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Article:

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 face."

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 to remember.

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.

In Shadow 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 led.

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

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