most with it and gives a remarkable, beautiful and often devastating portrayal of sexual longing and broken will.
Tennessee Williams was always able to write wonderful characters for women and even though his Alma Winemiller may not be the greatest of them, it’s still a part that demanded a certain vulnerability coupled with an underlying sensibility. It’s no surprise that Williams held Geraldine Page in such a high regard because she was certainly an actress who could do everything and must have been every playwriter’s dream. Like a machine, she was always able to produce the wanted results but that way was often too technical. The part of Alma is very wordy and never reaches the fascinating levels of Blanche DuBois or Violet Venable but she is still an engaging representation of fear, repression, insecurity and its fatal consequences.
As written before, Geraldine Page may not be able to loose the impression of acting and is rather floating above Alma instead of getting behind her, but she still does justice to the part and excels in the difficulty of the screenplay. All moments in her performance may be too obvious and prepared but she still fulfills them and even though she doesn’t disappear in Alma, she still shows her wonderful talent to get an emotional connection with her, to give her a core of suppression and confusion that slowly changes, but always in believable steps which helps Geraldine Page to make Alma a full, complete creation. Something in her work may ring false but somehow her emotions seems honest. Alma’s insecurity, her hidden anger, her frustration and her slow awakening when she suddenly begins to get interested in John which will ultimately be too much for her is always done in a way that keeps the viewer’s interest and gives the movie a surprising amount of depth and complexity. It’s a very quiet, touching and surprisingly delicate portrayal that burns with both passion and inhibition and she is quite impressive in showing how Alma slowly begins to change but she always keeps the awkward nature of Alma intact, no matter if she is alone with John in a quiet place or arguing with her mother. She doesn't reach the overwhelming devistation of Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar named Desire but it's a touching and dedicated portrayal that ultimately is more memorable for its strenghts than its faults. Geraldine Page doesn’t have a real chemistry with Laurence Harvey but considering the nature of their parts there is no actual reason why she should have. Her best moments actually come opposite her mother, especially when Alma finally stands up to the terror and accuses her of stealing her youth. It’s a very moving scene when Alma tells her mother that everybody thinks of her as an old spinster even though she is still young (but while it’s a wonderful scene in itself, the context surely worked better on the stage when Geraldine Page was 10 years younger and that way made more sense).
So, it seems that the word ‘confusing’ does describe this performance best because it is one of the most affected and ‘obvious’ performances this category has ever seen but at the same time there is something incredibly fascinating and heartbreaking about Geraldine Page’s portrayal that so beautifully catches so many nuances of Alma and is able, despite all the obstacles, to rise to the occasion of this demanding role. In the end, the strengths of this performance don’t fully cover its weaknesses but they are intriguing enough to get