THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL: Blu-ray (Island Pictures, 1985) Kino Lorber
There is an old saying about some roads coming too late in life’s journey. For Geraldine Page this adage nearly held true, the actress dying only a year and a half after receiving her justly deserved Best Actress Oscar for The Trip to Bountiful (1985); director, Peter Masterson’s monumentally poignant cinematic incarnation of Harold Foote’s superbly written drama. ‘Bountiful’ is one of those happy accidents rarely, if ever, to come along in an actor’s life; its journey from page to stage and small, then big screen, as arduous as it proved momentous for all concerned. Indeed, when Page was brought in by Masterson to view the first rough cut she remarked with a willful glee, almost on point with that of her character, “Now go out and get me my Oscar!” In all the gush of hearing her name read as the winner on Academy Award night, Page briefly fumbled her moment of glory – having slipped out of her shoes just prior to the reading of the envelope, and, quite unable to relocate her wayward slipper for several moments thereafter. Ever gracious and mindful from whence her triumph derived, first and foremost the actress thanked Horton Foote for writing such an eloquent, humorous and indelibly etched character. Yet, interestingly, The Trip to Bountiful might never have been made. At first, Foote refused to allow anyone the rights to make a movie from his stagecraft, sincerely believing no one except Lillian Gish – the originator of the play - could do justice to what is essentially a one-woman tour de force. As Gish, in 1985 was a willowy 92, and unlikely to partake of the exercise (although she would appear opposite Bette Davis in The Whales of August, both actresses’ swan song, 2 years later), Foote allowed Masterson to proceed…but only if either Page or Kim Stanley accepted the part. Fortuitously, Page was approached first, leaping at the opportunity to do the film.
The Trip to Bountiful is a beauteous snapshot of longing for a time and a place committed to memory; a yearning for simpler, more genteel times, when the cadence of life lulled the senses with the richness of youthful promise, long since ripened by the onset of old age and a concerted acknowledgement of rapidly advancing mortality. Geraldine Page, whom Oscar presenter, F. Murray Abraham considered “the greatest living actress in the English language” conveys all of our heroine, Mrs. Carrie Watts, vulnerability, sadness, yet willful determination and genuine resolve to make the arduous journey back to her bucolic homestead in the twilight of life; outfoxing her stubborn son, Ludie (John Heard) and his remote and bossy wife, Jessie Mae (Carlin Glynn). Along these dusty Depression-era roads into farm country, Watts befriends newlywed, Thelma (Rebecca De Mornay) and utterly melts the heart of a stalwart sheriff (Richard Bradford). Page’s performance is so joyously honest in all its scheming and giddy excitement of a schoolgirl out on a lark, regrettably, trapped in an old woman’s body, our investment in Carrie Watts’ destiny is complete from the get-go, even as Page herself refuses to typify the quaintness of just another cliched ‘dotty but nice old gal’. While one can make the argument Page’s frumpish and put-upon matron is victimized by her opinionated and placating daughter-in-law, she is never to shrink from a good confrontation, standing for her rights, or using every craftily played out trick and folly in the female arsenal – from sentiment to sheer mulishness - to get her own way.
‘Bountiful’ is also, at least in part, a tale of the aching aides-mémoires of a young man who never quite fulfills his potential; Ludie’s failings – disappointed in himself, his inability to have yet achieved what he wanted out of life - constantly reminded, if only by the presence of his unhappy mother, what had been their good life together, sacrificed by moving away after the death of his father, and in effect, severing ties with the past, satisfying no one except his superficially contented wife, Jessie Mae – and not even then – is the stuff of genuine heartbreak. We can genuinely feel for this man who never quite grew out of his short pants. He is a fraud, if only to himself – his harshest critic. In the movie’s penultimate reunion on the steps of their once prominent farmhouse, long since cast into water-rot and overgrown ruins, Ludie offers an earnest apology to his mother for the life he promised but failed to deliver. Even more cleansing to his soul, Ludie affords himself the luxury to recall what life was like when the family dwelt on Bountiful as proud agrarians. Improvising her own moment of forgiveness toward the garishly superficial Jessie Mae, Geraldine Page’s Mrs. Watts’ kisses her daughter-in-law on the cheek – an acquiescence of sorts to Jessie Mae’s rattled off a list of demands. Sheer improvisation on Page’s part, the kiss startled both Jessie Mae and the actress playing her; a wrinkle in time, and good timing besides – caught for posterity by the camera, and ultimately fraught with genuineness – if, an even more cruel understanding within the context of these fictional characters: Carrie Watts, after this day, will never see Bountiful again.
Horton Foote had based Carrie Watts on a real-life person; the fictional town of Harrison, reincarnated from his recollections growing up in Wharton, Texas. When it debuted at Henry Miller’s Theater on Nov. 3, 1953, as ‘A Trip to Bountiful’ - the play featured Lillian Gish, Gene Lyons, Jo Van Fleet and Eva Marie Saint – Gish and Saint recreating their roles for the teleplay broadcast on NBC. The play was only a modest success, running a scant 309 performances. Ironically, not a year since has passed that The Trip to Bountiful is not being performed somewhere by amateur theatrical groups across the country. Initially, Peter Masterson showed little interest in adapting it for the screen. Given a copy of the play to peruse, Masterson, on his first time out as a movie director, was blown away by what was left ‘unsaid’, yet intimately understood in Foote’s prose; the dialogue, so unassuming, yet as seemingly effortlessly aimed at the heart. Shot on a shoestring, the movie incarnation is a superb snapshot of the post-war landscape. Herein, we give props to Production Designer Neil Spisak and Set Decorator Philip Lamb for their exquisite evocation of picture-postcard Americana, glowingly lit and lensed to perfection by cinematographer, Fred Murphy.
On stage, Mrs. Watts’ return to Bountiful was largely conveyed by the sheer strength and conviction of Lillian Gish’s ability to paint a portrait in the mind of the audience of that perfect panacea from her youth. As this would never do in cinematic terms, Masterson takes us on a more literal journey to the concrete manifestations of Watts’ childhood, opening the movie with scenes of a young mother playfully chasing after her five-year-old through a field of purple honeysuckle. We digress from this pastoral dream remembered to the cramped living quarters of an upstairs rental. The aged Mrs. Watts is slumped in a rocker, stirred by her son who also cannot sleep. Mrs. Watts insomnia is predicated on a sincere yearning to return to the place of her origin – the little known, and, as forgotten town of Bountiful where her childhood friend, Miss Callie Davis yet resides. Watts and her daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae clash over Carrie’s desire to sing spiritual hymns; also, in their decision-making processes as to how best spend Watt’s pension check. Jessie Mae wants Ludie to ask his firm for a raise. After all, he is a valuable man. He deserves it. Moreover, more money would mean more for Jessie Mae to spend on nice things for herself.
After a particularly tearful disagreement, Watts and Jessie Mae call a silent truce. While Ludie is at work, Watts feigns a fainting spell, inferring it could be her heart. Legitimately concerned, as Jessie Mae is not entirely without a heart, she elects to remain at home with her mother-in-law, even foregoing an afternoon’s get-together with girlfriends. Instead, Watts makes a miraculous recovery, encouraging Jessie Mae to run off and enjoy herself while she remains resting at home. Suspicious, yet eager to have her fun, Jessie Mae insists she will only be gone for a little while, and cautions Watts to telephone her at the drug store should she be needing anything. Only a few minutes out the front door, Watts observes Jessie Mae’s departure with vigor, hastily packing a small suit case, along with her pension check to make her pilgrimage back to Bountiful. Alas, Jessie Mae has instructed Mr. Reynolds at the drugstore not to cash her check. Watts is quite aware no trains go to Bountiful. Hurrying with barely enough change in her pocket, she instead buys a bus ticket to Harrison – the nearest town to her beloved homestead. As she waits for the bus to arrive, Watts befriends a young woman, Thelma, whose husband, a soldier, is still off in Europe fighting the war. Thelma is on her way home to live with her parents until his return.
The empathetic Thelma and Watts hit things off almost immediately; so much, that when a frantic Ludie and Jessie Mae arrive at the station, hoping to find Watts lingering about, Thelma keeps the old woman’s secret long enough for both of them to board the bus undetected. The initial taste of freedom is sweet and invigorating. However, as night falls, Watts becomes whimsical in her reminiscences of those halcyon younger years, and rather sentimental as she grieves for lost relatives: a son and a daughter. Learning of Thelma’s absolute devotion to her husband, Watts confesses she never loved the man she ultimately married – wed only after her genuine passions for another man were denied by her family. Such stories do more than fill up ‘run time’ in The Trip to Bountiful. They nourish with meaningful backstories, miraculously to resurrect the past in the imagination of the audience. At nightfall, Watts and Thelma arrive in the one-horse town of Harrison – a mere shell of the thriving place she once recalled. Thelma waits the half-hour for her connecting bus to carry her on to her home town. Alas, in Harrison, Watts learns from the station master, Roy (Kevin Cooney) that her best friend, Callie Davis has died. Watts is mildly devastated by this news. She has come a very long way, seemingly for nothing. Recognizing the loss, Thelma is a comfort; Watts, seeing the girl off as the next bus pulls into the depot to collect her.
Afterward, Roy and the Sheriff conspire to prevent Watts from leaving the depot. The Sheriff has received word Ludie and Jessie Mae are already on their way to take the old woman back to Houston. Desperate to see her homestead one last time Watts pleads, cajoles, and finally, feigns a heart condition. Against his better judgment, the Sheriff elects to drive Carrie to Bountiful at the break of dawn. After following the highway for a spell, the Sheriff turns off on a grassy knoll and drives the rough terrain to a derelict farmhouse overgrown in wild creepers, with no hint of the familial warmth Mrs. Watts recalls from her youth. Tearful, but grateful for this opportunity, Watts takes the Sheriff and the rest of us on the final length of her journey: a trip into her memory’s eye where she might almost conjure the image of her late father coming out the front door to welcome her home. Herein, Foote’s writing and Page’s delivery of his immortal lines conspire to create an undiluted bitter-sweetness for a way of life long abandoned to the annals of time. Page’s soliloquy to Bountiful – the place – is one of the most memorable moments in the picture, capped off by another revelation as Ludie and Jessie Mae arrive.
Ludie approaches first. His sternness melts away as Watts coaxes him to remember the past alongside her recollections. Ludie sheepishly admits he has never forgotten his roots. Rather, he has tried too hard to forget his own shame by abandoning them in favor of a more ‘stylish’ lifestyle with Jessie Mae – a pursuit that, only now perhaps, he can recognize as untrue to the moral compass of his youth. Ludie makes a genuine apology to his mother; for his inability to have reconciled his own hurt feelings with the past, ignoring rather than treasuring her devotion to it. Ludie stands by this promise to reform when Jessie Mae, newly fired up with a list of demands for her mother-in-law, is cut short in her admonishment by Ludie, who insists they all return to Houston with a fresh understanding and compassion for one another. After a few more tearful goodbyes, Mrs. Watts climbs into the back of her son’s car, a wistful glance cast back as the sun begins to set on Bountiful. This much is for certain. She will never see her family home again.
The Trip to Bountiful is wrought so completely and perfectly in the sentiment of youth, intermingled with careworn acquiescence made to old age, it tugs at the heart strings of virtually any generation without ever relying on cheap treacle to achieve its proverbial lump in the throat for the audience. Initially, director Masterson was concerned Foote’s play suffered from a lack of forward motivation. There again he quickly discovered Bountiful’s message – not in the connective tissue of the tradition melodrama, but rather, between the characters as they spar, fuss, debate, and finally come to terms with each other’s need to find meaning in whatever life has to offer along the road – literally. Carrie Watts’ journey is a pilgrimage to the past; the glint of a young woman’s petty larceny caught in the clear-eyed stubbornness of a matron not yet ready to surrender her determination or daydreams to the younger generation wholesale.
The motivation for the plot is found in the conversations between Page’s Watts and the other people she encounters on her return home; finding new friends who care and sharing the world she knew with those who can only imagine how simply wonderful the good ole days must have been for Carrie Watts, then, the belle of the ball. With each passing moment, Masterson’s methodical pacing of our story allows the play’s original cadence – as refined and relaxed as our Carrie Watts can occasionally be, to gather a far more richly satisfying verisimilitude. With every passing moment, Geraldine Page wins us over as this guide into the past. And even when we arrive at Bountiful, only to discover it gone, it is the memory of that dream remembered, already instilled in us by Page’s compelling testimonial to yesteryear, that manages to will its charm back and out from the underbrush, into the residual afterglow of setting sunlight. After all, a life richly won and played for all its worth is a life deservedly meant to be remembered for all time.
The Trip to Bountiful arrives on Blu-ray via Kino Lorber’s agreement with MGM/Fox Home Video. This new to Blu incarnation rectifies many a sin from the tired ole MGM DVD release. Chiefly improved, color fidelity and fine details. Less effectively realized is film grain – at times, looking slightly gritty and digitized – and gate weave and wobble during early scenes in the Watts’ apartment. Colors appear slightly artificial at times. Fred Murphy’s cinematography evokes a soft, diffused vintage palette, mostly, recaptured in 1080p. Occasionally, flesh tones can look a tad orange - more than expected. On the whole, colors do pop. Contrast is a tad weak. There are no true blacks here; only tonal gray values. The DTS 1.0 mono audio is adequate for this largely dialogue-driven presentation; SFX transparently tinny by comparison and J.A.C. Redford’s underscore completely lacking the ‘oomph’ factor. Extras are limited to a vintage ‘making of’ and trailers for this and other movies Kino is hoping you will find worthy of your coin. Bottom line: The Trip to Bountiful is a memorable excursion into the very heart of the heartland. Highly recommended for content. The Blu-ray is better than average, though not perfect.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)