Geraldine Page and Sweet Bird of Youth

Geraldine Page as the famed actress Alexandra Del Lago in Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth
Recently I was reading excerpts from the book Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr, and I stumbled across some passages detailing actress Geraldine Page's involvement with one of Tennessee's most famous plays: Sweet Bird of Youth. As an avid fan of Tennessee Williams, Sweet Bird of Youth AND Geraldine Page, I thought I'd dedicate a post to it.

Geraldine Page, lovingly nicknamed Gerry by those who knew her, was no stranger to Tennessee Williams before her involvement in Sweet Bird. In 1952 she had starred in a revival of Williams' play Summer and Smoke, playing the lead role of Alma Winemiller so wonderfully, her performance was labelled legendary, and she reprised it again for a radio adaptation and the film version, which earned her an Academy Award nomination.

It was with her brilliant performance as Alma in mind that Elia Kazan, director of the play during its original production in 1959, had cast Geraldine Page to play the role of drug-addicted, neurotic movie star Alexandra Del Lago, who travels to a hotel incognito as "Princess Kosmonopolis" in the company of handsome young man Chance Wayne in hopes of escaping her last onscreen failure. Tennessee had written the part for friend and actress Tallulah Bankhead, who had played the part during the early tryouts, though, inevitably, Elia cast Geraldine for the final Broadway production.

Geraldine Page and Paul Newman as Alexandra Del Lago and Chance Wayne in the 1959 Broadway production of Sweet Bird of Youth
Another scene of Page and Newman in Broadway 1959 production of Sweet Bird of Youth
Tennessee Williams described Geraldine Page as "the most disciplined and dedicated of actresses, possibly the one fate will select as an American Duse (in reference to the famed Italian actress Eleonora Duse, often referred to simply by her last name, is was noted as one of the greatest thespians of all time for her total immersion in her roles)." However, according to Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, despite her magnificent portrayal in the Summer and Smoke revival, Williams was hesitant to cast Gerry as Alexandra Del Lago, believing the role required more stage presence and power than a young actress like her would have. He originally envisioned Vivien Leigh, who had portrayed the infamous Blanche DuBois in move version of A Streetcar Named Desire and who would later go on to portray Sharon Stone in the movie version of his novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, or an actress or a similar caliber taking the role. However, Williams trusted his director, noting that his casting was impeccable and second to none. He was right.

The playbill for Sweet Bird of Youth at the Martin Beck Theatre.

Geraldine Page demanded that were she to be signed for the Broadway production of Sweet Bird of Youth, she must also have written assurances that she'd play the lead in the film version, as well. Despite that, however, she, herself, was unsure of her ability to pull off the demanding role, which required her to play a theatrical, sexually voracious woman who was once a beautiful movie star. She struggled to find the "ravaged emotional geography of the Princess Kosmonopolis," and during the first table read for the play, her performance was supposedly so inhibited that Tennessee Williams stormed out of the room and Page ran off in despair to her dressing room. After some coaxing, both Williams and Page returned, and it was up to Kazan to convince the skeptical actress she could perform the part.

Part of the issue was that Geraldine Page was a method actor, which required her to do a level of truth-seeking when performing a role. To prepare for the meaty role, Kazan gave Gerry a box full of photographs of famed silent film stars and told her to pick which one Alexandra Del Lago had been. Out of a group that included Greta Garbo and Mary Pickford, Page selected Norma Talmadge because she "an air of great vulnerability, as of someone who greet anyone and anything with a spontaneous open-heartedness. . . I felt the shocks and hurts would fall full force on a heart like that could turn someone into a complicated, volatile phenomenon like the Princess."

Geraldine Page and Paul Newman in the film version of Sweet Bird of Youth.
The Broadway play, though not popular with the critics, was a box-office success, clocking in over 300 performances before it finally closed. For her role as the Princess, Page received a Tony Award nomination (she lost to Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker). One thing that was notable about her performance was that Geraldine was not regarded as a great beauty during her time, and the fact that she manages to bring to the life the beautiful and seductive Alexandra Del Lago as just that is entirely creditable to her immense acting abilities, especially when considering Page was thirty-five, a year older than her costar, and yet she played the part of the much, much older Princess entirely believably.

Before the play had even premiered. Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer had purchased the rights to adapt it into a film, which they did so in 1962. Geraldine Page was tapped to reprise her role, along with Paul Newman, and, though she enjoyed revisiting the role, she found frustration with the Hollywood glamorization of her character. Nevertheless, the movie, directed by Richard Brooks, was a success, and Page was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress the following year for her work, as she had been for her work in the film version of Summer and Smoke. Interestingly enough, she lost to Anne Bancroft for her movie version of The Miracle Worker. She did, however, win a Golden Globe Award.

An interesting side-note: Sarah Paulson recently portrayed Geraldine Page during this time in the first season FX's anthology series Feud, which dealt with the feud between Page's contemporaries Bette Davis, who was nominated for an Oscar the same year in the same category as Page, and Joan Crawford. Seen during the episode about the Oscars of 1963, for which she was nominated for Sweet Bird of Youth, Geraldine was called up by Joan Crawford who, upset at not being nominated for her role in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? while Bette Davis was, asks if she may accept on her behalf at the award ceremony should Page win. Ultimately Page, who never much liked the glamour and events of Hollywood, preferring to remain at her homey New York apartment as opposed to flying out to California, took Crawford up on her offer.

Sarah Paulson as Geraldine Page in 1963 on Feud: Bette and Joan
Sources:
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr
Tennessee Williams and Company: His Essential Screen Actors by John DiLeo

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