Greatness in one medium does not assure greatness in another. One need only look at Peter Masterson’s 1985 film version of Horton Foote’s play The Trip to Bountiful to realize this.
Yes, there are great elements to be found in the film’s direction, acting, and writing. In fact, Foote’s adaptation of his won play is outstanding in the way it suggests surfaces barely lifted up, as it did in films like Tender Mercies and To Kill a Mockingbird. On the other hand, The Trip to Bountiful offers no great cinematography and virtually nothing that indelibly stamps it as a visual feast. And despite its reliance on Foote’s script, the film never pushes the envelope to the extreme that Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre did. (Note: Spoilers ahead.)
In The Trip to Bountiful, Geraldine Page plays Mrs. Watts, an old lady living in Truman Era Houston, Texas, who longs to return to her old Gulf Coast town of Bountiful. Her daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Carlin Glynn), and son Ludie (John Heard), both around 40, have taken her in for the last fifteen years and the relationship between all parties is strained.
Mother Watts (as Jessie Mae calls her; we only find out her first name in the end credits) is a sweet but passive-aggressively pushy old lady, whereas Jessie Mae is just pushy and occasionally bitchy. Ludie is a good-natured schlub, with a new job after a couple of years of unspecified illness. (One suspects he had a nervous breakdown.) He obviously loves both women and puts then ahead of himself.
Despite her self-centeredness, Jessie Mae clearly cares for the old woman as well, fretting that she will do things to hurt herself. Yet, Mother Watts resents all this, always longing to return to her hometown of Bountiful so as to call on a childhood friend.
One day, Mother Watts finally sneaks away. At a bus station, she meets up with an Army wife (Rebecca De Mornay) whose husband is overseas. Later on, a small-town sheriff (Richard Bradford) agrees to take Mother Watts to Bountiful.
Once there, the two have a very naturalistic time talking; it’s realspeak, not moviespeak. Things that conjure up childhood are spoken about elliptically, so that the sheriff and the old lady speak the same language, one which the audience can relate to even though, on a surface level, they don’t seem to be really saying much at all.
At that point, Ludie and Jessie Mae arrive. When mother and son speak, it becomes more explicit that The Trip to Bountiful isn’t just about an old woman’s desire to go home again, but about a man who has failed at everything he’s tried in life, one who deferred his aspirations for the betterment of the two women near him. We see that Ludie cannot bear the past because few can deal with the fact that their glory days were only in youth.
We also see the tender side of Jessie Mae when she declaims four rules that Mother Watts needs to live by. And, we realize that they are not Draconian, and only have Mother Watts’ interest at heart. The old lady finally realizes that too.
As they head back to Ludie’s borrowed car the trio almost lapse into old patterns, until Ludie, for the first time in the film, shows some backbone. Mother Watts looks off into the sky – and while this is not a happy ending in the traditional sense, it is in the real-world sense. That should be enough to buoy the viewer.
The acting in The Trip to Bountiful is first-rate, but despite her Oscar Page was actually better in a much more demanding and unsympathetic role in Woody Allen’s Interiors. Actually, the real stars here are Carlin Glynn and John Heard; it’s a tossup as to which actor is better, for neither role is as accessible Page’s.
Glynn’s role is that of an apparent bitch, but we never really believe that for in several moments throughout the film we see that Jessie Mae does care for her mother-in-law. Heard’s character never has problems showing he cares, but he is a classic henpecked type. Since abrasiveness and seeming cowardice are not valued traits, it’s no wonder both Foote and the audience sympathize more with Mother Watts, and this is why she is the de facto lead, even if her tale is the least interesting and most predictable of the three – especially when we learn that two of Ludie’s siblings died in childhood in Bountiful.
The character played by Rebecca De Mornay is, by contrast, merely a plot device to get inside Mother Watts. With that done, her exit from the film is anticlimactic.
As an aside, the film’s theme song, “Softly and Tenderly,” sung by Cynthia Clawson, is memorable, but scoring is not one of the strengths of The Trip to Bountiful.
Released on DVD by MGM, the 108-minute drama is presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The Trip to Bountiful has no audio commentary, but in truth it does not need one, for the narrative structure is simple even if the characters are not.
In fact, the lack of commentary is more than made up for by a well-wrought and informative making-of featurette with incisive comments by all the surviving actors (Geraldine Page died in 1987), as well as Horton Foote and director Peter Masterson. The package also includes the original theatrical trailer.
Many critics have seen The Trip to Bountiful solely as Mother Watts’ coming to terms with age, or the desire to rekindle youth. But the film is obviously more than that, as it deals with the dynamics of a family and how competing desires find their niches, for better or worse, amongst each other. Sometimes there is stress (as when Mother Watts and Jessie Mae bicker over a recipe) and sometimes not (the film’s ending with the trio).
There is also much in The Trip to Bountiful that is unspoken, just as in real relationships, such as the childlessness of the Watts marriage and the likely sexual lack of intimacy this causes between Ludie and Jessie Mae – and how this all may have led to the ‘illness’ we see Ludie recovering from at the film’s start. The fact that Ludie has to continually steel himself up to ask for a raise, and his admission of his ‘trying hard’ in life reveal how well Foote is at covering large ground in short bounds.
Additionally, Foote has a digressive style that forefronts smaller problems (Mother Watts’ dilemma) to slyly reveal larger ones (Ludie’s mental and sexual health).
In one of the most informative insights on the featurette – and on any DVD supplement or commentary I’ve ever experienced – Foote makes a remarkable claim that will surprise all but the best writers out there: that the tale, as told, is not the tale that Foote set out to make. He had an idea about a woman who was forced to marry a man she did not love and thus had to abandon her true love. This premise seemed banal in his several attempts at it, so he decided to take that scenario and look at it from a perspective at the end of the woman’s life – to show the butterfly effect in its final flaps.
As a result, the initial spur for the work of art is reduced to a few lines Mother Watts tells the young woman on the bus. The point is that great artists know this process of art creation to be true, but never before has an artist so explicitly stated it; and in doing so, admitted his initial failure with the material. This revelation alone makes the DVD a bargain.
The Trip to Bountiful got mixed reviews on its release, but even those who praised it did so for the wrong reasons, lumping it in with lesser nostalgic schlock like The Color Purple and, later on, with Driving Miss Daisy.
There was also some critical cribbing regarding Mother Watts’ first name, as well as some claims that the film has flashbacks due to the opening credits scene where we see a young Mother Watts and the child Ludie running through a field of flowers. But since this is the opening shot and is never repeated, it cannot be a flashback.
The Trip to Bountiful could be considered a flashforward, but given the bulk of time spent in the film’s present, that would be ludicrous. That does, however, amply show the problems many critics have in dealing with art that does not conform to their preconceptions or to the promotional material they receive.
Overall, The Trip to Bountiful has many great elements, but it is not a great film for the translation between media is something difficult to pull off. But Masterson and Foote’s film shows the failure of much contemporary writing, with an over-reliance on diurnal description and rote explanation, whereas true characterization comes from observation. That’s when the viewer is allowed to observe what the character does and does not, and how that has an effect on him or her, even if the whole observational process is discreetly exhibited.
The Trip to Bountiful is an excellent example of characterization at its finest. Even though it does not achieve an overall greatness, its small failures point out the way that the truly great works of the film medium achieve it. Thus, The Trip to Bountiful recapitulates much of the learning process experienced by its three leads. Not bad for a failure, eh?
© Dan Schneider
Note: A version of this The Trip to Bountiful review was initially posted in April 2010. The views expressed here are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL (1985). Director: Peter Masterson. Cast: Geraldine Page, John Heard, Carlin Glynn, Rebecca De Mornay, Richard Bradford, Kevin Cooney. Screenplay: Horton Foote; from his play.