The Trip to Bountiful Review

Houston, Texas, the 1940s. Carrie Watts (Geraldine Page) lives with her son Ludie (John Heard) and his wife Jessie Mae (Carlin Glynn). But Jessie Mae and “Mother Watts” are constantly at loggerheads and Jessie Mae won’t spare the money to grant Carrie her wish to visit her small home town of Bountiful. But one day, with the arrival of her social security check, Carrie escapes from the house and buys a bus ticket to Bountiful.

The Trip to Bountiful is fewer than twenty years old, but it stems from an era, before Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch made their mark, let alone the breakthrough made by Sex, Lies and Videotape, that a film like this was an “independent” because it was so unlike what the major studios were mostly doing. Hollywood was then making a lot of “high concept” movie aimed at teens and twentysomethings, so a film like this, gently paced and character led, with a dearth of sex, violence or strong language, clearly aimed at an older demographic, was somewhat out on a limb. It had an arthouse release in the UK, which was presumably due to the Oscar it won for Geraldine Page. If that hadn’t been the case, it might well have not shown in British cinemas at all. That, sadly, was the fate of several other films made around the same time, such as 1918 and On Valentine’s Day. Foote’s credentials as a writer are not in doubt: back in the 1960s, he wrote the screenplays of To Kill a Mockingbird (which won him his first Oscar) and The Chase amongst others, the latter based on his own novel. He won a second Oscar for 1983’s Tender Mercies and Bountiful gained him a nomination. But there’s something about Foote’s work that doesn’t sit right with British audiences: it’s too American-Midwestern, too down-home and home-spun, to cross the Atlantic very well, for all its obvious feeling and craft.

Foote wrote the role of Carrie Watts for Lillian Gish, who played her in a 1953 television play. That was broadcast live, but presumably a recording exists in the archives, as an extract is shown in the featurette on this DVD. The play was also staged on Broadway. Gish would have been Foote’s first choice to reprise the role in a feature film, but by 1986 she was, though still working, well into her nineties. Geraldine Page, a very distinguished stage actress in her early sixties, took the role. On screen, Page had mostly been confined to supporting roles, though she is good as the mother in Woody Allen’s Interiors. She won the Best Actress Oscar, beating Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple and Meryl Streep in Out of Africa amongst others, but you sense the award was for her long and distinguished career as much as it is for this performance, fine as it is. It was certainly a common complaint, then as now, that good roles for women were sparse, especially for ones of Page’s age. Fifteen months after the Oscar ceremony, Page was dead of a heart attack.

It’s Page’s film, but she’s backed up by solid performances from John Heard (an actor who had promised big things in the late 70s and early 80s but for some reason faded from view afterwards), Carlin Glynn and Richard Bradford as the sheriff who helps Carrie through the last part of her journey to Bountiful. Rebecca De Mornay’s picture and name is given a lot of prominence on the DVD sleeve, but hers is very much a supporting role, as a young woman Carrie meets on the bus. The direction of Peter Masterson (Horton Foote’s son in law and a stage director and actor making his big-screen helming debut) is self-effacing, though his pacing was slow in 1986 and is even more so now.

Arrow’s DVD release is not of the best. The transfer is full-screen open-matte, from an intended ratio of 1.85:1. The colours are fuzzy and lack vibrancy, and shadow detail is not good. There’s noticeable telecine wobble during the opening credits. Frankly, this is little better than VHS picture quality, and not what you’d expect of a DVD in 2005. It shouldn’t have been difficult to present this anamorphically in the correct ratio.

The soundtrack is mono, and at least I have no complaints there as that’s the way it was originally intended to be heard. There are twelve chapter stops. The DVD is encoded for all regions. There are no subtitles, which is a bad move.

There’s only one extra, which is not the trailer. It’s a featurette called “Return to Bountiful”, which runs 24:31. Interviewees include Horton Foote, his daughter Hallie Foote (who played Carrie in a fiftieth-anniversary stage production) and Peter Masterson, who talk about the origins of the play and the film version. Page is understandably absent, though you wonder why they couldn’t have found an archive interview with her, or spoken to her husband, actor Rip Torn. Still, it’s an efficient run-through.

The Trip to Bountiful is a well-made film of a play that I suspect means more to Americans than it does overseas. The film however is a showcase for an Oscar-winning performance from a major actress who sadly is no longer with us.

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