My current Top 5

My current Top 5

12/18/2010

Best Actress 1961: Geraldine Page in "Summer and Smoke"

Geraldine Page’s side on wikipedia claims that her performance in the off-Broadway revival of Summer and Smoke in 1952 was an ‘earth-shattering and legendary’ event and started the off-Broadway movement in the New York theatre (I don’t know if this is truly correct since wikipedia is not exactly the most trustworthy side) and the trailer of Summer and Smoke loudly and proudly states that its leading lady was proclaimed the greatest living American actress by none other than Tennessee Williams. All this, combined with her Golden Globe Award and her Oscar nomination, naturally arouses great expectations in her performance – and while she doesn’t completely fulfill those, she is still able to create some captivating moments and deliver a remarkable character-study that may be too overdone as a whole but fascinates nonetheless.

Geraldine Page is an actress that is often mentioned in connection to the words ‘tics’, ‘mannerisms’ or ‘calculated’. For those viewers who have only seen some part of her filmography, like The Trip to Bountiful or Interiors, these words can be rather surprising since her performances in those movies are, undoubtedly, the result of careful and thoughtful preparation but there is still something natural and unknowing about her work, more like a woman driven by her instincts than by her thoughts. But to fully understand the meaning of Geraldine Page’s ‘tics’ and ‘mannerisms’ one need to look no further than her performance as Alma Winemiller in Tennessee William’s Summer and Smoke. Considering that this is Tennessee Williams it’s no surprise that Geraldine Page played a sexually frustrated and inexperienced woman whose spirits are destroyed by her own desires and the people around her.

This performance is rather confusing, especially at the beginning. Her acting from the first moment on is incredibly affected and unnatural, every word she delivers gets its own gesture and facial expression, every body movement appears not only prepared but studied and every word is spoken in the most awareness of her own acting. It’s obvious that there is a constant self-awareness in every moment of Geraldine Page’s performance that guides her through all of Alma’s emotions. And right from the start the movie makes sure that everybody realizes that there are many of those. Alma is suffering from her mother who is both domineering but also a little child and who apparently suffers from a mental illness that turned her into a kleptomaniac and made her mean, hateful and difficult to bear. Especially Alma suffers from her constant insults and mind games and it becomes obvious very soon that her life with her mother, whose condition also forced her to grow up quite early and take over a lot of tasks that normally wouldn’t be hers, turned her into a withdrawn, insecure, shy and sexually frustrated woman. Unfortunately Geraldine Page’s interpretation seems too aware in these early moments, rather like a presentation than a performance. I compared Jane Fonda to a talented drama student – Geraldine Page rather seems like the teacher who is showing everyone how to do it with a collection of gestures, facial expressions and deliveries that always work well in the context of the story and her character’s development but are simply far too self-evident. There is nothing really natural about her work, everything she does is much too obvious. The way Geraldine Page displays every single emotion or feeling in Alma is a combination of expected and anticipated gestures that range from covering her mouth with her hands or turning her head to trembling her lips or putting her hands at her chest.

Everything about Geraldine Page’s work becomes even more confusing when Alma talks to her neighbor John (Laurence Harvey, again working opposite an Oscar-nominated actress during his short reign of success) and learns from him that she is actually imitated at parties for her way of speaking and behaving. It’s this moment that suddenly seems to cast a different light on Geraldine Page. Is her whole interpretation actually circling around this little detail that has so grand consequences? It is indeed called for to look at her performance from this point of view. Is Geraldine Page using her own tics and mannerisms to portray a woman who is so unsure of herself, so considered of her reputation and her appearance, so hesitant to have a conversation and so careful not to make the wrong impression? It seems that there is some sense in this view especially considering how long Alma has been oppressed and mentally tortured by her sinister mother – combined with her own self-repression, her restrained feelings of love and passion, Alma seemed to have created an artificial shell for herself, one that seems fitting for the daughter of a minister but also one that has overtaken her whole personality. Yes, there does seem to be some sense in it but at the same time this answer isn’t totally satisfying. Because even though Geraldine Page has created a complete and complex character, it’s much too obvious at the same time that two women are calculating every step of their doings – Alma Winemiller and Geraldine Page herself. Geraldine Page has a unique talent for getting in touch with her characters and bringing out every emotion of their existence but she didn’t disappear in Alma. Instead, Geraldine Page’s own thoughts and calculations are just as visible as those of Alma in Summer and Smoke. Her acting style does fit the character perfectly – but she can’t hide the fact that she is acting, she is always pulling the strings of Alma instead of truly becoming Alma. It’s a curious case of an actress creating a character accordingly but still being too large a presence herself. Because she isn’t able to fully create the feeling that her acting is really just an interpretation of her character – instead, her interpretation is the result of her acting. Because even in moments when Alma is showing emotional honesty, Geraldine Page displays her studied gestures and prepared pronunciations that never truly support this honesty but feel rather distracting and sometimes even irritating.

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

4 comments:

dinasztie said...

Interesting review. I haven't seen this performance.

Fritz said...

It's worth checking out once. Tennessee Williams is always good and I have to say that I begin to like Laurence Harvey more and more.

Sage Slowdive said...

May I trouble your opinion on Una Merkel's nomination, Fritz? Good, bad, undeserved?

As for Geraldine, I felt an enormous amount of self-awareness in her performance, which worked for me.

Fritz said...

Mmh, I have to say that I actually thought Una was quite good. She didn't have that much to do but somehow I thought she was effective. I would never give her a win but I can live with her nomination.

Her self-awareness worked for me, too, in some parts.