Angelica Page’s Tribute to Mom
BY DAVID NOH | There was a time when Geraldine Page, who dazzled in defining works by Tennessee Williams like “Summer and Smoke” and “Sweet Bird of Youth” and went on to movie greatness in “Interiors” and her Oscar-winning “A Trip to Bountiful,” was considered the most exciting actress in America, but today, she, like her great contemporaries Kim Stanley and Julie Harris, is rarely mentioned, almost as if nothing existed before the ubiquitously nominated La Streep. Here to right this considerable wrong is her daughter by actor Rip Torn, Angelica Page, with a one-woman show devoted to her mother called “Turning Page,” playing at Dixon Place through April 8 (161A Chrystie St., btwn. Broome & Grand Sts; dixonplace.org/performances/turning-page).
“This show really came out of my frustration over not being able to write a book about her,” Page began. “There’s not one book that has been published about Geraldine Page, which drives me bonkers. Right before she died, she had been working on her autobiography but was not very far in and she told me she wanted to make sure that whoever did it didn’t screw it up. Actually, she said, ‘Make sure they don’t fuck it up!’
“I was 23 when she died and was completely overwhelmed by all of it. As the years passed, nobody stepped forward, so I did and then slowly started to get the feedback that nobody knows who she is anymore, and how are they going to sell the book, which is so outrageous. It was actually really strange to be born in 1964, right in the center of the heat of her career — and then come out the other side today, where there are acting students who have never heard of her!
Oscar-winner Geraldine Page brought to life on Dixon Place stage
“I’m not a biographer, but, while I was in London, acting in the 2000 West End transferral of ‘Side Man,’ which had just won the Tony, I went to a psychic in Covent Garden. My mother really haunted me, in a deep way, but I didn’t say anything or bring her up with this psychic. The woman started channeling her, and said, ‘Your mother wants you to write the book,’ and I was astonished. I was shocked this woman said things which were not what I wanted to hear. I wanted my mother to let me off the hook. I actually still have that recording and it was fortuitous when I discovered this dusty tape, which gave me a way into the play that I needed. I play pieces of it in the show.”
The writing of the play poured out of Page, at a white-hot fever pitch.
“Over the last few years I have been workshopping and honing it with my director Wilson Milam, giving it space and time. But sometimes my mother just comes while I’m on the stage and takes over my performance. It’s kind of creepy [laughs]. You know, I wasn’t a writer and had no interest in being one, but one of my favorite television writers read the first draft of the biography, which I have adapted from my play. He was sobbing afterwards and said, ‘You’re a fucking genius!’ I was like, ‘Really?’ With the play, Wilson has been a godsend, I’m putting a great design team together, and I love Dixon Place, so wonderful. My mother would have loved it, as she loved having a great time and mixing it up.”
I told Page that I made a special point to see her both her mother’s and Tennessee Williams’ Broadway swan song in 1980, “Clothes for a Summer Hotel,” in which, dressed in a tutu and throwing a substantial leg over a barre, she impersonated ballet-crazed Zelda Fitzgerald (a role Christina Ricci has taken over on TV) to horrid reviews and a swift closing.
“That upset me, as it was terrible that it closed the way it did. I was 15 at the time and was at an after-opening night party at Tennessee’s. My mother sent me out to get the reviews, and I remember my punk rock boyfriend and I went to Times Square in a snowstorm to get the newspapers, and then we stalled going back for a long time because they were all so unfavorable, I didn’t want to bring them back.
“I also remember that Tennessee tried to steal my boyfriend at the party. His name was Kid Vicious, Sid Vicious’ roadie, and I originally was actually trying to hit on Sid backstage but then Nancy Spungen told me she would slice my face with a razor if I talked to him again. So I ended up with the roadie, instead. He was a real hustler, so I can imagine he probably would have made a financial deal with Tennessee. I don’t think he was above having an affair with him, but Tennessee would have helped him. I was naive at that time, but, knowing what I know now about him, he would have really milked Tennessee.
“At the time, my mother was horrified that I was dating this guy in a band named the Starfuckers. I started going out really young, and the whole punk thing was a rebellion, of course, because my mother would not send me to boarding school. I would say, ‘I want a nice, clean desk without cat hair on it.’ And she’d say, ‘What do you mean? We have cats!’
“Shit was going on with my parents and I just wanted out and it was crazy and really chaotic. Our life was beautifully creative but at the same time I just wanted to have a normal life order and my clothes folded and my father not coming in in the morning drunk and yelling at me for no reason. One time, he woke me up, demanding my ID, thinking I was a stranger in the house. By the time I was halfway through high school, I had cut off all my hair, quit ballet and piano, and lost my virginity, while sneaking out to see Sid Vicious play his last gigs at Max’s Kansas City.”
Page had read WASPy brochures with uniformed girls in what seemed to be charm schools, and just craved the peace and quiet. The family lived in a legendary section of West 22nd Street in Chelsea, “with so many incredible neighbors, Debbie Harry, Anthony Perkins, and, more recently, Ethan Hawke and Sandra Bernhard. It’s now one of the most beautiful streets, but growing up there, there was not a tree in sight, like ‘The Lorax.’ When my mother’s home life fell apart around the time she decided not to fix anything or clean up after anybody anymore, it was starting to make Grey Gardens looked pulled together. When I came back from Europe after following the Dead Kennedys on a tour bus, it was so different, not at all the beautiful place I had grown up in.
“Mom couldn’t bear to part with anything, souvenirs everywhere, and, as a result, I’m very spare and spartan, no possessions and I give everything away when I’m done with it. I have one storage unit — it was all such an intense experience that whenever I’m around clutter, it creates stress for me. My son, who’s 32, said he didn’t want to come see the play as it’s a trigger for him for all these family issues. But, finally, it’s important to look at something right in the face and be able to let go and step away from it.”
In September 2011, Page, born Angelica Torn, legally and professionally changed her surname to Page.
“I felt that my father had top billing for the first 50 years, and as I plan to be 104, my mother deserved it afterwards. It was actually his idea to change my name to celebrate her as we didn’t like the idea of people forgetting who she was. I’m her only daughter, and he’s got six kids, five of whom carry on his name, along with his third wife. People assumed it would really piss him off, and we always get a lot of chuckles together over stuff like that.
“Our relationship is very unconventional and unique. We’re both so tricky no one can ever figure out what’s going on. I changed my name and people think we’re at war. We definitely have our issues and take our breaks. I used both surnames Torn and Page, for a while, but it was too much, exhausting.”
Asked if heavy drinking was a cause of her parents’ marital rift, Page said, “It’s not the drinking in and of itself, of course, but it’s what it ends up bringing out of somebody, and my father already has a prickly personality. When she first met him her initial reaction was ‘terribly talented and deeply difficult.’ My mother’s drinking was in no way comparative to my father’s. She liked to drink, but her favorite was tonic water with a splash of Tanqueray — she also watered down coffee so it was the color of weak tea. A little went a long way with her, but it never got in the way of work. She also was working all the time, so which comes first? You’re working all the time so you don’t have time to drink or you’re drinking so much because you can’t find work? My mother was working a lot more than my father was, and my father was drinking a lot more than my mother was.
“But he always was the hardest button to button and then the drink ended up creating a more out-of-control experience. He has mellowed a bit in his 80s, but the temper is still there, and there was a lot of yelling and fighting on his end.”
Page rarely raised her voice back at him.
“She just said, ‘I’m going to pretend to be a Zen priest.’ She had this beautiful French antique bed from Paris — gold velvet headboard and footboard with gilded carving — and he chopped it up one night with an axe. With her in it! She was like, ‘Oh, it was so exciting. I just pretended I’m William Tell and tried to stay as still as possible.’ So no wonder I wanted to go to fucking boarding school. People ask me if I have great anger about stuff. We had a great time and she was the most incredible person I ever met, although I do wish she would have stuck up a little bit more for herself.”
I asked Page if she had a favorite performance of her mother’s.
“It’s so hard to choose. I just love everything for different reasons. ‘A Trip to Bountiful’ for just that moment when the sheriff comes to take her back in the bus station and the fake-out, when she starts to go in one direction. ‘Pete ‘n’ Tillie’ is remarkable because you don’t usually get to see her do comedy. In my play, Woody Allen hires her to do a film, and then she finds out it’s his first fucking drama [‘Interiors’]. She’s so pissed off because she never gets to do a comedy and says, ‘I got an Oscar nod in “Pete ‘n’ Tillie” opposite Carol Burnett, and people still don’t get it!’”
“I watched ‘Interiors’ a couple of years ago with some friends who’d never seen it. Nobody moved, made a sound, or even breathed and when it was over people had to just go home. ‘Okay, bye! Gonna have to sleep that one off!’ My mother had no favorites, herself. She hadn’t made as many movies as others, but she described them as roses in a beautiful bouquet. And if her bouquet was a little smaller than some, every rose was exquisite.”
My favorite Geraldine is her fabulously ferocious Alexandra Del Lago, the Princes Cosmopolis, in Williams’ ‘Sweet Bird of Youth,’ in which, supposedly feeling she wasn’t glamorous enough to play a big movie star, she got cues from watching Bette Davis films.
“She really was resistant to doing that with Lee Strasberg, terrified of it. She really was having a problem with the line, ‘I’m a star!,’ and said, ‘People are just going to hate me.’ Kazan said, ‘Go right to the lip of the stage and say it right up to the audience. If you’re scared of people not liking you, you give it right to them.’”
“The DVD of it has extras including her screen test for that, where you can get a glimpse of the stage version because she wears her stage costume and hair and makeup and does dialogue from the play, not the film. Also, my father, who played Tom, was understudy for Paul Newman as Chance Wayne, and auditions with her.”
Page told me she is about to marry her third husband, who works in TV production.
“My two children’s father was my first. We broke up early on because he told me he had the seven-year itch. He’s on his third marriage, as well, now, and we’re finally friends, better late than never. I spent Christmas with my ex, his new wife and baby, and our two kids. We were down in Mexico in our family home, which is mine now.
“My ex and boyfriend were having a bromance, with my first husband following him around. Ohmigod, so funny! He said, ‘You two seem like you’ve been together forever, the perfect couple!’ I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna go with that.’ His third wife is an ex-Rockette, and I said, ‘If I knew he was going to be this nice to me, I would have gotten him an ex-Rockette years ago!’
“The house is in a town called Alamos, in the foothills of the Sierra Madre, a brilliant, historical town begun in the 1600s. Our property is the oldest structure in town and used to be the governor’s palace. The silver barons built these haciendas in this lovely town, which became a ghost town when the silver ran out and cholera broke out in the 1800s. Everything crumbled and our property is known by the gringos as the Ruin. We’ve done enough to preserve it, but have kept its historical aspects. It’s a living museum. My parents bought it together when my mother was pregnant with me. She pulled back the plaster and found these incredible hand-painted stenciled walls from the 1700s.”
One of the final and most satisfying engagements of her mother’s life was the repertory seasons with the Mirror Company located in the basement St. Peter’s Church, now home to the York Theatre. Geraldine played everything from the ‘Madwoman of Chaillot’ to a cigar-smoking, dyed-face Polynesian woman in ‘Rain,’ and I will never forget the deliciously disheveled sight of her arriving in the elevator, in her distinctive street look, which forever defined Bag Lady for me. Here was one star to whom glamour meant very little.
“Especially later. I was just looking at these Sam Shaw photos of her taken when she was doing ‘Sweet Bird’ and ‘Summer and Smoke,’ and she’s so glamorous! But I think, at the time, she might have been a bit more disheveled than people appreciated then. Her hair was tousled before people’s hair was tousled. We go in chronological order in the play and see her change in age and iconic looks onscreen and off. She gets to talk about how people gave her a lot of hell for the way she dressed, ‘But I want to be comfortable! I’m ahead of my time!’ The watch cap, the shopping bags, the layers of sweaters and shawls — so good — it was fun to recreate that look!
“I made my stage debut at that theater. She was trying to get me to be an actress her whole life, kept pressuring me. I’d say, ‘I’m trying to have a safe, stable, organized life!,’ and she’d say, ‘Oh but it’s so much fun!’ In ‘Vivat! Vivat Regina!,’ she needed an infant Prince James [son of Mary, Queen of Scots]. She decided, at six months old, that my son should be cast. I said, ‘Mom, he won’t let anyone but me touch him!’
“She was like, ‘Then you can play his wet nurse! No lines: you just carry him on and carry him off!’ I came offstage, and she was sashaying around her dressing room, singing to herself a song she’d made up, ‘Duck to water, duck to water!’”