The Horton Foote tale “The Trip to Bountiful” has become one of the Texas writer’s most popular and enduring works, starting as a TV drama more than 50 years, making a transfer to Broadway a few years later, and eventually becoming an Oscar-winning film in 1986.
It’s a slender piece of material — an old woman living in Houston sneaks away from her son and daughter-in-law for a last bus trip back to her Texas Gulf hometown — but the central role of Carrie Watts has allowed many actresses of a certain age a chance to show their stuff.
Lillian Gish originated the part, Geraldine Page won an Oscar for the 1986 film version, and last year Cicely Tyson won a Tony for the first Broadway revival of the play (there was also a notable off-Broadway revival in 2005 starring the great Lois Smith).
The folks at Lifetime made the wise decision to preserve Cicely Tyson’s masterful take on the role of Carrie in a new film version that is being show tonight at 8 p.m. Connecticut’s own Michael Wilson who directed the Broadway revival, and who has staged many other Foote plays, makes a notable film directing debut. More than a transcription, the new film takes advantage of the Texas landscape that is so much a part of the late writer’s work, and it also brings us in closer to the magnificent star.
“The Trip to Bountiful” has no real surprises in it, and the character of Carrie’s nagging daughter-in-law Jessie Mae becomes more shallowly villainous each type you see the story, but the journey of an old and unhappy woman to a place she once loved never fails to pull at the heartstrings. It’s a story about the ultimate emptiness of nostalgia but put a fine actress in the role of Carrie and the piece always works like a charm.
Critic Pauline Kael called the 1986 film version “thin and musty” but admitted that “People love to see the triumph of the human spirit in an actress playing a baggy-housedress role.”
By the time a performer is old enough and strong enough to play Carrie she is bound to bring with her a long relationship with the audience that automatically deepens the performance. Tyson has been a part of many people’s lives for a half-century — I still remember watching her as a kid on a gritty New York-based TV show about social workers “East Side West Side” that co-starred George C. Scott — and watching the film you can’t help but recall her landmark performances in “Sounder” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
Our love for the actress and our involvement with the character she is playing become inseparable. I wish the film could have been done without frequent breaks for commercials, but Cicely Tyson is not to be missed.