Performance of the week: Geraldine Page in Summer And Smoke (1961)

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Geraldine Page received her second Oscar nomination (first Best Actress, for her second feature film!) for playing Alma Winemiller in Tennessee Williams’ Summer And Smoke. Even though she won the Golden Globe, she eventually lost the big one to Sophia Loren for Two Women (What a performance!).From what I’ve seen, the 60s was such an interesting era for movie awards – most of the actual best actress winners actually never won the Golden Globe and several other precursor awards, which makes the guessing game a lot harder than nowadays. Furthermore, she was up against major stars like Audrey Hepburn and young Natalie Wood who, if you think about it, was actually more of a film veteran than Page was. I guess there were loads of these so-called “surprise” winners back then, especially for the case of Loren since she became the first performer to win for a foreign language performance, and yet you can’t help but applaud the Academy then for making brave, original choices (unlike now).

Summer And Smoke is a terrific film. I personally enjoyed it and I can just watch it over and over again. Only Tennessee Williams could get away with making such theatrical material work on screen. Personally, I enjoyed this much more than Sweet Bird Of Youth, although people in general seem to prefer Page’s performance there. There’s so much emotional and sexual tension between the characters, and like the rest of Williams’ works, the over-the-top nature of the material adds to the brilliance of the story instead of undermining it. The colourful sets and costumes are once again an added bonus for me, as they make the film such a delight to watch. The acting is also good throughout; Laurence Harvey gives his next best performance here (or at least from what I’ve seen) after Room At The Top, Rita Moreno was quite fun as the wild and bitchy Rosa Zacharias, and Una Merkel was also very good as Alma’s crazy mother. I felt that her nomination was a bit much though, as the role is a bit limited.

When talking about her performance in Sweet Bird Of Youth (1962), I talked about how Geraldine Page is probably one of the most respected actresses ever. I mean, when F. Murray Abraham presented her Oscar in 1986, he called her the “greatest actress of the english language” and she even received a standing ovation for that win. Meryl Streep was also a great admirer of hers, which says a lot. However, as I got to read more and more blogs and forums (taken with a pinch of salt, naturally), I realise that her style seems to be a hit-or-miss with modern audiences nowadays. Personally, I love her; I agree she is a bit theatrical, especially since she was primarily a stage actress, but I’m not going to deny that she is becoming one of my favourites as I watch more and more of her work. I’m not someone who is very particular about acting styles as what I’m looking for is emotional honesty in performances and not so much on how the actors achieve it, but watching real method actors (Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Kim Stanley, Robert De Niro) do their magic on screen can be quite a breath-taking experience. There’s a kind of energy in Page’s performances that I really love, and her versatility is damn impressive. I mean, she played a totally different character one year later after playing this prudish spinster, and still managed to gave a fantastic, critically-acclaimed performance.That’s really saying something.

However, from what I gather, Page’s performance here isn’t her most popular one, and it is actually pretty divisive. It’s easy to see why: she played the role on stage, and she basically recreated the role on film, so you can expect her acting to be extremely mannered and theatrical. This kind of acting can understandably be a real turn-off for most people, and it doesn’t help that the character isn’t the most likable either. For me…well, I’m divided on the love side. There, I said it. But before I go into why, I’ll just talk about the way I interpreted this character and Geraldine’s take on it. *possible spoilers* Alma Winemiller is basically a repressed spinster who has to live under the same roof as her dominating, mentally unstable mother as well as her conservative father, whom if I’m not wrong is a preacher. She spends most of her time as a voice coach, and her life is basically boring until the “wild” young doctor John returns. Alma has always loved John, or at least harboured a secret crush on him since they were kids. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, Alma ended up performing the role of the minister’s wife after her mother suffers a breakdown, while John got to live wildly as he pursued an education in medicine. As such, his return to the town wakes up the inner desire in Alma, and she finds herself becoming more and more manipulative and possessive in order to win back his love.

I understand where Page’s detractors are coming from when they criticise her theatrical approach to the character. Her ultra conservative and prudish behaviour can seem fake and ridiculous to many, or as John puts it, she’s “putting on airs”. She has a “fancy way of speaking” as he calls it; she refers to fireworks as “pyrotechnical displays”, calls his car a “magnificent automobile” and hopes that he has a “strong character” when Rosa gives him a flirtatious smile. The way I read it, however, which I think is the way Page approached it too, was that Alma was using this “conservative” facade merely as a way to deal with John, which is why it seems unnatural. Yes, she is a repressed and plain spinster, but I don’t think this was her true nature, and I feel that people may actually tend to overlook how manipulative Alma actually is. She’s playing the passive-aggressive card by rejecting his advances and insisting that he has to be a gentleman, but I think deep down, the “animal” inside her that John often refers to deeply desires him. I mean, she can even go over to his house at 2am in the morning, pretending to be sick so as to get close to him. And of course, the famous phone call to his father in order to stop his marriage to Rosa spoke volumes about her to me.

The famous monologue at the end of the film is easily the highlight of the performance. It really showed how much Alma has changed, and how she has come to embrace her true nature. It’s a brilliantly delivered piece by Page, considering how theatrical it really was (“…the girl who said no…she doesn’t exist anymore! She died last summer, suffocated from the smoke…something on fire inside of her!”) Whenever I think about Tennessee Williams’ monologues, I instantly think of Kate Hepburn’s brilliant piece about the sea turtles in Suddenly, Last Summer. Only the best performers are able to nail the theatrical nature of his dialogues without making it seem ridiculous, and Page is no exception.  The tears, the lines, the mannerism are all perfectly “calculated”, making it a very intense experience.

Overall, I don’t consider this a legendary and mind-blowing performance but I consider it a great piece by an actress consider a master of the cradt. The criticisms thrown at it are understandable; I can see how the role can be played in a more natural and subtle manner (Deborah Kerr would have been great, I think), but I like Page’s approach to it and I felt that the risks she took paid off. And even so, I didn’t think the self-awareness of it all was that bad; it was kinda fascinating to me, like watching an acting teacher teaching her students how to deliver their lines perfectly and time their tears. It’s a solid piece of work that I respect and enjoyed.

Will continue Best Picture 1971 next week…I have rested enough, and I want to get it over and done with before school reopens. 

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