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Geraldine Page. A knack for blending pathos and humor, sentiment and strength. She prefers to call herself a `memorable' rather than a `great' actress, but a number of recent roles on stage and on screen -- including `The Trip to Bountiful,' which garnered Page her eighth Oscar nomination -- tend to belie that estimate.

By Hilary DeVriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 25, 1986



New York

``I have played old ladies since I was 17 years old, and very convincingly,'' says Geraldine Page stoutly. ``I've always looked funny and was too tall to play the leads and so had to play the grandmothers.'' In an industry that usually places beauty before age, Page, with her wispy hair and grandmother's face, is something of an anomaly. While many actresses complain of a dearth of roles for older women, Page is currently working at the peak of her career. In the past two years she has made half a dozen films, including ``White Nights'' and the yet-to-be-released ``My Little Girl.''

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She is talking during lunch a couple of weeks before the Academy Awards, and you ask her about her feelings as an eight-time Oscar nominee. She fixes you with her Cheshire cat smile and whispers across the camomile tea, ``I have a tendency to be philosophic about these sorts of things.''

But then Miss Page beams that butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth grin, and you know she is nowhere near to being philosophic. She is, in fact, plain excited.

``I just love going to the ceremonies'' (the latest of which, of course, were held last night in Los Angeles), she says, toying with the ends of hair that straggle out from her knitted turquoise cap. ``I don't know if I've been every time I've been nominated, but I've been a lot.''

Indeed, Page set an industry record with her seven previous nominations and not a single winning Oscar. She was a three-time nominee for best actress for her roles in ``Summer and Smoke,'' ``Sweet Bird of Youth,'' and ``Interiors,'' and a four-time nominee for best supporting actress in ``Hondo,'' ``You're a Big Boy Now,'' ``Pete 'n Tillie,'' and ``The Pope of Greenwich Village.''

Now Page's most recent, and some say best, performance as Carrie Watts, the hymn-singing heroine of Horton Foote's ``The Trip to Bountiful,'' has earned her glowing reviews in addition to her eighth nomination. She is in solid company this year with fellow nominees Anne Bancroft, Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep, and film newcomer Whoopi Goldberg. But with her long, distinguished stage and film career -- she received her first Tony nomination in 1959 and her first Oscar nomination two years later -- Page is considered the sentimental favorite (though whether she finally won was not known as this page went to press).

Ever since she first captured critical attention with her work in Tennessee Williams's plays, Page has built her reputation with a series of scene-stealing portrayals of aging Southern belles. Now, 40 years into her career, Page is considered one of our finest, if most fidgety, actresses. It is a role, she admits, she relishes.

In addition, she teaches acting twice a week and performs regularly on stage. She has been artist-in-residence at New York's Mirror Repertory Company for several years, and earlier this season she played in Sam Shepard's ``Lie of the Mind'' Off-Broadway. Currently she is performing in New York as wily Lady Kitty in Somerset Maugham's ``The Circle.'' Her success, Page says, is due to her longtime commitment to character roles.

``They did cast me as an ing'enue once, and the novelty was nice,'' Page says, cocking her head coquettishly. ``But I said, `There is nothing here to play!' I really like getting into the meat of a role.''

And meaty roles she's had aplenty -- from Alexandra Del Lago in Williams's ``Sweet Bird of Youth,'' to Mother Superior in the Broadway version of ``Agnes of God'' to an Emmy-winning performance as Truman Capote's aging cousin in ``A Christmas Memory.'' None of the roles, however, have been as demanding as that of Carrie Watts, a character originated by Lillian Gish in a 1953 teleplay.

``See, it's such a huge role, it was impossible to do it all correctly'' says Page, who admits if she could do it over again she would alter parts of her performance. ``But I am proud of it. The reason I like the role so much is the way it was written -- all those [complexities] squished in.''