The Also Rans – The Trip to Bountiful/Agnes of God (Best Actress Winner/Loser 1985)

Trip to bountiful.jpgA Trip to Bountiful

Directed by Peter Masterson

Screenplay by Horton Foote, based upon his play

Starring Geraldine Page, John Heard, Rebecca De Mornay, and Carlin Glynn

Agnes moviep.jpgAgnes of God

Directed by Norman Jewison

Screenplay by John Pielmeier, based upon his play

Starring Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, and Meg Tilly

Originally this was to be a piece about The Trip To Bountiful, based on it being a Best Adapted Screenplay lower.   At least, that would have been the ostensible angle into the film, which was just a proxy to assess the performance of Geraldine Page.  Why Geraldine Page?   Because despite being nominated for eight Oscars – four as a supporting actress, four as a lead – I had only ever seen a single one of her films.  This in spite of my own cinephile leanings, and her having worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood history – John Wayne, Paul Newman, Francis Coppola, Clint Eastwood, and Woody Allen.  What had I seen her in?  John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust.  And even then, I have zero memory of her in it.  So taking The Trip of Bountiful was meant to open my eyes to her a little bit.

At the same time, looking at The Trip to Bountiful would allow me to connect the final dot in what I’m calling “The Waxahachie, Texas Trilogy.”  You see, for a short time in the early 80s if you wanted to win an Oscar for Best Actor or Actress, your performance had to pass through Waxahachie, Texas, in some way, given that Tender Mercies (1983), Places in the Heart (1984), and The Trip to Bountiful (1985), all filmed there, and all saw their stars achieve Oscar glory.  And since I’d already tackled the first two of those films in earlier installments of this series, it was appropriate to find a way to close that circle.[1]

But then I watched The Trip to Bountiful and realized the film is fairly bland and unexceptional, and I’d not have enough to say about it on its own, no matter the connections it has to other movies,[2] or my exposure to Geraldine Page.  Which is how Agnes of God got thrown into this mix, pitting a Best Actress winner (Page) against a Best Actress loser (Anne Bancroft), who was nominated onscreen (Bancroft) for the same role previously played by the other on Broadway (Page).  In the end, it was all a nice symmetry.

Image result for geraldine page bountiful

Page (L) and De Mornay

What Are They About?

A Trip to Bountiful is the story of an old woman, Callie (Geraldine Page), who has lived with her son, Ludie (John Heard) and his wife, Jessie Mae (Carlin Glynn), for the last 15 years.  As she’s gotten older, though, and started to face her own mortality, she’s yearned to return to her old home in Bountiful, a rural Texas town she’s idealized beyond all reasonable expectations.  But ill health, and resistance from Ludie and Jessie Mae, have stopped her going back.  That is, until one morning, while Jessie Mae is out at the drug store, and Ludie is at work, when Callie makes a break for it.

Image result for meg tilly agnes

Meg Tilly

Agnes of God is the story of Agnes (Meg Tilly), a young novice nun, who gives birth to a baby and is subsequently accused of killing it.  Because Agnes claims to not remember her pregnancy, or the birth, a court appointed psychiatrist (Jane Fonda) is sent to determine her competency to stand trial.  Fearing the investigation will taint Agnes’s innocence, the ranking nun at the convent (Anne Bancroft) stands as a roadblock to the truth.  Eventually, through hypnosis, Agnes describes a sexual assault that may or may not have been committed by God, explains why she killed the child, and subsequent to the confession, suffers spontaneous stigmata.  In the end, she is cleared of wrongdoing by way of insanity, and the true cause of her pregnancy is never discovered.

What Are They Really About?

A Trip To Bountiful is about how nostalgia, and yearning for the past, is pointless, because what’s gone is gone.   Agnes of God is essentially about the idea that there is a thin line between faith and insanity.

Based On A Play

Given both The Trip to Bountiful and Agnes of God were based on stage plays, the question for the both of then is: “Does it play like a movie, or does it play like a play?”

Of the two, The Trip to Bountiful more explicitly shows it’s origins and is bound by them.  Right from the start it gives into being talky, and bound to one location.  There is no attempt to open up the lengthy intro scene at all; instead, the movie just gathers the characters together and lets them go as if they were on the stage.  Moreover, the world of the film looks exactly like a set you’d find on the stage, with only two complete walls and a window that looks out on another wall.  It’s even that way in many of those few scenes where it goes outside the confines of the family apartment, such as when Callie winds up on a bus towards the Bountiful of the title.  In that long bus ride you expect to feel some claustrophobia, and road noise, from the setting.  Or at least some sniffling or coughing or conversation of other passengers to sort of weave a fabric in the background.  But just because you expect it, do not mean you get it, and Callie might as well be sitting in a folding chair in a quiet room as riding a bus.  About the only time the film feels like it’s actually out in the world is at the end, when Callie winds up at the broken down family farm in Bountiful, and sits on the porch to reflect.  By then, though, it’s just too little, too late.  In the end, the feeble attempts – or not – at opening the story up only emphasize the inherent weakness in the material, which results in a rather mediocre product.

On the other hand, Agnes of God hardly ever feels it’s stage origins, and if one had to explain why, the likely reason for this is Agnes of God simply has better craftsmen behind the camera.  Where A Trip to Bountiful had Peter Masterson as director, and Fred Murphy as cinematographer, Agnes of God had director Norman Jewison and cinematographer Sven Nykvist.  While nobody would really make much argument that Jewison is some sort of auteur, or one of the immortals,[3] the fact is he had a good decade-long career going in film before he turned his attention to adapting stage material.  Then, when he did it he went all in, making Jesus Christ Superstar, Fiddler on the Roof, Moonstruck, A Soldier’s Story and Agnes of God.  In other words, the reason Agnes of God does not feel like a stage play is it was made by a director who could actually imagine it existing in a visual medium outside its stage origins.  To that end he used Sven Nykvist, whose long association with Ingmar Bergman gave him plentiful experience with material requiring interiority.  Through the work of these two men, it’s easy to see why Agnes of God became something more than a static, visually unremarkable film.

And if we really boil down to its essence why the two films seem worlds apart, it is the way they treat, or use, the worlds they exist in.  In The Trip to Bountiful the camera is almost entirely static, as are the actors, and there is little exploration of the world of the film.  When you watch it, you get the sense that these are sets, that there were very few of them, and that the sets probably end just outside the picture frame.  Hell, on the bus ride that covers a chunk of the midsection, we hardly get any shots of any other passengers on the bus, or any peeks into their worlds at all.  In other words, the way the film is shot it pierces our ability to suspend disbelief and accept the world we’re seeing as genuine.

With Agnes, though, the camera is active in filling out the world, and in doing so, opens it.  Yes, it is undeniable that this film had a greater number of sets to work with than the other, which helps, but this is not a matter of having more or less sets.  This is how you take advantage of them.  Where Bountiful feels at a medium distance, and medium pace, Agnes is dynamic and eager with the closeup, exploring the nooks and crannies of the world, and showing us different angles of it.  Yes, in the end, the story is mostly confined to a convent, but because there is dynamism, and exploration in the visuals, it never feels truly confined.

To be fair, while Agnes of God is undeniably the better movie than The Trip to Bountiful in almost every way, and the underlying property is superior, Agnes is not without its problems.  Particularly, it stumbles when dealing with the religious themes it addresses.  Moreover, the psychiatrist in the story, and her absolutely unprofessional behavior towards the job she’s to do, are impossible to overlook.  As is Jane Fonda’s performance as the psychiatrist, which is stilted as hell.  While there are many striking compositions in the film – the hypnotism scene with the stigmata is fantastic – the fact is the story of Agnes only feels half-baked, it’s execution in the writing is lacking, and there are too many red herrings and blind alleys leading nowhere for the film’s own good.

Image result for geraldine page bountiful

Geraldine Page

Better Than Best

While Agnes is the better overall film than Bountiful – by far – the real question we’re driving towards is who’s better: the Best Actress winner (Page), or the Best Actress loser (Bancroft)?

As Callie Watts in A Trip to Bountiful, Geraldine Page is an unassuming presence.  She’s not a scenery chewer – she’s not even a scenery nibbler.  In fact, she’s so timid and unassuming you almost get annoyed watching her.  Hell, you almost wonder why she was even nominated for playing a mousy, old woman.  But then, as the movie goes on and settles in around her – and she into the performance – you really start to get a feel for the depth of emotion at play.  You get a sense of the desperation, fear, and playfulness in her.  It’s really a quiet role, and very much one that requires things to be held in, but now and then when things are supposed to be played ‘out’ – and I don’t mean ‘out’ as in big, but ‘out’ as in letting out the things you’ve hidden away – she brings the reality to it.  It’s only a small scene, but when she’s talking about how the one boy she truly loved couldn’t marry her because their fathers hated each other, and so he married another woman out of spite, it’s one of the most genuinely raw moments I’ve ever seen – it might be that scene which won Page the Oscar.

On the other hand, that Bancroft is nominated for Best Actress for Agnes of God is a real head scratcher.  First, she’s not the lead in the film – that’s Fonda – and is really somewhere between a leading role, and a supporting role.  She’s in that no-man’s land where you could be one or the other and nobody would argue the designation.  More than that, though, is that she’s not particularly good.  That’s not to say she’s bad, because she’s not.  It’s just that she’s not that good.  And by ‘that good’ I mean ‘Oscar worthy.’

Usually when I consider whether an actor was deserving of an Oscar nomination – or the Oscar itself – I want to know what they brought to the part that was special.  Or what they did to elevate it off the page.  In the case of Bancroft, she doesn’t really bring anything special, and does not elevate.  Certainly, her performance is direct, protective and suspicious, as the story calls for.  But any number of other actors would have done just as well as she did and, while I love her intensely as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, you don’t get any of that same sparkle here.  She’s merely interchangeable.

But the real problem for Bancroft is she’s in a movie with an actor and role that outshines her.  Meg Tilly, as Agnes, it pretty fantastic.  The role calls for her to be both naïve, but knowing, innocent and defiled, culpable, yet not, and Tilly neatly threads that needle.  Yes, it’s true her career after the film would not be all that spectacular – solid, but not spectacular – but here she nails it.  And that she does, and does bring something special to the role, only makes it all-the-more plain why Bancroft was not deserving of an Oscar nomination, let alone win.

The other nominees for Best Actress in 1985 were an eclectic bunch:  Whoopi Goldberg for The Color Purple, a movie I saw so long ago I don’t feel right weighing in on it; Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams, a movie I’ve never seen, and probably never will at this point; and, Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, which we covered in The Best Picture Project, where I recall thinking Streep was fine, and nothing more, so there’s no real need to go into any depth on it.

Of that lot of nominees I have no quarrel with Page taking the Oscar.  In the grand scheme of film history her role is not all that special, but of that lot she’s probably the best.  Which is probably damning her with the faintest praise imaginable, and is probably why the movie is a little bit tougher to get your hands on today.  And I suspect that, if it had not won the Oscar for Best Actress, the film would likely be forgotten, consigned to the dustbin of history with other films that lost at the Oscars, like Sally Kirkland’s vehicle, Anna,[4] Jack Lemmon’s Tribute,[5] and Jane Alexander’s Testament.[6]

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Please Read/Buy…

See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.

Also, don’t be afraid to have a look at the thing that inspired this, The Best Picture Project.  Or, you could buy the revised, updated version of that project in book form:  E-Book or Paperback.

To be a pal and buy my books, jum.p over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

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[1] You can read more about the allure of filming in Waxahachie here:  http://artandseek.org/2018/02/26/three-oscar-winning-films-helped-make-waxahachie-the-best-little-hollywood-in-texas/

[2] Truth is, there was no good reason why The Trip to Bountiful had to be filmed in Waxahachie, because literally none of the character of the town shows up onscreen in any way.

[3] He’s a top talent in terms of crafting a finished product, but you’d have trouble finding any auteurist streaks in him.

[4] Best Actress loser 1987

[5] Best Actor loser 1980

[6] Best Actress loser 1982

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