Tuesday, March 08, 2005

GOODBYE, CHARLIE: TERESA WRIGHT 1918 - 2005


Teresa Wright, wonderful actress, Yankee fan

Actress Teresa Wright died Sunday of a heart attack at the age of 86. Wright's introduction to Hollywood was of the storybook variety. Samuel Goldwyn saw her on Broadway in 1940 and asked her to play Bette Davis’ daughter in William Wyler’s The Little Foxes, a role for which Wright was nominated for the Academy Award. The following year she was nominated again for her work as Lou Gehrig’s supportive wife in The Pride of the Yankees, directed by Sam Wood, and again in 1942 for a role that would bring her the Oscar itself, the love interest of Greer Garson’s war-bound son in Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver. Her three-year relationship with the Oscar would mark the first and, to date, only time an actor of either gender has been nominated for the first three films of their career.

She would go on to star in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), again for Wyler, and The Men (1950; Fred Zinneman), which also marked the film debut of Marlon Brando. But her eschewing of the Hollywood game, and the contractual demands she insisted upon which prevented Goldwyn from promoting her career with glamour girl publicity photos and planted romantic rumors for gossip columnists, would eventually lead the producer to terminate her contract in 1948. She would soon move back to the stage, where she felt she could more productively pursue her craft rather than her image, and then back to smaller roles in TV and movie productions. Her final film performance would come in 1997, in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of the John Grisham novel The Rainmaker.

And according to the New York Times, she became quite the baseball fan as well, albeit for the wrong team, though her allegiance and interest is certainly understandable:

“In 1998, Miss Wright was asked to throw the first pitch at a Yankees game in honor of the anniversary of Lou Gehrig's famous farewell speech to fans in 1939, the climax of Pride of the Yankees. She said it was her first game. But after years of ignoring baseball, she then became a fervent fan herself, raptly following the Yankees on television and at their stadium.

‘The whole thing is pure theater to me,’ she explained.”

But for me the Teresa Wright performance is found at the heart and soul of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, ground zero for every postmodern “things are not what they seem” indictment of the undercurrent of evil in suburbia from Blue Velvet to American Beauty and well beyond. Wright’s portrayal of the guileless Charlie, whose family welcomes her beloved namesake Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) for a visit, not knowing that he may be a serial murderer on the lam, is a beautifully modulated experience of violated innocence, of a girl who is forced to confront the world in all of its horrific implications in one fell, debilitating blow. And Hitchcock counters Wright’s glowing presence with a refreshingly unironic portrayal of small-town life (the film was cowritten by Thornton Wilder) that makes Uncle Charlie’s creepily pervasive influence seem all the more viral and evil for the kind of (now lost) communally receptive atmosphere that it threatens to destroy.

For all of her Oscar nominated performances, this is the role Teresa Wright seemed born to play. I’ll always remember her as Charlie.

1 comment:

blaaagh said...

Ah, what sad news! Teresa Wright will always be one of my favorite actors, and I'm with you: her portrayal of Charlie in "Shadow of a Doubt" is unforgettable. I remember when I first saw her in it (with you, I'm sure, in Cutler's or Cadbury's film class), I was struck by how much was going on in her eyes and in her body language. There was nobody like her--and that beautiful voice of hers, ahhh. Thanks for writing such a nice appreciation of her; I didn't remember all that stuff about her refusing to go Hollywood, but good for her.
--Bruce