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Teresa Wright Movies: Actress Made Oscar History

Teresa WrightTeresa Wright movies: Unique Oscar winner (image: Teresa Wright in the mid-'40s)

Teresa Wright, best remembered for her Oscar-winning performance in the World War II melodrama Mrs. Miniver and for her deceptively fragile, small-town heroine in Alfred Hitchcock's mystery-drama Shadow of a Doubt, died at age 86 ten years ago – on March 6, 2005.

Throughout her nearly six-decade show business career, Wright was featured in nearly 30 films, dozens of television series and made-for-TV movies, and a whole array of stage productions.

On the big screen, she played opposite some of the most important stars of the '40s and '50s. It's a long list, including Bette Davis, Greer Garson, Gary Cooper, Myrna Loy, Ray Milland, Fredric March, Jean Simmons, Marlon Brando, Dana Andrews, Lew Ayres, Cornel Wilde, Robert Mitchum, Spencer Tracy, and David Niven.

Also of note, Teresa Wright made Oscar history in the early '40s, when she was nominated for each of her first three movie roles.

  • Best Supporting Actress for The Little Foxes (1941).
  • Best Supporting Actress for Mrs. Miniver (1942).
  • Best Actress for The Pride of the Yankees (1942).

She remains the only performer to have achieved that feat.

Early years: Stage productions of 'Our Town' and 'Life with Father'

Born Muriel Teresa Wright to an insurance agent and his wife on October 27, 1918, in New York City, she grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey, often under the care of relatives.

While at Columbia High School, the teenager displayed an interest in acting – she had reportedly become stage-struck after watching Helen Hayes in Victoria Regina on Broadway. Shortly after graduating in 1938, Wright decided to hone her acting skills at the prestigious Wharf Theater in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Following a stint in summer theater, she was hired as an understudy to future 20th Century-Fox star Dorothy McGuire, who had replaced Hollywood-bound Martha Scott in the role of Emily in Thornton Wilder's Broadway hit Our Town. Since there was already a stage performer registered as Muriel Wright, the aspiring actress began using her middle name, Teresa, as her first artistic name.

After touring with Our Town, Teresa Wright was cast as the ingénue in one of Broadway's biggest hits ever, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's production of Life with Father.[1]

Impressed with Wright's performance and reviews, independent producer Samuel Goldwyn brought the 22-year-old actress to Hollywood to play another ingénue: the delicate but strong-willed Alexandra Giddens in the film adaptation of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes.

The Little Foxes poster'The Little Foxes' and Hollywood fame (image: Richard Carlson, Teresa Wright and Bette Davis in 'The Little Foxes' lobby card)

As The Little Foxes' Alexandra Giddens, Teresa Wright introduced the prototype of many of her characters of the '40s: a naive (or immature), fragile-looking young woman who, before the final fade-out, discovers she possesses extraordinary inner strength and resilience.

Following the suspicious death of her father (Herbert Marshall), Alexandra sturdies herself to confront her (shocked) mother, the ruthlessly ambitious Southern aristocrat Regina Giddens (Bette Davis, on loan-out from Warner Bros.). No longer a child, Alexandra leaves the house to begin a new life with the young newspaperman she loves (Richard Carlson, in a role created for the film).

The Little Foxes was a difficult production, as director William Wyler and star Bette Davis did not get along on their third (and final) collaboration.

Whether because or in spite of the tension on the set, Wyler elicited a remarkably nuanced performance from Goldwyn's film novice. He would later refer to Teresa Wright as the most promising actress he had ever directed.[2]

The Actors Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences apparently agreed, for its members nominated the newcomer for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, one of the RKO release's nine nominations.[3]

Although The Little Foxes ultimately failed to win a single Academy Award, this masterful mix of social commentary and dysfunctional family drama was an acclaimed hit, helping to turn Teresa Wright into a certifiable star-in-the-making.

Teresa Wright Mrs. Miniver Greer GarsonTeresa Wright makes Oscar history (photo: Greer Garson and Teresa Wright in 'Mrs. Miniver')

On loan to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Teresa Wright was next featured in another William Wyler effort, Mrs. Miniver.

Reuniting Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, previously seen together in Blossoms in the Dust, this slick, sentimental paean to the British homefront became one of the biggest blockbusters of the decade and the Best Picture Oscar winner of 1942. In the film, Wright plays Garson's daughter-in-law: a sweet British aristocrat who, after becoming Mrs. Miniver no. 2, (bravely) suffers a tragic end.

Back with Goldwyn, she had her first film lead as Gary Cooper's wife in Sam Wood's The Pride of the Yankees, a highly successful – and unabashedly corny – biopic of baseball player Lou Gehrig that ended up with 11 Academy Award nominations. (Ironically, neither Wright nor Cooper knew anything about baseball.)

As the soon-to-be-widowed Eleanor Gehrig, Wright – "lovely, gracious," in the words of the New York Times' Bosley Crowther – once again had to display both outer softness and inner steeliness.

For her two 1942 roles, Teresa Wright would be a double Academy Award nominee in the acting categories, thus becoming the second performer to be so honored. Additionally, as mentioned earlier in this article, she was the first – and, more than seven decades later, only – performer to be shortlisted for Oscars for their first three roles.[4]

Something else: the 24-year-old Wright would remain for seven decades the youngest three-time Oscar nominee in the acting categories. In early 2014, she was finally displaced by 23-year-old Jennifer Lawrence.

Back in early 1943, Teresa Wright won as Best Supporting Actress for Mrs. Miniver, but lost the Best Actress Academy Award to Greer Garson for the same film.

She would never receive another Oscar nomination.

Marriage and movie stardom

The same year Mrs. Miniver and The Pride of the Yankees came out, Teresa Wright married The Little Foxes' story editor Niven Busch.

At the time the author of several short stories and screenplays (The Westerner, Belle Starr) – and later the author of about a dozen novels (Duel in the Sun, The Furies) – the New York City-born Busch (on April 26, 1903) was fifteen years Wright's senior. The couple, who settled in the Encino Hills just north of Los Angeles' Westside, would have two children.

On the professional front, the newlywed wife seemed poised for movie stardom. In its review of The Pride of the Yankees, Time magazine affirmed that "if moviegoers like [Teresa Wright] in it, she may become cinemadom's foremost dramatic actress. If they don't, she can 1) try again; 2) remain what she is: one of the best young dramatic actresses Hollywood has turned up in many a talent hunt."

The problem for this talented "young dramatic actress" was that her producer-boss wasn't counting on her becoming a star so rapidly.

As explained in A. Scott Berg's Samuel Goldwyn biography, Goldwyn had no starring role scheduled for his fast-rising contract player. After loaning her out to Universal to star in Shadow of a Doubt for Alfred Hitchcock (more on that below), the best the producer could come up with was casting Wright as a Russian peasant in the Lillian Hellman-written, anti-Nazi, pro-Soviet Union ensemble piece The North Star.

Pregnancy, however, prevented her from getting the role. (She was replaced by 20th Century-Fox contract player Anne Baxter.)[5]

Teresa Wright Shadow of a Doubt'Shadow of a Doubt': Hitchcock heroine (photo: Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten in 'Shadow of a Doubt')

After her first three hits, Teresa Wright was loaned to Universal – once first choice Joan Fontaine became unavailable – to play the small-town heroine in Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (coincidentally co-written by Our Town's Thornton Wilder).

In this subversive mystery-drama based on actual events, Wright, billed above co-star Joseph Cotten, gives a thoroughly believable performance as Young Charlie, "an ordinary little girl living in an ordinary little town" who comes to suspect that her visiting Uncle Charlie (Cotten) is an ordinary little serial killer.

Once again, before the final credits Wright's character is given the chance to display unbending inner strength, even risking her life to confront her bloodthirsty relative.

Shadow of a Doubt has a strong following today, but upon its release it was greeted with lukewarm notices. In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther complained that after an appropriately creepy beginning, "the story takes a decidedly anticlimactic dip and becomes just a competent exercise in keeping a tightrope taut. It also becomes a bit too specious in making a moralistic show of the warmth of an American community toward an unsuspected rascal in its midst."

The film did, however, receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story (Gordon McDonell). It also reportedly earned a profit for Universal, though that was likely because it was made on a modest budget (approximately $800,000).

Hitchcock himself would later call Shadow of a Doubt his favorite among his films and Teresa Wright one of the most intelligent performers he had ever worked with. Wright, in fact, fully deserved a Best Actress nod that year, but was bypassed by the Academy.[6]

Teresa Wright vs. Samuel Goldwyn

In real life, much like her film characters Teresa Wright proved to be quite a bit more determined than her delicate appearance led one to believe. She asserted that her only salable asset was her talent and fought Samuel Goldwyn for better roles and for less intrusion in her private affairs.

In its May 1942 edition, Colliers magazine mentioned what was supposed to be a contract clause stipulating that Wright would never have to pose for cheesecake pictures to promote herself or her films.

"The aforementioned Teresa Wright shall not be required to pose for photographs in a bathing suit unless she is in the water. Neither may she be photographed running on the beach with her hair flying in the wind ... "

Cheesecake pictures or no, in the mid-'40s the best that Goldwyn could come up with for his Oscar-winning contract player was to loan her out to star opposite Gary Cooper in the fluffy comedy Casanova Brown (1944). Directed by Sam Wood, the film was slated to be the first production of the newly formed indie International Pictures.

Although Wright was reunited with her The Pride of the Yankees leading man and director, there were no major sparks this time around. Based on a play by Floyd Dell and Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell (Stagecoach), Casanova Brown takes the love-after-divorce plot of The Awful Truth one step further: a recently divorced couple become parents after the split, and the new dad, about to get remarried, goes gaga over Baby. Unfortunately, Casanova Brown features none of the wit and charm of Leo McCarey's 1937 classic.

Following this RKO release, Teresa Wright would stay away from the screen for two years. Pregnancy prevented her from being (absurdly) cast as fiery "half-breed" Pearl Chavez in the film version of husband Niven Busch's 1944 bestseller Duel in the Sun.[7]

Thus, she would next be seen in what is probably her best-known film: William Wyler's 1946 homecoming drama The Best Years of Our Lives.

"Teresa Wright movies: Unique Oscar winner" to be continued.

Teresa Wright The Pride of the Yankees'Teresa Wright movies: Unique Oscar winner' notes (image: Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright in 'The Pride of the Yankees')

[1] Teresa Wright's Life with Father role was played by Elizabeth Taylor in Warner Bros.' 1947 film version, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring William Powell and Irene Dunne.

[2] Prior to The Little Foxes, Bette Davis and William Wyler – who had become intimate away from the cameras – had collaborated on Jezebel (1938), which earned Davis her second Best Actress Academy Award, and The Letter (1940), which earned her her fourth Best Actress Oscar nomination.

[3] Following a widely publicized agreement, The Little Foxes became the first Samuel Goldwyn production to be distributed by RKO.

Besides Teresa Wright's Best Supporting Actress nod, among The Little Foxes' nine Oscar nominations were those for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Bette Davis), Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Collinge), and Best Screenplay (Lillian Hellman).

The Best Picture winner that year was John Ford's How Green Was My Valley. Veteran Mary Astor was the Best Supporting Actress winner for another Bette Davis movie, the Edmund Goulding-directed The Great Lie.

[4] Here's the list of performers with two Academy Award nominations in the acting categories in the same year.

  • Fay Bainter in 1938. Best Actress for Edmund Goulding's White Banners. Best Supporting Actress for William Wyler's Jezebel.
  • Teresa Wright in 1942. Best Actress for Sam Wood's The Pride of the Yankees. Best Supporting Actress for William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver.
  • Barry Fitzgerald in 1944. Fitzgerald was a special case, as he was a double nominee for the same movie: Leo McCarey's Going My Way.
  • Jessica Lange in 1982. Best Actress for Graeme Clifford's Frances. Best Supporting Actress for Sydney Pollack's Tootsie.
  • Sigourney Weaver in 1988. Best Actress for Michael Apted's Gorillas in the Mist. Best Supporting Actress for Mike Nichols' Working Girl.
  • Al Pacino in 1992. Best Actor for Martin Brest's Scent of a Woman. Best Supporting Actor for James Foley's Glengarry Glen Ross.
  • Holly Hunter in 1993. Best Actress for Jane Campion's The Piano. Best Supporting Actress for Sydney Pollack's The Firm.
  • Emma Thompson also in 1993. Best Actress for James Ivory's The Remains of the Day. Best Supporting Actress for Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father.
  • Julianne Moore in 2002. Best Actress for Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven. Best Supporting Actress for Stephen Daldry's The Hours.
  • Jamie Foxx in 2004. Best Actor for Taylor Hackford's Ray. Best Supporting Actor for Michael Mann's Collateral.
  • Cate Blanchett in 2007. Best Actress for Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Best Supporting Actress for Todd Haynes' I'm Not There.

Teresa Wright, Fay Bainter, Barry Fitzgerald, and Jessica Lange won Oscars in the supporting categories. Al Pacino, Holly Hunter, and Jamie Foxx won as leads.

Jennifer Lawrence's Oscar nominations:

  • Best Actress for Debra Granik's Winter's Bone (2010).
  • Best Actress for David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook (2012).
  • Best Supporting Actress for David O. Russell's American Hustle (2013).

Lawrence won for Silver Linings Playbook.

[5] Something went wrong with that pregnancy; in late 1943, there were stories in fan magazines about Teresa Wright's dramatic weight loss. She would give birth to her first-born only in December 1944 – more than a year after the production of The North Star.

[6] The Shadow of a Doubt screenplay was credited to Thorton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alfred Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville. It was based on a six-page story by Gordon McDonell.

Teresa Wright failed to get a 1943 Best Actress nomination for Shadow of a Doubt. Shortlisted that year were:

  • Jean Arthur for George Stevens' The More the Merrier.
  • Ingrid Bergman for Sam Wood's For Whom the Bell Tolls.
  • Joan Fontaine for Edmund Goulding's The Constant Nymph.
  • As mentioned in the main text, Fontaine, who had previously worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), had been initially offered Wright's Shadow of a Doubt role.

  • Greer Garson for Mervyn LeRoy's Madame Curie.
  • Jennifer Jones, the eventual winner, for Henry King's The Song of Bernadette.

[7] Initially slated as an RKO release, Duel in the Sun was to have been co-adapted by Niven Busch himself, with Teresa Wright and John Wayne as the leads.

Hedy Lamarr was Wright's replacement – only to bow out because it turned out she was also pregnant. Next in line was Jennifer Jones (and possibly Veronica Lake).

At that point, David O. Selznick, Jennifer Jones' lover and Svengali, acquired the film rights to Duel in the Sun. John Wayne was dropped and replaced with Selznick contract player Gregory Peck. Joseph Cotten, Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Marshall, Walter Huston, and Charles Bickford rounded out the cast.

For her efforts in one of the most successful and most controversial releases of the decade, Jennifer Jones was shortlisted for the 1946 Best Actress Oscar. She lost to Olivia de Havilland for Mitchell Leisen's To Each His Own.

Source for Duel in the Sun's various casting contenders: Paul Green's Jennifer Jones: The Life and Films.

 

Teresa Wright portrait via Doctor Macro. Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten Shadow of a Doubt photo: Universal Pictures.

Image of Teresa Wright and Gary Cooper in The Pride of the Yankees and The Little Foxes lobby card: Samuel Goldwyn / RKO.

Greer Garson and Teresa Wright Mrs. Miniver photo: MGM.

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8 Comments to Teresa Wright Movies: Actress Made Oscar History

  1. Pat Callen

    One of my favourite actresses.

  2. craig wildensten

    i have both movies ' Pride of The Yankees' and ' Mrs Miniver ' and I have watched both and I think that Teresa Wright did a much better performance in Pride than Mrs Miniver. I think she should have won the Oscar for that one instead of Mrs Miniver. I would have given it to her for Pride than any other movie she did.

  3. George

    Theresa Wright personifies all that is best in a human being. I was just a kid when she was at the top of her career and it is only now that I have come to appreciate what a truly towering talent she was. On top of that, she was a marvelously wonderful, humble and all around beautiful human being. I wish I had been around in her era. I would have considered it a privilege to have had a chance to have even met her. From what I can see in this year of 2011, there are no Theresa Wright's to be found anywhere. In my opinion, this goes a long way to explain why this nation finds itself in such dire straits

    GC

    Hemet California

  4. Dan Walters

    Like others, I fell in love with Teresa the very first time I noticed her ... less than a year ago.
    Sure, I had seen her in the past, several times, but had not noticed how great of an actor she was.
    Sadly, she died the very month that I had heart surgery, for the very same thing that took her life. She was about 18 years older than me. I'll never forget her.

    Dan

  5. Jun

    I feel in love with Teresa Wright in "The Best Years of Our Lives." I recommend this classic movie for those who like romance.

  6. steve

    I just watched Ms. Wright in "The Best Years of Our lives." (1946) She was such a beautiful, ultra-feminine little thing ... It was "love at first sight" for me ... even tho' time has done what it always does...

  7. Andre

    Oscar,
    Thanks for writing.
    That paragraph actually reads:
    "... the romantic fantasy Somewhere in Time (1980), starring Christopher Reeve; the Diane Keaton vehicle The Good Mother (1988); ..."
    Diane Keaton starred in The Good Mother (there's a ";" before her name).
    And yes, Jane Seymour was Christopher Reeve's co-star in "Somewhere in Time."

  8. Oscar Rodriguez

    This biography was very enjoyable to read.
    Very informative, wonderful pictures.
    However, I would like to bring one small
    Mistake to your attention.
    In the movie " Somewhere in time. "
    Your article states , Diane Keaton starred
    With Christopher Reeves. And if I'm not mistaken,
    He starred with Jane Seymour.
    Thank you for your attention.




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