Oscar Winner Geraldine Page Dead at 62 : Stardom Reached in Her Own Way

Times Staff Writer

A memorial service for Academy Award-winning actress Geraldine Page will be held Wednesday at the Neil Simon Theater in New York City, where she was starring in a production of Noel Coward's comedy, "Blithe Spirit," a family spokesman said Sunday.

Page, 62, was found dead Saturday in her town house in New York's Chelsea district after she failed to show up for a matinee performance. Her death was attributed to a heart attack.

After a stage and film career that included seven Oscar nominations, two Emmys and roles (and Tony nominations) in hundreds of plays both on and off-Broadway, Page finally won the 1986 best actress Oscar for "The Trip to Bountiful."

A Widow's Dream

In that movie, set in 1947, she played Carrie Watts, a lonely old widow who fulfilled her last dream of returning home to Bountiful, Tex.

Backstage, proudly clutching her gold Oscar statuette, Page said she hoped she had won "because they thought I did the best job," rather than because she had failed to win so many times before.

Page first came to the attention of drama critics in 1952 for her role as the lovelorn Alma Winemiller in an off-Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke." She later received an Oscar nomination for the film version of that play, as she did for her portrayal of Princess Kosmonopolis, the revengeful, decaying movie star in Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth," a role she had also performed on Broadway.

Her performance in "Summer and Smoke" caught the eye of Hollywood agents, who wanted to give her screen tests and promised to make her a star. Even though she said she was "powerfully tempted by that kind of money" she rejected their offers, because her goal was to star in a Broadway play.

Shunned the Short Route

"I have always tried to take the long view. It always seemed obvious to me that if you tried to take the short route to 'stardom,' you'll be quickly (rooted) out," Page said in an interview last year.

She went on to play a lead in the play "Mid-Summer" on Broadway, then signed a seven-year Hollywood contract that allowed her to act on stage between movies.

Her first Oscar nomination was in 1953 for "Hondo" opposite John Wayne, and she also was nominated for the Woody Allen film "Interiors" in 1978. Her other Oscar nominations were for roles in "You're a Big Boy Now" in 1967, "Pete 'n' Tillie" in 1972 and "The Pope of Greenwich Village" in 1984.

Page was a major star of the New York stage, but movie marquee fame largely eluded her. She said the integrity and artistic value of a role was more important than money or fame.

"If I read a part and think I can connect to it, that I can touch people with it, I will do it, no matter what its size," she said. "And if I think I can't do something with a part, I won't take it."

Felt Tied to Role

The part in "The Trip to Bountiful" was one with which she felt an immediate connection, said Horton Foote, her longtime friend, who wrote the 1950s television play starring Lillian Gish and the script for the movie.

Foote recalled that Page was so interested in the project that she personally stopped by to pick up the script. It was in the holiday season, and Foote said she told him, "Thank you for my Christmas present."

Page was a versatile actress, Foote said, and working with her "was like working with a great instrumentalist. Anybody with that kind of talent is not difficult."

Although her stage career spanned more than 40 years, Page never won a Tony award for best actress. Her latest nomination had been this year for her role as the eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, in "Blithe Spirit."

The play's cast, which includes Richard Chamberlain, Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey, was told of Page's death Saturday night.

Called an Inspiration

"She was the consummate professional and the consummate actress," the show's producers said in a statement released Sunday. "We are shocked and saddened by her passing but with her memory as our inspiration, the show will continue." Understudy Patricia Conolly assumed Page's role Saturday, Ellis said. The play, which opened in March, is scheduled to close July 19.

"It will leave a terrible, disastrous hole in the play," said Chamberlain, who called Page's death "a terrible loss to us, to the play, to the world of theater."

"She could be deeply touching, hilariously funny--she could do anything," he said. "She was a sweet person, childlike."

"It's a shock to us to have lost one of the greatest actresses the world has ever known," Danner said.

"I'm so stunned. She was so wonderful to me," said Conolly. "I'm going to miss her dreadfully."

Foote said he had seen Page perform just two weeks ago and visited with her back stage.

"She looked wonderful and seemed very, very happy," he said.

Her television awards included two Emmys, one for Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" in 1966 and another for "The Thanksgiving Visitor" in 1967.

Page also taught young actors at her own studio and at the Mirror Repertory Company in New York, where she was an artist-in-residence.

Married to actor Rip Torn, Page is also survived by twin sons, Anthony and Jonathan, and a daughter, Angelica.

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