Friday, May 20, 2016

A Girl's Got to Breathe: The Life of Teresa Wright

Author:  Donald Spoto
Genre:  Biography

Hardcover, Ebook
ISBN#:  9781628460452
University Press of Mississippi
284 Pages
$24.75, $19.84 Amazon
February 19. 2016
Five Stars

The actress Teresa Wright (1918-2005) lived a rich, complex, magnificent life against the backdrop of golden age Hollywood, Broadway and television.  There was no indication, from her astonishingly difficult - indeed, horrifying - childhood, of the success that would follow, nor of the universal acclaim and admiration that accompanied her everywhere.  Her two marriages - to the writers Niven Busch (The Postman Always Rings Twice; Duel in the Sun) and Robert Anderson (Tea and Sympathy; I Never Sang for my Father) - provide a good deal of the drama, warmth, poignancy and heartbreak of her life story.

"I never wanted to be a star," she told the noted biographer Donald Spoto at dinner in 1978.  "I wanted only to be an actress."  She began acting on the stage in summer stock and repertory at the age of eighteen.  When Thornton Wilder and Jed Harris saw her in an ingenue role, she was chosen to understudy the part of Emily in the original production of Our Town (1938), which she then played in touring productions.  Samuel Goldwyn saw her first starring role on Broadway - in the historic production of Life with Father - and at once he offered her a long contract.

She was the only actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for her first three pictures (The Little Foxes; The Pride of the Yankees; and Mrs. Miniver) and she won for the third film.  Movie fans and scholars to this day admire her performance in the classics Shadow of a Doubt and The Best Years of Our Lives.  The circumstances of her tenure at Goldwyn, and the drama of her breaking that contract, forever changed the treatment of stars.

Wright's family and heirs appointed Spoto as her authorized biographer and offered him exclusive access to her letters and papers.  Major supporting players in this story include Robert Anderson, Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler, Karl Malden, Elia Kazan, Jean Simmons, Dorothy McGuire, Bette Davis, George Cukor, Marlon Brando, George C. Scott, the artist Al Hirschfeld, Stella Adler, and more.


Teresa Wright has always been one of my favorite actresses.  I have also wondered why she made so few movies, and in this new book by Donald Spoto I have my answers...Teresa began life in an auspicious beginning:  people were dying at record numbers from the Spanish Influenza, and she, fortunately, was one of the 'lucky' ones.  Her father's job required that he travel frequently, and she was left to the care of a mother who was less than ideal, one who had no problem bringing other men into the bed she shared with her daughter.  Her mother vanished early on from her life, and she never spoke of it.  It was indeed fortunate for her that her father adored her, and always wanted the best for her.  I mention this because it is those facts of our early youth that begin to shape us as the people we become.  Were it not for the love of her father, we may never have heard of Teresa Wright.  Yet it left her with indelible scars - I believe she never truly thought herself worth of love and admiration, and it colored her relationships from that point on.

She rose quickly with three stunning movies, The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver, and The Pride of the Yankees.  She won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Mrs. Miniver, her second film, but was nominated for all three.  No actress to date has ever matched that achievement.  She followed these with Shadow of a Doubt, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and my favorite of the four.

There were still movies she did that were very good, and some not so good, but I lay the blame for this on Teresa's bad personal choices:  She admitted she should have handled her spat with Samuel Goldwyn differently, and I, for one, think she made bad choices in husbands.

Her first husband, the screenwriter Niven Busch, was an arrogant man who cared more about himself than he did her.  I believe he may have loved her, but he put his needs and wants first - even if that meant moving her so far from Hollywood as to make the daily journey impossible.  (He wanted a ranch and chose one that was 350 miles away, which was quite a commute even then).  Her second husband, another screenwriter named Bob Anderson, never recovered from his first wife's death and made constant comparisons between her and Teresa.  It didn't matter to him that it hurt Teresa; another man who put himself first, and his marriage second.

So Teresa, even though she was happy raising her two children, still longed to act and never again achieved the fame she had as a young girl in Hollywood.  Although it never tainted her personally, and she remained kind to others throughout her life, I have to wonder what would have happened if she had developed a stronger personality - would she have been a bigger star?  Would either of her marriages failed?  Alas, we will never know the answer to those questions.

When all is said and done, this is a wonderful book by Mr. Spoto.  There was intensive research done, and contributions by both of Ms. Wright's children and her own letters, friends' quotes, etc.  For anyone interested in the meteoric rise of Ms. Wright, or for those who have not seen any of her films, I suggest you rent one immediately and see what a wonderful actress she was.  Highly recommended.

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