| Articles |
Remembering | Bibliography |
Downloads | Links | Image Credits
| THE LITTLE FOXES | MRS. MINIVER | SHADOW OF A DOUBT
| THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES |
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES
A Genius for Decency
by Stephan Talty
Film Comment September/October 1990 pages 18-19
Teresa Wright was the saint of a shrine we no
longer worship at: gentle American virtue, Forties-style. The kind of tender
good girls she played was nearly killed off by Fifties noir, and today
the type seems to us too good, too safe, too well-groomed physically and
emotionally for us to admire. But Wright was different. To go back to that
abandoned place, the American home of Forties family drama, and see her
work -- still fresh as rushes, full of sudden, clear depths -- is to regain
a true American actress.
Wright was discovered by Hollywood exactly 50 years ago. She was
playing on Broadway in the ingenue role of Our Town when Lillian
Hellman spotted her and told Sam
Goldwyn to give her a look. Goldwyn
did, and was smitten in that brain-fevered way the old moguls had. He signed
her, and Wright's great decade as a film actress began.
Her first part was again the ingenue, this time in Hellman's The
Little Foxes (1941), with Bette Davis.
The role defined her gift. Davis played
the mother, the hungriest of the family "foxes" plotting viciously
for power. Hers is not so much a performance as a petrification: she stiffens
in mirrors, her face gleaming under heavy makeup, until she slowly achieves
a mask, Japanese in its burning calm.
That mask set the stage for the pleasant shock of Wright's arrival.
The young actress was asked to play, in the role of Alexandra, the entire
range of emotion that Davis left cold.
She is all impulse. In one scene, having ignored her beau's new girl, Alexandra
is scolded by her dying father (Herbert
Marshall), and is caught by gusts of feeling: deep blank hurt, cool
haughtiness, remorse, hot anger. Wright turns like a weather vane in the
stream of an onrushing emotion. Her performance has real and palpable temperatures.
Today we might consider the word "ingenue" a Forties euphemism
for "plaything" or even "victim." But Wright turned
Alexandra from a potential simp to a finely tuned emotional presence, utterly
transparent, utterly responsive. She gave teenage youth some of its first
richness in the American sound film.
The young Teresa Wright lacked almost all the things we consider
essential for top actresses today: sexual glamour (or a path to sexuality
somewhere in their manner), wide range, sharp wit, acting along the tough-then-vulnerable
line. Wright had a rather high forehead, wonderfully articulate, searching
eyes, an open, mobile, supremely expressive face: James Agee wrote, "She
has always been one of the very few women in movies actually to have a
Then there was that voice. High, warbling, it had a fluting rhythm
that often changed a declarative sentence into a question -- a childlike
habit she never abandoned. She gave lines an edge of that now-abused quality
of wonder, which we have nearly lost the meaning of. And when playing a
scene with another actor, she never used the trick of looking into that
actor's downstage eye: Wright's gaze continuously swept over the face of
her co-player. Everything she did searched for a response.
Grit she also had, and she used it to keep well away from the Hollywood
glamour machine. Goldwyn
wanted to give Wright the usual fanfare, but listen to the then-infamous
clause 39 she had placed in her contract: "The aforementioned Teresa
Wright shall not be required to pose for photographs unless she is in the
water. Neither may she be photographed on the beach with her hair flying
in the wind. Nor may she pose in any of the following situations: In shorts,
playing with a cocker spaniel; digging in a garden; whipping up a meal;
attired in firecrackers and holding skyrockets for the Fourth of July;
looking insinuatingly at a turkey for Thanksgiving; wearing a bunny cap
with long ears for Easter; twinkling on prop snow in a skiing outfit while
a fan blows her scarf; assuming an athletic stance while preparing to hit
something with a bow and arrow...."
It was satire, not very wicked, but still satire, and it came in
that most white-lipped and humorless of Hollywood documents, the studio
contract. Few "tougher" stars had it in them to ask Sam
Goldwyn to sign that piece of parchment.
Wright's best roles were marked, above all,
by their great normality. In both Shadow
of a Doubt (1943) and The
Best Years of Our Lives (1946), she not only plays the good girl,
she represented a larger kind of goodness. In Best
Years, three soldiers return home to an average town and are terrifyingly
unable to recognize it. (Al doesn't know his "modern" children;
Fred can't find his wife; Homer has lost his hands, and is unable to roll
a cigarette or "hold his girl.") Playing both the daughter and
the "love-interest," Wright is placed at the center of the film
emotionally, because she represents the type of caring, level-headed woman
the soldiers wanted to believe waited for them. She is what they are looking
The film has the pace and temper of everyday life. The scenes have
small crescendos, if any. And Wright brought the undercurrents in such
scenes to the surface as cleanly as any actress then working: as in the
closing wedding sequence, where we feel her submerged love for Fred rise,
through the still-living pain of his sudden rejection, heavy and sharp
into her eyes. She worked best with dialogue that was plainspoken, but
in which important things -- new love, old deadly worries -- lay hidden.
When given that, she could make us feel a vibrato of silent emotion that
remains undiminished and without distortion over time.
What can her performances say to us now, though, a socially liberated
and more cynical audience? Simply put, they can make sympathy astonishingly
new. Wright expanded the body of virtue as acting terrain. Often, when
others play virtuous people, we're dying for the shattering blow to fall
and make them interesting. This actress changed that, with something it
would not be excessive to call a genius for decency.
Her performances always seemed immediate and natural, and for that
reason they are deceptive. Some pass them off, with nostalgia or something
angrier, as "the way women were then": solicitous, kind, occasionally
giddy (they laugh at things no one would laugh at, given the choice). The
idea of these Forties daughters of American life is dead, and it needed
to die. But Wright was able to express these good girls so fully that they
correspond neither to the champion smilers Hollywood has made the type
out to be, nor to the chaste, promiscuously symbolic ideals of stage drama.
Wright's young women had the real vitality the Hollywood type was faking,
and a moral quickness the latter wholly lacked. They were lit with a living
solicitude for the world around them.
of a Doubt Wright was the girl with an eye on two worlds: the still
life of small town and family, and the deep, freezing cynicism of Uncle
Charlie's mind. Only her forth role, it remains her most memorable. The
shots of Wright, as she watches the murdering Uncle Charlie (Joseph
Cotten) -- her namesake -- walking the halls of her clapboard home and
charming her hopelessly naive family, have the raw power of those early
silent closeups in which an entire drama was played out on the face of
an actor. Hitchcock
often ravished his actresses with horrified open-mouthed reaction shots,
but here he was satisfied to let Wright play almost the entire progression
of niece Charlie's tragedy in her eyes and face. It remains one of the
most lucidly beautiful long thoughts in the cinema.
In real life, Wright was perhaps the most complete of the anti-Hollywood
stars. She was absent-minded, often wearing dresses (which she "hated,"
preferring sweaters and slacks) with the price tags still waving. Her reading
list was light: "always optimistic stories -- heavy stuff gives her
the willies." She never worked up much of an interest in fashion:
a movie writer (quoted in Current Biographies) once described her
clothes as "an adequate wardrobe... such as a dowager aunt might select
for a nice girl going to Sarah Lawrence or Sweet Briar." The fan magazines
perennially despaired over her. Convents held racier lives than Wright
But she dug deep into the normal life when it came time to play it.
Her performances seemed unfinished, a life split open rather roughly and
still being looked through. Before a new film started, Wright, an interviewer
reported, "tears herself to pieces, gets a nervous tummy, loses weight,
thinks, eats, and breathes what she's doing." The choice of words
is telling: Wright tore herself to pieces, not the character. She never
slipped into a new voice or look, and never attempted exotic variations
on her personality. It was always down into the same mine, her same kind,
intelligent, and richly humored self.
David Denby has written about actresses who had a "gentleness
of spirit" that has gone out of style. Wright could be their epitome.
When the Fifties -- the decade where our current nostalgias begin -- rolled
in, her short era was over. Just before the turn of the decade, Goldwyn
let her contract lapse. And in films like The Men, Wright proved
to be out of key with the new anger; Brando
simply overwhelmed her. In The Restless Years, Sandra Dee was now
in the ingenue role and Wright played the mother, a victim of a mysterious
sexual hysteria. She was effective in the role, but this was an actress
you could not have called only "effective" ten years before.
Playing the brooch-at-the-neck shrew in Track of the Cat, Wright
was in her best form of the decade. But she was diminished when asked to
play these angry, "psychological" roles, which only suppressed
her gift for true, ardent psychology. She was lost in such a nervous decade,
and yet that too may be a tribute to a delicate talent.
Discovered on the stage, the actress always
returned to it when the film roles slackened. She acted rarely in films
of the Sixties and Seventies, and it wasn't till 1977 that she returned
to the screen in a role that became her Sunset Boulevard. In Roseland,
she plays a regular at a Manhattan dancehall who sees her youthful self
and a beau in a certain man. The plot is so well-worn that the filmmakers
let the pieces fall to Wright's luminous and totally unspoken feeling for
a past innocence. The surpassing gentleness of thirty years ago had returned,
untoughened and without bitterness. Wright could not become a Norma Desmond
because she had not lost her great qualities.
This is no elegy. At 73, Wright continues to appear regularly on
stage and in films. She may very well be acting somewhere in American tonight.
© 1990 Film Comment
Return to the Index
Return to the Teresa Wright main page.