Reeling in the Years:
Septuagenarian Actress Teresa Wright Is To Come To Scotland To Recall A Life Working With Hollywood's Best
by Allan Hunter
Scotland on Sunday July 7, 1996 page 8
With the possible exception of Orson
Welles, nobody had a more auspicious start to a film career than Teresa
Plucked from the Broadway stage by legendary movie mogul Sam
Goldwyn, she made her film debut opposite Bette
Davis in The Little Foxes
in 1941 and promptly received an Oscar nomination as the year's Best Supporting
Actress. Three years earlier Welles
had panicked America with a radio version of The War of the Worlds
and in 1941 directed, wrote and starred in Citizen Kane.
Any notions of beginner's luck were quashed the following year when
Wright secured two nominations, one as Best Actress for Pride
of the Yankees with Gary
Cooper and the other, which she won, as Best Supporting Actress in
the fondly recalled Mrs Miniver.
As if all that weren't enough, her fourth film was the Hitchcock
classic Shadow of a Doubt
in which evil comes to visit smalltown America in the human form of Joseph
Cotten's avuncular serial killer.
Wright's horrified niece is the only one to see through the smiling
facade of his sinister deception.
"I couldn't have been luckier," Wright says down the phone
from her home in Connecticut. "I went off like a rocket and it was
all downhill after that."
Hale and hearty at 77, Wright is still gainfully employed in theatre,
film and television and is to be one of the guests of honour at the Drambuie
Edinburgh Film Festival where she will host a masterclass on the Hitchcock
film and introduce a 50th anniversary screening of William
Wyler's The Best
Years of Our Lives. She has been here before -- in 1971. "My
husband Robert Anderson was invited to come to the Festival with his play
Solitaire, Double Solitaire. As well as a new play they wanted to
do an older American play so we did a revival of You Can't Take It With
You. The critics didn't like either one but it was great fun for us.
We had such a wonderful time and I just loved wandering around."
Theatre was her first love and remains an enduring enthusiasm.
Born in New York City in October 1918, she served her apprenticeship
at the Wharf Theatre in Provincetown. Her Broadway debut came as a callow
teenager understudying Martha Scott in a production of Our Town.
It was her performance in Life With Father in 1939 that caught Goldwyn's
eye and eventually brought her to Hollywood.
At a time when audiences worshipped the manufactured charms of movie
goddesses like Lana Turner and Betty Grable, she was a welcome breath of
fresh air and real talent. According to Photoplay magazine: "The glamour-gorged
public has snapped at sweet, unspoilt Teresa like a shipwrecked sailor at
a T-bone steak."
Cast as loving wife, loyal daughter and the girl next door, she strove
to give her characters more shading and depth. At the end of The
Little Foxes when she finally takes a stand against a cruel mother,
Bette Davis responds with the line: "You
have spirit, after all. I used to think you were all sugar water."
Revealing the iron will beneath the soft velvet surface of her characters
became something of a specialty.
Made in 1946, The
Best Years of Our Lives was her third film with William
Wyler. One of the Hollywood greats, Wyler
probably helped more actors gain an Oscar than any other director: Bette
Davis, Charlton Heston,
Audrey Hepburn, Fredric
March, Barbra Streisand, Greer Carson
[sic] and Wright herself were all awarded Oscars for their work in his
"More than anything, I think what distinguished him was the
way he worked with the writer," she says. "He always chose the
best writing talents he could find. Lillian Hellman, of course, wrote The
Little Foxes and the script for The
Best Years was by Robert Sherwood. He liked to rehearse but he
didn't do a lot of talking about your character or give you a lot of instructions.
He knew it was all there in the script and it was up to you to find it.
He was, of course, painstaking about getting something absolutely right."
Wyler's quest for perfection
resulted in a legendary reputation over the number of times he would film
a scene. It's a reputation Wright can both confirm and deny.
"I've done 40, 45 takes with him but there have been occasions
when I've done a scene in one take. He just wanted to get it right and
sometimes as he went on he discovered another quality, a better way of
Winner of seven Oscars, The
Best Years of Our Lives is one of Wyler's
greatest achievements and the film that caused Sam
Goldwyn to remark: "I don't care if it doesn't make a nickel.
I just want every man, woman and child in America to see it."
Inspired by an article in Life magazine, it began as a novella written
in blank verse by McKinlay Kantor that Robert E Sherwood transformed into
a screenplay. Its story of three servicemen returning home to an uncertain
peace caught the mood of a nation where husbands and wives had become strangers
and the closest of ties were strained by separation, disability or death.
Wright plays Peggy Stephenson. The daughter of banker Fredric
March, she has grown into a young woman during his absence.
Returning hero Dana Andrews,
a highly decorated air force captain, is certainly more attracted to her
than the jaded charms of his vulgar wife.
"I think it captured the truth of what many people experienced,"
she asserts. "At the time, The
Best Years of Our Lives seemed such a long and strange title but
over the years it has become so right because when you look back for so
many people these were their best years."
The film brought Wright a lasting friendship with Fredric
March and with Harold
Russell, a genuine veteran who had lost both
hands. "Willy had seen
him in a training film and wanted him because he was so natural and he
never seemed to be acting which is exactly what Willy
wanted his actors to be like. He is a remarkable person. Very open and
friendly and there's no doubt that he added an authenticity that is just
there in his presence and performance."
Wright's memories of working with Alfred
Hitchcock are equally warm and she is keen to dispel the myth that
he was merely an expert technician with little interest in the actor's
art. "I'm not sure that he ever said that thing about actors being
like cattle but if he did it was a rather flippant remark," she suggests.
" As he got older he was probably less involved with the actors personally
but when I worked with him he was on great form. We were on location in
Santa Rosa and he had his daughter with him and was a very social animal.
He enjoyed himself during the filming and would have dinner with the actors.
There'd be set parties and he had a great word game that we played all
Shadow of a Doubt
is said to have inspired David Lynch's Blue Velvet and, along with
The Best Years of Our
Lives, represents Wright's favourite work from the 30 or so films
she has made. Its success, she claims, is based on some fine writing by
Thornton Wilder. The quality of the script is a matter she returns to again
and again. It's not surprising that both of her marriages were to writers;
the first, in 1942, to Niven Busch, the author of Duel in the Sun,
and the second in 1959, to playwright Robert Anderson, author of Tea
and Sympathy, among others.
The demands of marriage and family have always eclipsed the pursuit
of her career. "My family has always been more important to me than
anything. Strangely enough, my most productive years were probably in the
1950s when I did a lot of live television because I wasn't married and
really needed to go out and work. Had I not married in 1942 I probably
would have gone back to the theatre rather than stayed in films."
Among other notable films in her career are the psychological western
Pursued (1947), written by Niven Busch and co-starring Robert
Mitchum; The Men (1950), with newcomer Marlon
Brando; and Track of the Cat (1954), another film with Robert
Mitchum that again tested the boundaries of the western. She agrees
that her interest is more readily secured by work of social merit or moral
value rather than the easy pickings of the Hollywood factory line.
"The films I've done that were just escapism I didn't think
were very good or I didn't often like them very much. I find more satisfaction
in the theatre, especially with what's on offer in films today. The theatre's
where I started and where I've worked a lot in recent years.
When I started in films I was very spoilt, working with people like
Wyler and Hitchcock
and great writers and films that were crafted, where you had rehearsals
and time to get things right. After the early 1950s, film production became
more about doing it quickly and cheaply and not always having the time
to rehearse and get it right."
Nominated for the Emmy for her performances in The Miracle Worker
and The Margaret Bourke-White Story, Wright's most notable film
appearances in recent years have been in the Merchant-Ivory production
Roseland (1977) and as Diane Keaton's mother in The Good Mother
(1988). Among a vast amount of theatre work, the 1968 production of Anderson's
I Never Sang For My Father and the 1975 Broadway revival of Death
of a Salesman with George C Scott have probably been her greatest triumphs.
Fifty-five years after her film debut, she seems more active than
ever. She recently acted with George C Scott again in a revival of On
Borrowed Time and has appeared in a short film, The Red Coat,
a Ted Turner production, A Century of Women, and an episode of Picket
Fences, one of her favourite television shows.
Retirement is clearly not an option and her visit to Edinburgh is
being slotted into a seemingly hectic schedule.
"I've been trying to move house to New York since October,"
she confides amid a conglomeration of boxes. "But if work comes along
I'm still available."
* The Best Years
of Our Lives screens in Dreams and Nightmares: The Films Of 1947
Retrospective, Monday Aug 19, 8.15pm. Wright will discuss Shadow
of a Doubt in the Scene By Scene series on Tuesday Aug 20, 6pm.
Both at the Filmhouse.
© 1996 Scotland on Sunday