By David Hutchings
March 24, 1986 12:00 PM

She’s a sight. In a floppy overcoat and baggy work pants, her long, scraggly brown hair hanging out of a mauve ski cap, Geraldine Page looks more like a refugee from a shelter than the smart money’s choice to sashay off with the Best Actress Oscar next Monday. Even the usually unflappable Cher recalls the shock of their first meeting: “I thought she was a bag lady. Then I looked up and saw she was a legend.”

And then some. In her 36-year career on stage, screen and TV, Page, 61, has played roles ranging from nuns to floozies, cadging two Emmys, countless theatrical awards and a staggering eight Oscar nominations. “If I lose the Oscar this year, I’ll have the record for the most nominations without ever winning,” says Page, who is now tied for that dubious distinction with Peter O’Toole. Gerry (as she’s called) sees the prospect of top-loser status as a credit, not a debit. “I’d love to be champion,” she says with impish glee, noting that a loser “doesn’t have to get up there and make a fool of herself.”

Well, she’d better not count on sitting it out this year. Many critics have hailed the mixture of humor and heartbreak she brings to her role as a Texas widow in The Trip to Bountiful as “the performance of a lifetime.” Page thinks she’s pretty good herself. “This role lets me show all the things I’ve learned about acting,” she says. “I might never get a part this good again.”

Still, she recognizes and admires the tough competition she has in The Color Purple’s Whoopi Goldberg, Out of Africa’s Meryl Streep, Sweet Dreams’ Jessica Lange and Agnes of God’s Anne Bancroft. Though she gently pokes fun at Streep’s latest accent (“People are beginning to wonder if she can talk normal”) and proves a good sport about Bancroft’s nomination for the role Page created on Broadway in 1982 (she wasn’t offered it onscreen), the New York actress is a realist about Hollywood economics. Bountiful, shot independently in six weeks for under $3 million, is fighting an uphill battle against the megabudget giants. While Page has never earned more than $40,000 a week for a film (the other nominees—including newcomer Goldberg—do considerably better), she’d rather have people think “I was a great actress than a bankable one.” Page might be cheered to know that Whoopi’s rooting for her. “I think she really deserves it,” says Goldberg. Bountiful Screenwriter Horton Foote, who’s known Page for 25 years, agrees. “There is no vanity about Geraldine, except about her craft,” he says. “She was the first one on the set and the last one to leave early the next morning. She is tireless.”

Gerry may have thought she was too, but in January her schedule began to play havoc with her nervous system. In the previous 18 months Page had traveled as far as France and Finland to complete five films (The Bride, White Nights, My Little Girl, Flanagan, Bountiful), appeared off-Broadway in four plays (Vivat! Vivat! Regina, Clarence, The Madwoman of Chaillot and Sam Shepard’s new four-hour play, A Lie of the Mind) and started rehearsals for a fifth, The Circle. She was also publicizing The Trip to Bountiful and giving acting lessons at Manhattan’s Pelican Theater School. Not surprisingly, she collapsed, spending two weeks at New York Hospital for treatment of high blood pressure.

“Greedy gut is my middle name,” says Page, now back in action and snatching a bite of carrot cake at a Manhattan restaurant between her grind of rehearsals, lessons and performances. “I love food and I love parts.” The Circle, a Somerset Maugham 1921 comedy of manners, opened recently to personal raves. The day after the Oscars, Page starts shooting the TV-movie version of Richard Wright’s Native Son in L.A. with Oprah Winfrey.

So much for the parts she loves. The food comes cooked and served by actor Rip (Cross Creek, Songwriter) Torn, 55, her husband of 23 years and the father of Angelica, 21, and twin sons John and Tom, 20, who attend college—one in Texas, the other in California. The mailbox of their five-floor brownstone in Manhattan’s Chelsea district reads: TORN-PAGE. “Rip is wonderful,” says Gerry. “He does the cooking and I do the eating. I love everything but eggplant.”

Though noted for her dramatic roles, nothing onstage has equaled the intensity of Page’s marriage. The two met at the Actors Studio in 1955. As Torn recalled, “Gerry was buying an ice cream. I asked her for a lick. She gave me a dirty look. Then she gave me a lick.” They were married in 1963, four years after Torn replaced Paul Newman as Page’s co-star in Broadway’s Sweet Bird of Youth, and they became a team. “Rip is fascinating,” says Gerry. “I’ve been with him for 27 years, he talks constantly and I’ve never gotten bored yet.” Still, the two (they’ve acted together in two Broadway plays and three films) have had clashes. “We get along marvelously unless we get exposed to other people,” says Page. “Then we get in fights. We’d come home and the fur would fly. Rip is volatile and I’m quiet, which is maddening.”

To maintain peace, the two never go to parties together. Instead, they garden. Torn lugs dirt up to the roof of the brownstone, where he grows herbs and zucchini. Page plays a supporting role. “I’m an excellent weeder,” she says. “I’m very patient and persistent.”

She’d have to be. The brownstone is also shared by Angelica and her 18-month-old baby (who made his stage debut at 6 months with Grandma in Vivat! Vivat! Regina) and Danae Torn, 29, Rip’s daughter from his first marriage, to actress Ann Wedgeworth. Page and Wedgeworth co-starred in A Lie of the Mind (“I was so glad…it kind of heals things,” said Page). One night when Ann was ill, Page, with customary pluck, went on in both roles (they had no scenes together). The hospitable Torn also put up his Texas cousin Sissy Spacek when she started out a decade ago. To add to this domestic tranquillity, Torn has a 3-year-old daughter, Katherine, by actress Amy Wright, 36, though both live elsewhere. Wright, who worked with Torn and Page in New York’s Sanctuary Theater Workshop, Inc. and with Torn in the 1979 movie Heartland, is not someone Page sees as a threat to her marriage. “If someone crossed my threshold, I’d claw her eyes out,” says Gerry, who has been wed twice before. Torn has been quoted with the understatement, “I live an independent life.”

So, in fact, does his wife. Born in Kirksville, Mo., young Gerry was raised in Chicago, where she moved with her osteopath father and homemaker mother at age 5. She was interested in music as a child but when she performed in her first play, taking the role of a villainess in a Sunday school production of Excuse My Dust, she was hooked by the theater. “In one scene I made a girl cry. That’s when I said to myself, ‘Ooh, this is fun.’ ” She enrolled in Chicago’s Goodman School of Drama, graduating in 1945. She stayed in the Midwest for summer stock productions but spent her winters in New York, looking for work. Supporting herself as a hat-check girl and lingerie model, the tall (5’8″) actress made the permanent move to New York in 1949, enrolled at the Actors Studio and got her break off-Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. She followed that with plaudits in Mid-Summer, her Broadway debut, and then in The Immoralist with James Dean. She’s been a Broadway fixture ever since. She also started a film career and three of the first four films she made got her Oscar nominations.

Though her stage roles as faded Williams heroines made her famous, they are her least favorite film experiences. She found Hollywood’s fixation on glamour a real frustration. “In Summer and Smoke I was supposed to be a plain-Jane wallflower and instead I had all these costumes. I looked like a Barbie Doll.” The same emphasis on fantasy bothered her in doing Sweet Bird of Youth. “At the beginning I’m supposed to be a wreck and instead I look like I just came out of the beauty parlor. I never looked that gorgeous before and I never will again. They spent 45 minutes just putting my eyes on.”

Page hasn’t taken much critical drubbing throughout her luminous career, but when it comes, it’s from those who bemoan her excessive mannerisms. Page professes total surprise at the charge. “I wish they would tell me what I do so I could eliminate it,” she says. “I never know what they’re talking about. Maybe with me it’s no matter what part I play, instead of just sitting there saying lines, I use my hands, I wiggle around and do a lot of stuff.”

Hollywood learned early that beneath the unassuming demeanor and sparrow-soft voice was a will of steel. She’s turned down many major roles, such as the mother in The Exorcist (“I read the book and I wanted to throw up”), Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the lead in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which won a Tony for her acting teacher Uta Hagen. “Everybody got all excited because they talked naughty,” she says. Page even turned down John Wayne (her co-star in her first big film, Hondo) when he wanted to buy half her film contract. “It was the middle of the McCarthy era and he was a notorious right-wing bigot reactionary,” she explains. “I was afraid I’d end up in some kind of hysterical movie, so I said, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful, if I could have script approval.’ That ended that.”

Page has few regrets about her choosy career decisions (“Now I can look at my parts and they make a very nice bouquet”); she still rejects more than she accepts. She’s currently turning down film scripts and TV work (“I keep getting offered these women-with-a-disease things”) in favor of acting onstage with off-Broadway’s Mirror Repertory Company (she’s Artist in Residence for $165 a week, plus $17 per performance). “I want to do all of Pirandello and the rest of Chekhov and Strindberg,” she says eagerly.

But first there’s that Oscar show to attend. Never mind her general lack of respect for Hollywood. “I love the Oscars,” she says. “All sorts of tacky people win. And watching everyone run up and down those aisles is just adorable.” As for attire, says Page, don’t expect any glamorous transformation. “Oh, I’ll probably wear what I wore last year,” she says, “A skirt I bought at a Hutchinson, Kansas thrift shop, with a blouse I found in an Indian shop on Broadway.” Anything more ambitious could lead to disaster. In 1978, when she was up for Woody Allen ‘s Interiors, they tried to squeeze her into heels. “I couldn’t move,” she says. Back in 1961 she got the star treatment for Summer and Smoke—a gold dress and white fur jacket (designed by Edith Head) on loan from the studio for one night only. When Sophia Loren was announced as the winner, Gerry learned how Hollywood feels about losers. “I was cozily asleep in the Beverly Hills Hotel at 6 a.m. and I heard a knock at the door. Someone said, ‘We’ve come for the dress and jacket.’ Maybe if I’d won they’d have let me sleep an extra hour.” She laughs nervously. “I’m worried,” she admits, gathering up her wintry woolens for a trip to the theater and a welcome distraction. “I’m afraid I’m in dire danger of actually winning it.” Look at it this way, greedy gut: This year you just might get to sleep that extra hour.