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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Home to Houston (on Horton Foote's A Trip to Bountiful)

Horton Foote (screenplay) based on his play, Peter Masterson (director) The Trip to Bountiful / 1985

Based on his 1953 television play, Horton Foote's film, The Trip to Bountiful is, as The New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby wrote in 1985, "a richly detailed film," "exquisitely performed" by the great actress Geraldine Page, a role for which she won Academy Award for best actress.

The story, like most of Foote's writings, is a simple one: one day in 1947 Carrie Watts, an elderly woman now living in Houston with her detestable daughter-in-law Jessie Mae and her unimaginative son Ludie, escapes their constant admonitions—Carrie is told time and again by Jessie Mae not to run through her daily chores, to stop singing her "out of style" hymns, and to stop rifling through Jessie Mae's dresser drawers—and their attentive watch over her—more determined during the time of month when Carrie's social security check is due. As Jessie Mae goes about her daily chores, consisting primarily of shopping and sipping cokes with her friends at the local drug store, Carrie bolts, first to the train station (where she attempts to buy a ticket to the now-nonexistent stop at Bountiful) and then to the bus station, where with the help of a young woman rider, Thelma, she eludes her guardians and is able to get aboard the bus.

Thelma and Carrie's journey to Harrison, the nearest stop to Bountiful, is the perfect time to establish Carrie's character, and through a mix of garrulous historicity, shy inquisitiveness, and gentle poetic wonderments, Page displays her dramatic range in time for the bus to arrive in Harrison, twelve miles from her goal.

Carrie was born and lived most of her life on a farming community, where, it appears, the last of the inhabitants has recently died, a place where Carrie will be unable to reach before her son, in a rented car, arrives to return her to "civilization." Unlike most of the small town policeman we encounter in film and television, however, the Sheriff of Harrison is a friendly authority who agrees to drive her out to Bountiful. Carrie's encounter with the old homestead is a mix of pure joy and total dismay, as she recalls the "bountiful" life she lived there along with memories of the loss of a child and the hard times she and her family faced, all intertwined with her recognition that "when you live longer than your house and your family, then you've lived long enough."

Even the old cannot go home, and when Ludie finally arrives, it is with complete acceptance that Carrie readies herself for her return. Ludie, at first, is resistant to any notion of a nostalgic past, but perhaps because of Carrie's joy in simply having been able to accomplish her trip, he finally is able to admit that he too has some good memories of the place. Afraid of dirtying her shoes, Jessie Mae has remained in the car, and when she does trot out to demand that her husband and mother-in-law return to the city, she has nothing to offer but another litany of do's and don'ts.

With one final scratch of the hard soil Carrie is ready to return home to Houston. As in many of Foote's works, the status quo is restored. Once again, we have, along with the characters, experienced a mild catharsis in the form of small psychological revelations, but nothing has truly changed—except perhaps for an even more determined imprisonment of Carrie Watts, while her trip to Bountiful will no longer be a dream of possibility, but simply another remnant of a failed past.

Los Angeles, May 15, 2009

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