``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.''
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.''
It is this blend of pathos and humor, sentiment and strength that most attracts Page the actress. ``You know, when there is a good writer like Horton [Foote], like Shakespeare, like Chekhov, they mix it all. It's all part of life. That's what so great about Carrie Watts: She's not just one thing. She's got all those [qualities].''
During the interview in a caf'e just blocks from the Greenwich Village townhouse she shares with her husband, actor Rip Torn, and their three children, Page is very much the actress. She speaks sotto voce -- ``I have a bunch of feathers in my throat'' -- fiddles with her hair, rubs her nose, smiles sweetly at the waitress, imitates Norman Mailer, and digs into her baseball-sized scoop of chocolate ice cream with ill-disguised gusto. She is dressed in brightly colored layers on top -- one can't discern where the scarf leaves off and the jacket and blouse take over -- and plain khaki trousers and running shoes. It is precisely what one expects from someone who has spent a lifetime portraying eccentric, independent women.
``Way back in stock [theater], when I was in my 20s, I played `Come Back Little Sheba,''' says Page in her leisurely, narrative style of conversation. ``And I was talking to somebody about how fun it was to play older parts and they were looking at me like, `What are you talking about?' They thought I was really that old.''
It is a story Page tells with glee, laughing even now about a mistake that might mortify most other actresses. She is equally blithe in brushing off questions about her abilities as a housekeeper with a ``Surely you jest!'' She doesn't hesitate to add that her husband taught her how to cook. ``See, my mind is in the clouds; I don't think about practical things,'' she says. ``My family is very tolerant of my inabilities, and we have such a good time.''
It is much the same modesty Page exhibits regarding her multi-faceted career. Preferring to call herself a ``memorable'' rather than great actress, Page is quick to fault her ``bad habits'' as an artist. ``I think I've largely eradicated them,'' she says. ``But I used to do something funny with my mouth, and I had a funny way of turning my head. That's why I always ask the director to see the [film] dailies.''
A die-hard ``method'' actress, Page has said she lets her roles ``cook'' in her mind before performing them. ``That happens automatically to anybody who acts. But I used to think that by opening [night] all the work was done. Now I'm finding how much you can learn from the audience.''
She says she has also had to learn to modify her stage performances for the screen. ``When I started in `Hondo,' the director said, `Miss Page, please don't flap your mouth. Please don't wrinkle you're forehead. In close-up it looks like the Grand Canyon.' The fact that I pack so much stuff in [my performances],'' she says, ``irritates people who like simplicity.''
The only daughter of a Missouri physician, Page grew up during the 1930s depression, wanting initially to be a musician and then an artist. It wasn't until her first dramatic role at age 17 that she turned her sights to the stage. ``It was the first time what I had in my head came out the way I intended it'' is how she explains the attraction.
After several years' studying at Chicago's Goodman Theater School and performing in more than 500 stock shows in the Midwest, Page finally migrated to New York. There followed several lean years when she worked more often as a hat-check girl and lingerie model than as an actress. In 1952 came her ``overnight success'' in an Off-Broadway revival of Williams's ``Summer and Smoke,'' directed by Jos'e Quintero. After that came her Broadway debut and the first of several film roles.
Despite her subsequent success, Page says she has had to reaffirm her commitment to her craft several times. As she explains it, she sounds very much like another independent-minded woman, Carrie Watts. ``It's what I try to do in my [acting] classes,'' she says softly. ``I always say it's worth doing what you want to do, not letting people manipulate you. It's worth holding out. It's worth having pride.''