Humble Horton Foote Adaptation is an Oscar Turn for Geraldine Page



A lonely woman only wants to go home again in The Trip to Bountiful, a 1985 adaptation of the perennial classic play by Horton Foote.  

It is a sensitive three-hander, about an old woman, her son, and his wife.  They live together in a small house in Houston, humbly supported by Ludie, the son/husband (John Heard).  Ludie, having grown softly despondent long ago in the face of the perpetual tension between his uptight and dominating wife, Jessie Mae (Carlin Glynn) and his miserable mother, Mrs. Watts (Geraldine Page, in a particularly remarkable performance in a cast complete with remarkable performances), pins all his hopes on a raise at work.  

Meanwhile, his aging mom and his wife are left at home to clash, spar and nip at each other’s dwindling patience.  Jessie Mae can’t stand her mother-in-law’s subtle habits and propensity to sing hymns all day, and lets everyone know it.  Mrs. Watts spends her days lamenting having been removed from her beloved home in the small town of Bountiful, Texas.  Obsessed with her daydreams of her better days, she one day secretly sets off to return there.  The majority of the film is the tale of her journey, and the reflections and realizations that emerge.

Despite the lofty reputation of The Trip to Bountiful on the stage, where it’s said to have been faithfully performed every year since it was written (though originally written for live television way back in the day), it’s not uncommon to be completely unfamiliar with the film version.  

Such was the case for me.  Several years ago, a late friend of our family approached me about hosting a short film series based upon the work of Horton Foote.  The three proposed films were To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, for which Foote adapted for the screen), Tender Mercies (1983, which Foote wrote for the screen), and The Trip to Bountiful. Admittedly, I was thrown for a loop by Bountiful, having never heard of it.  She insisted it was great, so I told her I’d look into it.  For the life of me, I could not find a copy.

Per the events surrounding our friend’s untimely death, it became apparent that she was using her film series programs to communicate aspects of her own oft-unspoken backstory and situation.  There was a certain caginess about this, as she would never come right out and detail or even indicate such things.  

When I later checked in with her about being unable to locate a copy of The Trip to Bountiful, she simply said, “That’s okay- that whole film series has completely changed, anyway.”  We didn’t get to complete the conversation that day, or ever.  So, I never did find out why that was the case.  Though by then, she’d escaped her own situation, to a point.  Thus, perhaps Mrs. Watt’s conundrum of being trapped had become just a little passé for her to relate to.  Or, maybe the series had completely changed for some other reason.  In any case, having now finally been afforded a chance to see this film, I can say that I hear you in this one, our dear dead dear.

Geraldine Page took home an Academy Award for her brilliant performance of a role owned on stage for many years prior by Lillian Gish.  By virtue of that fact alone, The Trip to Bountiful has secured itself a small, if enduring, place in film history.  Therefore, my unfamiliarity with it is as much on my shoulders as it’s own (at the time) rarity on home video.  Thankfully, Kino Lorber Studio Classics has seen fit to issue the film on Blu-ray- a satisfying presentation of a humble yet tremendously moving character study.  A short, somewhat saccharine under-thirty-minute-long “making of” video is included, which, in its standard definition glory, appears to be from an older DVD edition.

Directed by Peter Masterson, who just passed away a week prior to this writing and was known more for acting and having written The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, The Trip to Bountiful is no cinematic masterwork.  It is, though, a humbly accomplished theatrical adaptation, and a fine directorial debut for Masterson.  Perhaps his being a cousin of Horton Foote helped in parlaying the sensibility.  

Containing terrific little supporting performances by Rebecca De Morney, Richard Branford, and Kevin Cooney, The Trip to Bountiful does a fine job in evoking a certain postwar southern tension, in both the primary family and its world.  The film is once again widely available to remind us that you really can’t go home again- even when you can.