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Teresa Wright

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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 Wright.

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 films.

"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 doing something."

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 the time."

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

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