Gerry froze, her back to the audience, shoulders raised, body tight as if she expected to be hit.  She just stood there for a very long moment, then her shoulders lowered and her body relaxed.  Slowly her head turned and her eyes glared in the direction from which the shouted command had emanated, she held for a couple beats then re-directed her attention to the other actor in the scene. When she spoke her voice was loud enough to be heard in the back of the theatre but she didn’t shout.  What I witnessed next, along with a standing room only audience, was like nothing I have seen before or since. It was as if all her enormous talent was connected to an unseen rheostat and someone was turning it to full volume. The brilliance of her performance in the following few minutes was on a level reserved for only a very few of the world’s greatest actors. The room was cloaked in silence and completely within her grasp.  When she finished the scene she again turned her eyes briefly in the direction of the voice that had emanated from the darkness as if to say, “Bet you’ve never seen anything like that?” She knew we had not and would likely not again.  The audience, who had been unconsciously holding their breath, collectively exhaled, and leaped to their feet, exploding into applause that lasted several minutes.  Like I said, watching Geraldine Page on stage was truly a gift.  It was pure magnificent magic.

John Wayne & Gerry in HondoI once gave Gerry a pin for her birthday.  It was a small circular silver Zuni pin with inlaid turquoise.  I wrote out a card and pinned the pin on the inside. I placed it in an envelope and one day following class when she was engrossed in conversation with another actor, I slipped it unnoticed into her open bag and left. A few nights later I stopped in on a rehearsal for Paradise Lost that John Strasberg was directing for the Mirror Theatre. There was a break in the rehearsal and from across the theatre I heard someone call my name.  I turned and looked and it was Gerry, a huge smile on her face, arms outstretched, running toward me exactly as she would run a few years later in The Trip To Bountiful. She scooped me up in her arms, hugged me and told me how much she loved the pin. She wore it pinned on the front of the beat up old stocking cap she always pulled low.  To this day when I think of Gerry I see her that way, smiling, arms wide and flailing about running toward me. That image always brings a smile to my lips.

Gerry often appeared to be a bit ditzy, but that was far from the truth.  Sometime during the first month I was in one of her classes she arrived in a rush; she hadn’t had time to for lunch and grabbed a tuna sandwich, not tuna salad, chunk tuna.  After the first pair of actors had completed their scene she explained not having lunch and said she was going to eat her sandwich while critiquing their work.  With half of the sandwich in her right hand she was discussing a particular moment in the scene and began gesturing wildly with her hand.  At one point, mid-sentence, a large chunk of tuna took flight and soared onto the stage.  Gerry’s voice let out a high pitched, “Ooooh,” followed by, “There goes my tuna,” and she leaped up, scurried to and snatched up the tuna then returned to her seat.  Everyone chuckled at her apparent flightiness, but without the slightest hesitation she continued her critique, making the point she was making about the scene, picking it up mid-sentence, exactly where she left off.  That was the first moment I realized that this was one very smart, very focused woman. 

Gerry with Clint Eastwood in The BeguiledHer sense of detail and the ability to read what was going on emotionally inside an actor while they were working was uncanny. I watched one young actress having difficulty with a scene one day and suddenly Gerry was on her feet very close to the woman, placed her hand on her neck and whispered, “Breathe.” The young girl instantly burst into tears, releasing a flood of emotion only Gerry had been aware of. I learned a great deal about acting, behavior and ultimately directing by watching her work with actors.  One day she came up to me at the end of class and said, “You haven’t worked in a while.”  She was referring to the fact that it had been better than six weeks since I had brought in a scene. “I’m enjoying watching you work too much,” was my excuse.  She twisted up her mouth, “That’s nice, but I enjoy watching your work and want to see more of it…soon.”  I complied.

One day she was called out of class to take a phone call.  She returned after a few minutes and slumped into her chair, “Oh God, I have to go to the Academy Awards, I’ve been nominated."  We all applauded and cheered her.  Not one of us could understand her hesitation; we would have killed to be in her shoes. Someone asked, “What’s so bad about that?” Gerry let out a large sigh and a groan and said, “It means I have to buy a dress!”

The nomination for The Trip To Bountiful was her eighth.  At that point Geraldine Page was the most nominated female actress never to receive an Academy Award.  That year the competition was fierce. Also nominated in the Best Actress category were: Anne Bancroft for Agnes of God, the role Gerry originated on Broadway, Whoopie Goldberg for A Color Purple, Jessica Lange for Sweet Dreams, Meryl Streep for Out of Africa and Gerry for A Trip To Bountiful. William Hurt & Gerry on Oscar Night That night at the Oscars, not thinking she had a chance to win, she kicked off her shoes and they rolled under the seat in front of her.  On stage when F. Murray Abraham read her name as the winner, she had to crawl around on the floor to retrieve her shoes. (Click here to watch the video.)

Gerry was staring on Broadway in Blithe Spirit.  Following a matinee she laid down to rest and died of a heart attack.  She lived her life right to the end doing what she loved most.  I attended the memorial service, a star studded remembrance at a Broadway theatre. Ronald and Nancy Reagan even sent flowers from the White House.  The theatre was a packed, standing room only, a fitting and proper salute on the Great White Way to Gerry and to the enormity of her talent.

Watching The Trip To Bountiful the other night stirred up a lot of emotion inside me.  I realized it has been twenty-one years that she’s been gone.  In the film it’s been twenty years since Carrie Watts has been back to Bountiful and it feels like a long time.  Looking back twenty years now seems such a swiftly passing breath of time, the blink of an eye.  In her longing to return to Bountiful Carrie says she just wants to put her hand in the dirt one more time.  I watched and waited, when I originally saw the film, for Gerry to physically follow that task.  I waited and waited expecting it would be the first thing she would so upon her arrival, to get down and stick her hands in the dirt, but she didn’t do it.  Then her visit was ended and they were leaving.  I was sitting there in the theatre holding my breath waiting, my heart racing with expectation and there she was walking through the grass on the path to the car.  “She’s not going to do it,” I thought and at that very moment she stopped abruptly and sat on the ground digging her hands into the dirt.  I wept.  Every time I have seen the film since the same thing happens.  It happened again the other night.

A couple days after viewing the film I saw Gerry.  I told her I had seen The Trip to Bountiful and I liked it a lot and I said, “You made me cry.”  “Why?” she asked and I told her about putting her hands in the dirt.  Then she did something that  I will always remember. She pursed her lips and gave me a big hug.  “You have learned very well,” she whispered in my ear.



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