I stopped paying much attention to Lifetime after the cable channel branded itself “Television for Women” in the 1990s and started offering exploitative made-for-TV movies like the 1997 production of “My Stepson, My Lover” with Rachel Ward.
One website put it at No. 1 on its list of the “50 Most Ridiculous Lifetime Movies.” The brand deserved to be mocked, shredded and distrusted for such cynical programming.
But I decided to at least check out the made-for-TV movie “The Trip to Bountiful,” starring Cicely Tyson and Vanessa Williams, after first lady Michelle Obama held a White House screening for it as part of Black History Month. Team Obama is savvy enough not to allow itself to be linked to junk. And besides, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” a 1974 TV movie about civil rights, made me a lifelong fan of Tyson — just as working in Texas as a TV critic in the 1980s made me a lifelong fan of Horton Foote, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter who created “Bountiful” for television in 1953.
Thank you, Mrs. Obama. “The Trip to Bountiful,” which premieres this weekend, is not a big made-for-TV movie that’s going to generate lots of morning-after online buzz like, say, HBO’s “Game Change” about the 2008 presidential election. But it is as rich, unpretentious and inspired a TV movie as I have seen this season. It’s so wise in so many ways that it almost redeems Lifetime for all the trash it has produced over the years. Almost.
And even as Foote’s teleplay painfully reminded me of all the promise lost by television since its debut as prime-time entertainment after World War II, this production of “Bountiful” rekindled my belief that the medium is still occasionally capable of cultural greatness and wisdom, despite all the corporate compromises and technological challenges.
Set in Houston in 1947, Foote’s play debuted as a live NBC-TV production starring film legend Lillian Gish in the role of Carrie Watts, an elderly woman living in a cramped apartment with her grown son and his overbearing wife. As she nears the end of her life, Carrie plots an escape from that suffocating space in the form of a trip back to her rural hometown of Bountiful, Texas. Eva Marie Saint, who a year later would win an Oscar for her performance in “On the Waterfront,” plays Thelma, a young woman Carrie meets on the bus to Bountiful.
That’s the kind of talent TV had in its first golden age. Foote, who would win an Oscar for his screenplay of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and a Pulitzer Prize in drama for the play “The Young Man from Atlanta,” first brought “Bountiful” to television before taking it to Broadway in 1954.
In 1985, Foote adapted “Bountiful” for the big screen, and the film earned an Academy Award for Geraldine Page in the role of Carrie. Last year, Tyson won a Tony for her work in the revival that opened on Broadway. I will be shocked if she doesn’t win an Emmy as best actress in a TV movie or miniseries.
Before you lose yourself in Tyson’s extraordinary performance, pay some attention to the work of Williams, the former Miss America who plays Carrie’s domineering daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae Watts. Williams also played the role on Broadway.
She’s the “villain” of the piece, so to speak, the all-powerful presence in the Watts household who browbeats her husband and treats Carrie like a servant — right down to denying the aged woman her singular pleasure of singing and humming hymns in the apartment, which “get on her nerves,” Jessie Mae says.
But Foote, who died in 2009 at the age of 92, didn’t create cardboard characters, and Williams finds the frustration and humanity that make Jessie Mae understandable, if not sympathetic. Williams absolutely nails Jessie Mae’s yearning for a better life and a piece of the prosperity that post-World War II America promised. She’s the figure that embodies the contradictions of living in a consumer society.
Focus on Williams’ Jessie Mae in the opening scenes, because once Carrie touches your soul, her journey is the only one on screen that will matter. It’s epic in the same sense that the word is used to describe ancient Greek drama.
By the time she finds herself late at night in a rural bus station just 12 miles from Bountiful, she has found a freedom it seems her soul hasn’t known since adolescence. A scene with her showing Thelma (Keke Palmer) how she danced as a schoolgirl is transcendent.
As you watch the two women dance under a streetlight in a flyspeck of a Texas town, your heart soars at the moment of joy Carrie has found near the end of her journey — and life.
But for all his gentleness, kindness and compassion, there is nothing soft or sentimental about Foote’s clear-eyed look at the cycles of life. “The Trip to Bountiful” is not a Hallmark greeting card masquerading as a TV movie — even if it looks that way in the Lifetime promotions.
What Carries finds once she gets to Bountiful is heartbreaking: a ghost town of vacant, dilapidated farmhouses and unworked fields overgrown with weeds and trees. No one from Carrie’s childhood is alive.
“Ever since I’ve been here,” Carrie says, standing in front of her childhood home, “I’ve been half-expecting my mama and my papa to walk out the door and greet me and welcome me home. But when you’ve lived longer than your house and your family, you’ve lived too long. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe the need to belong to a house and a family and a town is just gone from the rest of the world.”
Do those lines not presage what sociologists in the 1970s would come to describe as the psychic cost of Mobile America, with fewer and fewer folks living in the towns where they were born and raised?
But Foote drills deeper yet into truths about existence and the human heart before the play ends. And this is where Tyson takes her game to a place few actors can go, as she not only speaks Foote’s marvelous words but uses what seems like every bone and fiber in her body to radiate the resiliency, dignity and strength of the human spirit in the face of time, change, loneliness, loss and death.
Carrie Watts is a fully realized individual. In this case, an elderly, Christian, hymn-singing, African-American woman.
And the fact that the play and film were cast as black while the original Foote versions were white will probably matter to viewers in different ways based on their own identities and histories. For the record, Lifetime did the same casting with its version of “Steel Magnolias” in 2012.
But for me, the power of this production is in its universality. I expect this kind of power and truth in the theater — not on TV.
I started out angry as the film reminded me of what TV could have been before the networks caved to the ad agencies and gave us “Mr. Ed” and “Petticoat Junction” instead of Horton Foote and Paddy Chayefsky.
But that was more than half a century ago. There’s more than enough media change to grapple with today.
Lifetime’s “The Trip to Bountiful” is a little old-fashioned in style and tone. But in its reach, wisdom and acting performances, it’s a drop of pure sweetness from the TV gods. Savor it.
“The Trip to Bountiful” airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on Lifetime.