Mar 23, 2016

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

A Girl's Got to Breathe: The Life of Teresa Wright
Donald Spoto
University Press of Mississippi, 2016

A few years ago, a blogger I follow asked his readers what Hollywood biography they'd like to read that hadn't been published yet. I commented that I'd always been fascinated by Teresa Wright and wanted to learn more about her. Another commenter dismissed the idea, saying that she didn't seem interesting enough for a whole bio. I didn't engage him; I knew he was wrong. Now there is proof in prolific biographer Donald Spoto's intimate new book about the actress, the latest title in the invaluable Hollywood Legends Series from University Press of Mississippi.

While it's true that Wright didn't have a sensational, scandal-laced life, it was never dull. She was a complex person herself: sweet and unassuming, strong and independent, emotionally insecure and yet somehow unusually stable given her profession. The actress found varied success in the movies, on television and most of all on the stage, including several successful Broadway productions. She was hooked on performing, acting from high school until the final years of her life.

Wright had the talent and audience appeal to join actresses like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford at the top of the heap, but for a lot of reasons she never reached those heights. She certainly had a good start, winning Academy Award nominations for her first three film performances in The Little Foxes (1941), Mrs. Miniver and Pride of the Yankees (both 1942) (she won for her supporting performance in Miniver), a feat that is yet to be duplicated. Under contract to independent producer Samuel Goldwyn, she won substantial roles in solid productions.

However, Wright tangled with Goldwyn over contract responsibilities, and found herself hurtling to the bottom as quickly as she rose to the top. She didn't help matters by taking much less than her usual salary to star opposite Marlon Brando in his first film, The Men (1950). Her value now permanently readjusted lower in Hollywood, the actress turned to the stage, which had been her first love, and found her greatest satisfaction. With a series of successful guest television roles to pay the bills she always found herself work and a certain level of financial and artistic satisfaction.

Despite the fact that Wright's twenty-seven feature films are such a small part of her legacy, they are undeniably important. Many actresses who worked in movies for decades did not appear in so many bonafide classics and cult curiosities. She strove for quality and her good taste served her well.

Among her best: that impressive debut trio, Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt(1943) and William Wyler's post-WWII classic The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). There were also less celebrated, but intriguing films like the psychological western Pursued (1947), the achingly bittersweet Enchantment (1948) and her first role as a mother opposite Spencer Tracy in The Actress (1953). Even in her later years she was stealing scenes, most charmingly as Matt Damon's landlady in The Rainmaker (1997). With quiet, sharp-edged devastation she did some of her best screen work in a small role as Diane Keaton's grandmother in The Good Mother (1988).

Spoto manages the complex task of placing all these scattered roles into perspective, so that they can be appreciated for the great works that they are, despite the lack of full industry acknowledgement of her gifts. He focuses on the often-mentioned skill Wright had for truly listening to other performers. She would focus on them intently, her eyes sweeping across their faces, striving to fully understand. It is this quality that made her such a sensitive and secure actress. The connections she made with cast members over the years came from that willingness to pay that ultimate respect: attention.

There were times I wished Spoto would dig a little deeper into why a particular performance succeeded, because when he does commit to a full analysis, his opinions provide great insight into Wright's special appeal. Of course not all of her roles were worthy of great attention, but even in small parts she could bring a fresh energy to otherwise predictable situations.

Spoto was friends with Teresa Wright for years, a fact which he considered carefully in the writing of the book. In order to fully share his personal insights into her personality, he had to insert himself into the narrative. While the passages including the biographer tend to have the weakest flow, they are also the most revealing.

For the most part Spoto handles a challenging situation well, and his long experience associating with and writing about famous people has helped him to approach his subject with sensitivity. He manages to remain loyal while acknowledging both Wright's strengths and weaknesses. This approach might have been less advisable with a more controversial or less reliable subject, but it works for Wright.

Wright's emotional life revolved around her complex marriages to writers Niven Busch and Robert Anderson and her children Terry and Mary-Kelly. Second husband Anderson was a particularly unusual character, seemingly equally insufferable and generous. Though Spoto is friend and fan of Wright's final spouse, he is honest about the writer's shortcomings; her relationship with this essentially insecure man reveals much about how her troubled past affected her.

Though she was known for being scatterbrained and an obsessive hoarder of magazine and newspaper clippings, Wright comes off as nice as she seems. The product of a horrifying childhood, which left her emotionally fragile and always certain she was not deserving of love and affection, it's remarkable that she was able to accomplish all she did. Though her romantic relationships were a constant source of pain for her, she became a reliable professional, good mother and loyal friend to many. It was just as satisfying as I expected to learn more about this under-appreciated actress who pursued her passions with remarkable mixture of curiosity, integrity and ferocity. I liked Spoto's approach; no one could have told her story the way he did.

Many thanks to University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of the book for review.

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