December 26, 2016
The Trip to Bountiful (1985)
Grade: 72/100

Director: Peter Masterson
Stars: Geraldine Page, Rebecca De Mornay, John Heard

What it's about. Set in south Texas circa 1950. Spry but elderly Geraldine Page lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Houston with her grown son John Heard and his attractive but headstrong wife Carlin Glynn. Glynn doesn't work, and seems to spend too much on her appearance. The threesome depends on Heard's small, dodgy salary and Page's Social Security check.

Glynn henpecks poor Page, and Page is claustrophobic in the small apartment. She longs to return to the rural home of her youth in Bountiful, Texas. Heard is too practical to take her there, so Page schemes to flee her surroundings, using her newly arrived and uncashed pension check to get her to Bountiful.

She takes the bus to the train station, and succeeds in boarding a train to a small town near Bountiful. She makes a friend in lovely young Rebecca De Mornay, whose recently married husband has been drafted and sent overseas. De Mornay is on her way to her parents' house to await his stateside return. De Mornay and Page quickly bond, but when they must part, Page is left alone in a one-room train depot manned by indifferent stationmaster Gil Glasgow.

There she spends the night, with hopes of hiring a cab to take her into the ghost town Bountiful the next day. But of course Heard has been making phone calls, and local sheriff Richard Bradford arrives to put a wrench in Page's plans. Or so it seems.

Page's twin sons have a cameo in the movie, impatiently waiting behind her in line at the train station.

How others will see it. The Trip to Bountiful was originally a play by Texan writer Horton Foote. It was first shown live on television by NBC, followed by a brief run on Broadway. More than 30 years later, Foote's cousin, Peter Masterson (father of well-known actress Mary Stuart Masterson) desired to make a feature film of the play. Horton consented, and wrote the screenplay, but only after Geraldine Page agreed to play the lead.

Page was generally regarded as one of the best actresses by the film industry, but her films seldom did banner box office, and she had never won an Oscar despite seven prior nominations for Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress. The Trip to Bountiful made all of $7M at a box office, a measly haul considering then A-list actress Rebecca De Mornay (Risky Business, Runaway Train) had a sizeable supporting role.

How I felt about it. Nonetheless, Page did win the Best Actress Oscar for her performance here, her only Oscar out of eight career nominations. While the Academy has been known to bestow such awards as a thinly veiled nod to aging actors who had been stiffed for a great many years (Paul Newman won Best Actor the following year for The Color of Money, far from his best film), it is practically unfathomable that anyone could deny that Page deserved her Oscar here.

The movie also benefits from solid performances by likable, self-effacing John Heard and the dislikable, meddlesome Carlin Glynn. It's true that Glynn dotes on Page's health, but apparently only to cash Page's monthly pension check.

Horton's screenplay is also above criticism, as is the simple but compelling story. We wonder, then, why the movie isn't better. It's very good, of course, better than Out of Africa, which won Best Picture that year along with Best Director, Best Screenplay, and four other Oscars.

But there are several films from 1985 that are clearly better than A Trip to Bountiful, including Ran, Dance With a Stranger, Back to the Future, A Room with a View, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. It's hard to say what those films have that A Trip to Bountiful lacks, but the truth is that greatness is elusive.

It is one thing to gather the proper ingredients, and another to cook divine cuisine. Sometimes the gap between what should be, and what is, is palpable. This implies that the chef, or director (Peter Masterson) is at fault, but his work is credible here. Well, except for a sheriff tossing a cat on a sleeping man, and the same sheriff driving a frail and potentially senile woman into a ghost town when her family is about to arrive to rescue her.