Old age is definitely not a picnic. An elderly lady of my acquaintance once uncharacteristically used an expletive to express how she felt about the so-called Golden Years. If you happen to be an actress, even a distinguished one, becoming an octogenarian is not a great career move . . . unless you’re Judi Dench or Betty White.
For actors it’s slightly easier. Every few years Hollywood offers up a terrific codger role for a greying patriarch type like Art Carney (an Oscar winner for 1974’s Harry and Tonto). More recently, such iconic actors as Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino), Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), and Bill Murray (St. Vincent) have played with distinction elderly men in crisis, often upping their actual age to portray characters much older than themselves.
But strong old-lady roles are few and far between. Which is why Joan Crawford and Bette Davis once found themselves playing grotesques in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Happily, Davis rounded out her long career with a respectful role in 1987’s The Whales of August, opposite one of Hollywood’s immortals, the great Lillian Gish.
Gish, of course, got her start in silent films. By the time she starred in D.W. Griffith ‘s Birth of a Nation in 1915, she had appeared in almost fifty screen projects. Though Gish’s image was that of fragile femininity, there’s no question she could be tough. Unlike most of her peers, she survived the transition to talkies, giving one of her most powerful performances as a valiant protector of children in 1955’s eerie Night of the Hunter. Two years earlier, she had created the role of Mrs. Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful, written by Horton Foote. Foote specialized in deceptively simple tales of small-town Texas folk, using legends from his own family to create a cavalcade of memorable characters. His TV play about an elderly woman, stuck living with relatives in Houston but longing for the country comforts of her past, proved so popular that it soon was expanded for the Broadway stage, with Gish repeating her starring role.
In 1985, The Trip to Bountiful finally became a Hollywood film, with Geraldine Page (a mere 61) winning a Best Actress Oscar. Twenty years later, Horton Foote’s daughter Hallie—herself an actress—appeared in a supporting role in an Off-Broadway revival. It was Hallie who in 2013 was inspired to produce the play with a largely African-American cast. I’m not aware of anything in the text being changed, but Foote’s play takes on new resonance when an old black woman, determined to return to her childhood home by whatever means, is forced to interact with a white ticket-seller and white sheriff. And of course this version hugely benefits from the presence of a truly ageless actress, Cicely Tyson.
Tyson, who started out as a high-fashion model, made a Hollywood splash in Sounder, a family drama about black sharecroppers scrambling to survive the Great Depression. For that 1972 film she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar; Diana Ross was also up that year for Lady Sings the Blues, making them the first two African-American women to be nominated since Dorothy Dandridge in 1954’s Carmen Jones. Though she took home no statuette then, Tyson soon won her first of many Emmys for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. The Trip to Bountiful has given her a Tony award to add to her collection. At 81, or maybe older, Tyson displays physical stamina as well as a complex range of emotions. It’s wonderful to see an old woman being treated on stage with such respect.
This post is lovingly dedicated to Estelle Gray (1918-2014), truly a woman of valor. Mom, here’s hoping you’ve reached your own Bountiful now.