Teresa Wright: Actress made Oscar history
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 (2005) – on March 6.
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 1940s and 1950s. 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, Joseph Cotten, 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 & Life with Father
Born Muriel Teresa Wright to an insurance agent and his wife on Oct. 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 graduation in 1938, one of her high-school teachers helped Wright land a scholarship at the prestigious Wharf Theater in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
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. Following a stint in summer stock, 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 Webb in Thornton Wilder’s Broadway hit Our Town.
After touring with Our Town, Teresa Wright was cast as the ingénue in one of Broadway’s biggest hits ever, Oscar Serlin’s production of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s Life with Father, which opened on November 8, 1939, at the Empire Theatre, with Lindsay himself as Father.
Impressed with Wright’s performance and reviews – Variety, for one, referred to her as “an attractive ingénue” – independent producer Samuel Goldwyn decided to bring the 22-year-old actress to Hollywood.
“Miss Wright was seated at her dressing table when I was introduced,” Goldwyn would recall. “And looked for all the world like a little girl experimenting with her mother’s cosmetics. I had discovered in her from the first sight, you might say, an unaffected genuineness and appeal.”
Wright’s first job for her new boss – during an eight-week leave of absence from Life with Father – would be that of another ingénue: the delicate but strong-willed Alexandra Giddens in the film adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes.
The Little Foxes & Hollywood fame
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 intelligence, resilience, and inner strength.
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, at the end of the film Alexandra leaves the house to begin a new life with the young newspaperman she loves (Richard Carlson, in a role created for the movie version).
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.
As found in A. Scott Berg’s Goldwyn, Davis “developed her own ideas as to the playing of Regina, which were in direct opposition to Wyler’s.” There would be screaming matches both on and off the set.
Whether due to or in spite of the tense production, Wyler elicited a remarkably nuanced performance from Goldwyn’s film novice. “Miss Wright is a newcomer to the screen, and is magnificent in a very difficult part,” opined Variety. “A less talented actress in her place could have ruined the picture.”
Wyler would later refer to Teresa Wright as the most promising actress he had ever directed.
The Actors Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences apparently agreed with him, for its members nominated the newcomer for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, one of the RKO release’s nine nominations.
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.
Making Academy Award history at age 24
On loan to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at William Wyler’s request, Teresa Wright was next featured in the director’s Mrs. Miniver.
Reuniting Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, previously seen together in Blossoms in the Dust, this slick, sentimental paean to the British home front – reputed to be the very first Hollywood film to broach the topic – 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 (American-accented) British aristocrat who, after becoming a no-nonsense Mrs. Miniver no. 2, bravely suffers a tragic end.
Back with Goldwyn, she had her first film lead – at the suggestion of The Little Foxes story editor and husband-to-be Niven Busch – in Sam Wood’s The Pride of the Yankees. Co-starring Gary Cooper, this immensely successful and unabashedly corny biopic of New York Yankees player Lou Gehrig 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.
Teresa Wright would receive Academy Award nominations for her two 1942 performances: Best Supporting Actress for Mrs. Miniver and Best Actress for The Pride of the Yankees. She was the second performer to be so honored, following veteran Fay Bainter four years earlier.
Unique Oscar feat
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, Wright also became the first – and, more than seven decades later, only – performer to be shortlisted for Oscars for their first three roles.
Something else: at age 24, she would remain for seven decades the youngest three-time Oscar nominee in the acting categories, until getting displaced by 23-year-old Jennifer Lawrence in early 2014.
Back at the 1943 Academy Awards ceremony, Wright won for Mrs. Miniver, but lost in the Best Actress category to Greer Garson for the same film. (Back then, supporting category winners were handed a plaque, not a statuette.)
More than half a century later, she would tell Turner Classic Movies (see clip below.):
I was nominated for both Mrs. Miniver and The Pride of the Yankees that year. And of course I’d have liked to have won for The Pride of the Yankees. But at the same time my heart was with Mrs. Miniver because Willie Wyler had directed it and he was still overseas. … So it was a very mixed bag of feelings I had in that whole thing.
Despite several high-caliber movie performances in the ensuing decades, Teresa Wright would never receive another Oscar nomination.
Below: Teresa Wright reminisces about ‘Mrs. Miniver’ and her double Oscar nomination.
Marriage and movie stardom
The same year Mrs. Miniver and The Pride of the Yankees came out, Teresa Wright married Goldwyn story editor Niven Busch.
Fifteen years Wright’s senior, the New York City-born Busch (on April 26, 1903) was the author of several short stories and screenplays (The Westerner, Belle Starr) and would later gain renown as the author of about a dozen novels (Duel in the Sun, The Furies).
In early 1938, he had been shortlisted for the Best Original Story Academy Award for In Old Chicago (1937), based on his tale “We the O’Learys.”
After their marriage, Busch and Wright settled in the Encino Hills just north of Los Angeles’ Westside. The couple 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.”
Fast-rising star with nowhere to go
The problem for this talented “young dramatic actress” was that her boss wasn’t counting on her becoming a star so rapidly. As explained in A. Scott Berg’s Samuel Goldwyn biography, the producer had no starring role scheduled for his fast-rising contract player.
That was poor planning on Goldwyn’s part. Following Gary Cooper’s departure despite the success of The Pride of the Yankees, Teresa Wright had become the independent mogul’s top – and only – star.
After loaning her out to Universal to play the lead female role in Shadow of a Doubt for Alfred Hitchcock, the best Goldwyn 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.
“Teresa Wright: Actress Made Academy Award History” follow-up post: “Hitchcock heroine: Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt.”
‘Teresa Wright: Actress Made Academy Award History’ notes
 Life with Father was based on Clarence Day’s 1935 autobiographical book of stories. Teresa Wright’s role in the play went to Elizabeth Taylor in Warner Bros.’ 1947 film version, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring William Powell and Irene Dunne.
The Tallulah effect
 Goldwyn assistant Justus Baldwin Lawrence (a.k.a. Jock Lawrence) suggested at first that Bette Davis play both Regina and Alexandra Giddens. The producer balked at the idea, as he was in need of a young female contract player and believed that Alexandra would be a star-making role.
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.
Davis, who had been loaned out to Goldwyn in exchange for Gary Cooper (to star in Warner Bros.’ Sergeant York), would later recall:
“I had been forced to see Tallulah Bankhead’s performance [as Regina Giddens on Broadway]. I had not wanted to. A great admirer of hers, I wanted in no way to be influenced by her work. It was [William Wyler’s] intention that I give a different interpretation of the part.”
Warners’ reigning queen, however, felt Bankhead’s “etched in acid” performance was the way to play Regina.
The Little Foxes, the first Samuel Goldwyn production to be distributed by RKO, turned out to be one of Bette Davis’ only two movies away from Warner Bros. from the beginning of her contract in 1932 to its expiration in 1949. Her previous loan-out had been for RKO’s John Cromwell-directed Of Human Bondage (1934), starring Leslie Howard.
Bette Davis quote via A. Scott Berg’s Goldwyn.
Check out: “Bette Davis: Biggest Oscar Snubs.”
The Little Foxes Oscar nominations
 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; Ford also won the Best Director Award.
Veteran Mary Astor was the Best Supporting Actress for another Bette Davis star vehicle, the Edmund Goulding-directed The Great Lie. Davis, for her part, lost the Best Actress Oscar to Joan Fontaine in another RKO release, Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion.
Profitable The Pride of the Yankees
 Partly as a result of premium ticket prices for this particular production and partly thanks to an extremely generous distribution agreement with RKO, Samuel Goldwyn – who, like Teresa Wright and Gary Cooper, knew nothing about baseball – had in The Pride of the Yankees his most financially successful movie to date.
Much to Goldwyn’s disappointment, The Pride of the Yankees marked the end of his four-year professional association with Gary Cooper.
Oscars’ double nominees in acting categories
- 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. Academy rules were changed following his double nomination.
- 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 Oscar nods
- 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.
She would give birth to her first-born only in December 1944 – more than a year after production on The North Star had begun.
Teresa Wright portrait via Doctor Macro.
Image of Teresa Wright and Gary Cooper in The Pride of the Yankees and The Little Foxes lobby card: RKO.
Greer Garson and Teresa Wright Mrs. Miniver image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.