My current Top 5

My current Top 5

5/12/2010

Best Actress 1942: Teresa Wright in "The Pride of the Yankees"

In 1943, the Academy honored two women who both reached the peak of their careers with their co-starring and acclaimed performances in the World War II drama Mrs. Miniver. Greer Garson won the Best Actress statuette for her role as the noble and strong title character while Teresa Wright received the award as Best Supporting Actress for her role as Carol, Mrs. Miniver’s charming, lovely and ill-fated daughter-in-law. These two wins not only reflected the popularity of Mrs. Miniver, which is one those Best Picture winners that managed not only to be both a critical and a financial success but also became a phenomena around the world, but also the popularity of these two actresses themselves who, during the first half of the decade, were among the brightest stars in Hollywood, enjoying a high level of success after having established themselves on the big screen quite effortlessly. Greer Garson received an Oscar nomination for her first film performance in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, later tied Bette Davis for the record for most consecutive acting nominations ever and ended her career with an overall amount of seven Oscar nominations to her name, putting her above contemporary actresses like Barbara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland or Irene Dunne. And two years after Greer Garson, another newcomer to the screen established herself as a respected member of the film community right away and joined the club of performers who won Oscar nominations for their film debut – producer Samuel Goldwyn apparently offered Teresa Wright a contract the same night he saw her for the first time while she was appearing on the stage in the popular play Life with Father. Prior to this engagement, Teresa Wright had been the understudy for Emily in Our Town, a role she finally took over after Martha Scott left the production to star in the 1940 film version. It was a first-class entrance into the world of Broadway that Teresa Wright would copy again with a similarly first-class entrance into the world of Hollywood. Her unaffected personality and sweet-natured appearance combined with youthful idealism and thoughtfulness created a stark contrast to the more domineering or glamorous female stars of the time and Samuel Goldwyn apparently sensed that her naturalism on the stage could be effectively captured on the big screen, too. It was an investment that paid off immediately when Teresa Wright received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress for playing the innocent daughter of Regina Giddens in the movie version of Lilian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. Starring Bette Davis and directed by William Wyler, The Little Foxes was a prestigious show-case for everyone involved and gave Teresa Wright the opportunity to display her talents for portraying unharmed innocence opposite a scheming and ruthless opponent – and not only the Academy but critics and audiences, too, reacted positively to Teresa Wright’s film debut which showed that Samuel Goldwyn was right in his assumption since her ability to hold her own against more established movie stars and her unusual blend of maturity and youthfulness turned her into an intriguing screen personality right away, leading to her further involvement in some of the most prestigious productions of the time. In 1942, she followed her work in The Little Foxes with her portrayal of Carol in Mrs. Miniver and of Lou Gehrig’s supportive wife in the popular sports drama The Pride of the Yankees, making her one of the most beloved female stars on the screen – also among the members of the Academy who blessed Teresa Wright’s first two years in Hollywood with several outstanding honors. After her nomination for her film debut, Teresa Wright became the second person ever to be nominated in both the leading and the supporting category one year later, therefore earning Oscar nominations for every one of her first three movie appearances ever – a record that is unlikely to ever be broken. So, even if Greer Garson was the most admired leading lady of 1942, winning an Oscar for the signature role of her career at the highpoint of her growing popularity, the Oscar win for Teresa Wright was just as well received by audiences and critics alike and signaled that it was ‘her year’ just as much as it was Greer Garson’s year, proving that she had established herself as an accomplished screen actress right away and it seemed only fitting that these two actresses co-starred in the year’s most popular and acclaimed movie and won Oscars for portraying women whose lives and relationships were affected by the Blitz during World War II. But beyond their effortless entrance into Hollywood and the simultaneous highlights of their work, Teresa Wright and Greer Garson also faced a similar fate later in their careers – that of slowly falling into oblivion. Greer Garson was a guarantor for healthy box office and Academy recognition year after year after year but she did not manage to maintain the same kind of popularity and critical acclaim as the other three women whom she had beaten for the gold in 1942, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell, slowly losing the admiration of audiences and her position as the first lady of MGM even if she continued to be praised for her work in movies like Sunrise at Campobello in 1960 or on the Broadway stage in productions like Auntie Mame. And after The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver and The Pride of the Yankees, Teresa Wright also had to learn that Oscar nominations don’t come for every performance and she was dropped by the Academy just as quickly as its members had embraced her initially. But she nonetheless kept appearing in high-profile roles, playing the leading role and winning the admiration of director Alfred Hitchcock in his personal favorite Shadow of a Doubt and later giving another prominent supporting performance in the classic Oscar winner The Best Years of our Lives. She apparently was also the first choice for the starring role in the western Duel in the Sun but had to leave the production due to pregnancy, enabling Jennifer Jones to take over the role and win her third Best Actress nomination in the process. But even though critics continued to praise her warmth on the screen, personal disputes with Samuel Goldwyn eventually led to her release from her contract and the popularity of her films began to decline. Later ahe was the leading lady in Marlon Brando’s film debut and also acted opposite stars like David Niven, Spencer Tracy and Robert Mitchum but during the next decade she began to focus more strongly on the stage and on television where she was the first actress to portray the character that would bring an Oscar and a Tony to Anne Bancroft a few years later – Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. So, Teresa Wright had an undoubtedly exciting and interesting career, reaching the heights of her popularity and acclaim quite effortlessly and still leaving a distinct mark on famous classics and well-known characters even after the Academy had moved on. She was also able to constantly cross the line between a supporting and leading status in a time when these boundaries were still much stronger, accepting parts based on their challenges and opportunities and not on their screen time or position in the movie's structure. After her supporting nomination for The Little Foxes and her win for Mrs. Miniver, it could have been very likely that she would have continued to position herself as a typical supporting actress but the Academy embraced her work in The Pride of the Yankees quite as eagerly, nominating her for Best Actress, too, and paving the way for the further leading roles of her career. And so her nomination is an intriguing case of a supporting player joining what is often considered the more prestigious category and highlights the overall respect and admiration towards this talented newcomer in 1942, making her performance an important milestone in her still young career. But was her double-nomination truly a result of her outstanding artistry during this year or was it rather this respect and admiration that influenced Academy members in their decisions?

In all of her performances, Teresa Wright was able to portray an instant likeability, a natural charm and poise that helped to easily lighten up the screen whenever she appeared and made her characters honest, accessible and innocent. And it was most likely this likeability that helped her to carry out such a fast rise to stardom as she lacked the visible domineering self-assuredness of other female stars of her time and therefore never made her appear like a competitor but rather a companion and close fellow. And so it is no surprise that the Academy, too, responded very positive to her work during the beginning of her career, eager to embrace and honor her performances with its very own seal of approval. But besides her likeable personality, Teresa Wright also had the advantage of having given her first performances in movies that appealed to Academy members for other reasons, too – The Little Foxes was a prestigious adaption of a successful stage play, Mrs. Miniver one of the most popular movies against Nazi Germany during the Second World War and The Pride of the Yankees a strong monument to a baseball legend and to American virtues in general. And so the double nomination of Teresa Wright in 1942 was hardly a surprise and a testament to the strong impressions that she left in two of the most triumphant motion pictures of the year. It was an almost Cinderella-like story that allowed her to win an Oscar for bringing charm and grace to Mrs. Miniver while her work in The Pride of the Yankees put her right next to some of the biggest female leading stars of her time and enabled her to establish her own leading status that would be even more strongly defined one year later when she accepted her central role in Shadow of a Doubt. But even though Teresa Wright positioned herself quite effortlessly as the leading lady in many of her later pictures, she still stood out among her co-nominees Greer Garson, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell in 1942 – because The Pride of the Yankees did not offer her the same kind of central and deciding role that these more seasoned actresses were given in Mrs. Miniver, Now, Voyager, Woman of the Year and My Sister Eileen. Compared to those star-vehicles, The Pride of the Yankees was never intended to be a movie either for or about Teresa Wright – it was certainly a star-vehicle, too, but only for her co-star Gary Cooper who portrayed the baseball legend Lou Gehrig from his first days as an aspiring athlete to the end of his career when he was diagnosed with a fatal illness that would later carry his name. And even though Teresa Wright was clearly presented as the female star of The Pride of the Yankees, her role is essentially of secondary importance and poses the question if she would also had been nominated in the leading category if either Mrs. Miniver or The Pride of the Yankees had been released one year later – in fact, it seems rather likely that Teresa Wright would have turned into a perennial nominee in the supporting category and in the end, it is most likely that the Academy’s desire to recognize both of Teresa Wright’s performances in 1942 caused her leading nomination for The Pride of the Yankees. Of course, it is unlikely that her performance as Lou Gehrig’s wife would have been campaigned as a supporting actress but simultaneously it is debatable if her role would have made the necessary impact to enter the leading category without Teresa Wright’s sudden career peak and additional support by her work in the year’s Best Picture winner Mrs. Miniver. Because as Eleanor Gehrig, Teresa Wright does not enter The Pride of the Yankees until about 30 minutes after it started and the following story never focuses on her nor is it truly interested in her own point-of-view or personal experiences – instead, The Pride of the Yankees, as mentioned before, is always a movie about Lou Gehrig, his life, his profession, his dreams and ultimately his illness. His wife is only one part of this life, just like his parents, just like his friends and just like his teammates but in the context of the story even of less importance than his career as a professional baseball player. And so a classification of Teresa Wright as a supporting actress in The Pride of the Yankees would not have been illogical but at the same time it is not difficult to understand that she was presented as its female star because The Pride of the Yankees offered something to Teresa Wright that neither Mrs. Miniver nor The Little Foxes had given her – the central female character. Eleanor might be of secondary importance in the structure of the story but she is still its most important female presence. The importance and influence of Eleanor Gehrig may not differ too much from that of Carol Miniver or Alexandra Giddens but her supporting status in Mrs. Miniver and The Little Foxes was easier to determine since both movies circle around a central female character and offer a clear hierarchy of the remaining female parts – but with no Bette Davis or Greer Garson around, Teresa Wright alone held the position as the most noteworthy female presence in The Pride of the Yankees and therefore could create the illusion of Eleanor as a much more essential part to the story than she actually is. But even without another prominent female part, the male-dominated structure of The Pride of the Yankees was still working against Teresa Wright as it never tried to hide the fact that there is only one aspect it wants to give its full attentions to – Lou Gehrig and the central performance by Gary Cooper. So the questions is – was Teresa Wright able to overcome any limitations to her role and add a more intriguing inner life to her character that went beyond the supportive wife or did she stay within the boundaries of the script and dutifully fulfilled her purpose to add even more shining light on Gary Cooper without stepping into the foreground herself?

To provide this question with an answer, another question is actually necessary first: what did the script offer to Teresa Wright and what did it intend for the character of Eleanor? The answers to this question are unfortunately ‘little’ and ‘nothing’. Eleanor is never written as an independent human being but is always another vessel created to admire and respect Lou Gehrig’s simple nature, his honesty, his determination and his humbleness, with the ultimate goal of presenting her as the perfect wife for the perfect marriage of a perfect American hero. The role never provides any background to the character, Eleanor is the kind of movie wife who never seemed to have existed before getting married and who never had any dreams, plans or ambitions of her own. It’s a clear but therefore limited mission that Teresa Wright faced and it is hard to imagine that she was ever even allowed to explore Eleanor further, most likely constantly held back if she dared to try and reminded of her place in the structural context that positioned her as the either happy, sad or suffering wife, depending on certain scenes and how they related to the life of Lou Gehrig. And so, the script truly intended ‘nothing’ for Eleanor since the role remained an empty vessel that was clearly written to add a love story to the life of Lou Gehrig and therefore make the topic of The Pride of the Yankees more accessible to the general audience who might not have been interested in a story that focused too exclusively on baseball alone. And so this ‘nothing’ left Teresa Wright with ‘little’ to do – but she was still able to brighten up both her role and the relationship between Lou and his wife with her charming personality and genuine youthfulness and she was also generous enough to constantly step back and let Gary Cooper shine in his part until the script allowed Eleanor to anchor a scene or a single moment herself, gracefully slipping into the structure of The Pride of the Yankees and fill her role with the asked-for restraint and subtlety but still allowing Eleanor to become the desirable woman she is supposed to be. In these aspects, Teresa Wright’s performance indeed succeeded as she tackled the task of not only becoming the perfect female equivalent for Lou Gehrig but also turning Eleanor into a symbol of kindness, innocence, devotion, modesty and love, a simple yet unique person that stands for everything The Pride of the Yankees wants to portray – a task that was actually right in Teresa Wright’s comfort zone since charm and grace always came very easily to her and few other performers were able to be so instantly likeable and delightful, combining an idea of traditional womanhood with the sentimentality of true companionship. And so Teresa Wright was actually able to add her distinct style to the role and fill it with her appealing personality and furthermore managed to make the role of Eleanor an equal part of the central relationship even if she never became an equal part of the overall story – the part never allowed her to go beyond a graceful but ultimately empty sweetness and even if she filled Eleanor with a charming personality, she was nonetheless unable to also fill her with a life of her own, mainly because the script and the structure of the movie prevented her from doing so but also because Teresa Wright was an actress who used her acting style always in the context of her scenes, staying closely to the guidelines of the script to portray the demanded emotions and thoughts but rarely going beneath these ideas unless the script actively asked her to do so. Her sweet-natured innocence, charm, grace and lovely spontaneity helped her to craft memorable characters throughout her entire career and she always expressed an appealing comfortableness and relaxedness in her roles but Teresa Wright also often tended to appear too one-dimensional in the way she approached these roles – her work might have always been lovely and captivating and her poise could very often cover any emptiness that might have harmed her characters but her distinct style could also feel too inoffensive and sometimes downright unimaginative and repetitive. Overall, her strengths as an actress, her ability to craft a certain depth and feeling of unfulfilled hopes was always best visible if the writing used her screen personality in a way that supported her acting style and constantly demanded of her to take a more active approach in her own characterization. Because of this, Teresa Wright’s work in The Little Foxes and especially Mrs. Miniver felt much more exciting, accomplished and noteworthy than The Pride of the Yankees – all three roles might not differ in their overall weight and importance to the plot but both Mrs. Miniver and The Little Foxes offered her characters that went through an important change in their lives and were allowed to develop and grow as the story went on, clearly guiding Teresa Wright and letting her use her screen presence to their own advantage. Her Alexandra benefitted from Teresa Wright’s ability to mix youthfulness with thoughtfulness and therefore showed a believable transformation as she distanced herself from her own mother, recognizing her dangerous and scrupulous character during the run of the story until she found the courage and strength to leave her forever and Carol allowed her to take an active part in the relationship with Vin, taking charge whenever necessary and balancing his idealism with her more pragmatic view of life, and she also offered her the possibility to become a symbol for the suffering ‘war bride’, the young woman who married the love of her life before he had to go and fight for his country. In this role, she was able to clearly demonstrate how her feelings for Vin changed during the first half of the story and how her sweet and charming poise later changed not only him, too, but also formed and shaped their whole relationship. Here, the screenplay gave her a part that was not only suited for her personality but also actually improved it as the writing enabled her to go beyond her own surface and find more depth and dimensions in the character she was playing. As mentioned above, The Pride of the Yankees unfortunately offered her less and didn’t ask her to go beyond her charming personality but actively rested on this personality for the sake of letting Eleanor appear as innocent, harmless, devoted but ultimately one-dimensional as possible. All of this already indicates that Teresa Wright’s tasks in The Pride of the Yankees circled less around the question what she had to do but rather how she would realize the little that was asked of her. But since Eleanor so completely depended on what she did best – being charming and lovely without feeling forced – it must also be said that Teresa Wright’s performance, as limited as it might be, still succeeded inside those limits.

So, even if the part of Eleanor did never ask more of Teresa Wright than to fill it with her own personal style, she still managed to give the relationship a much-needed plausibility – but even more than that, she gave it importance and showed that, even if Lou Gehrig’s life is always about his profession, Eleanor is the one who truly influences and shapes his own personality and experiences for the better. And even if the script very quickly assigns Eleanor to the role of the supportive wife, it still allowed Teresa Wright a surprisingly absorbing entrance which she realized with a refreshing and unconventional tone. When Lou slips and falls down while he enters the playing field during a baseball game, Eleanor, who is among the viewers, decides to have a little fun and calls him ‘Tanglefoot’, a joke that angers Lou and leads to mockery from the audience, much more than Eleanor obviously expected. It could have been an unlikable entrance but Teresa Wright’s charm and immediate gentleness helped to make her character strangely approachable – in this one moment, Eleanor suddenly added a much-needed appealing quality to the movie that it had missed so far and her little, triumphant look at Lou or her way of seeing the whole situation with a healthy sense of humor demonstrates that Teresa Wright’s Eleanor could have been a wonderfully fascinating character if the movie had shown any true interest in her. In these first scenes, Teresa Wright let Eleanor appear like an independent and truly unique creation, a woman that would deserve a chance to fully develop and become her own person and she has never used her own personality more effectively to portray a thoughtfulness beyond the written words of the script. But this delightful presentation of a an unknown woman who gets familiar very quickly is unfortunately never allowed to expand during the rest of the story: a next scene that shows Eleanor again gives Teresa Wright one more chance to create a charming and relaxed personality who feels very much at home around all these baseball players and knows more about the game than people might think and she also finds one last moment of anger, after having been tripped up by Lou as a revenge for her little joke – but after this moment, suddenly all of her independence and almost all of her own life suddenly seem to escape from Eleanor as Teresa Wright replaces this independence and fascination with her usual charm and sweetness as the fairytale romance begins and Eleanor becomes less defined by her own character but rather by her relationship to Lou Gehrig – as mentioned before, bringing Eleanor to live with poise and grace while making her instantly likeable serves the character well in the context of the story, mainly because any added complexity or depth would most likely only have thrown the movie off-balance since it would not have known what to do with it and Teresa Wright’s charm and personality also help to make Eleanor much more noticeable than she would have been otherwise but this still does not change the fact that her performance from this moment on is reduced to a variety of smiles and devoted looks at her husband without any life of her own. Teresa Wright fills these aspects of her performance with maturity and professionalism but she cannot overcome the feeling of repetition that is haunting her work and the limits of the character become even more noticeable due to her position as only one part of Lou Gehrig’s life which causes her to constantly being pushed into the background of the proceedings which often results in scenes of Teresa Wright listening to the games of her husband on the radio or cutting out stories about his success from the papers. Teresa Wright might never fail to do what she has to do and her personal charm and grace help her to constantly add a bright light whenever she appears on the screen, but the script is constantly working against her since it makes it both impossible and unnecessary to find any depth in her character. As mentioned above, The Little Foxes and Mrs. Miniver allowed her characters to slowly and gradually go through an important change in their lives, enabling Teresa Wright to display her talent for subtly communicating an inner shift of different emotions – but The Pride of the Yankees was neither looking for any complexity nor for any true development, demanding of Teresa Wright to become a symbol of female kindness and devotion until Gary Cooper’s final close-up. His Lou Gehrig is constantly presented as a hard-working, good-hearted, honest and simple man who makes his way to the top but never changes his nature – he always remains the same loving, kind and gentle role-model he was at the beginning. And since Eleanor is the perfect addition to this perfect life, the perfect American woman who does her best to turn their relationship into a true storybook-marriage, Teresa Wright had basically nowhere to go with her role – everything is already as perfect as it is. Lou is perfect, Eleanor is perfect and their marriage is perfect, too. Their relationship exists only of happy or tragic times with no variation in between – tension between Lou and Eleanor never arises once they discover their love for each other and the biggest problem that Eleanor has to face before her husband’s fatal illness is the wallpaper that her mother-in-law chooses for her new bedroom. It’s an undoubtedly limited array of emotions that Teresa Wright is asked to express but she also finds some missteps in her work herself, too, especially in her inability to bring the needed humor to a scene when Eleanor pretends that her husband might be having an affair when he is actually playing baseball with a couple of children or when she later teases Lou's parents about his future as a baseball player. But these are nonetheless rather rare moments of failure from Teresa Wright’s side – for most of her on-screen time, she does her best to present Eleanor as a woman who actively seeks the passiveness of her own personality and therefore successfully establishes the marriage between herself and Lou as the most important aspect of her life. But even if the love between Eleanor and Lou is the movie’s most central human relationship, it unfortunately never turns into the kind of special love that the story is so keen to present – which is unfortunately caused by the lack of chemistry between the two leading actors, even if Gary Cooper is more to be blamed for this. Teresa Wright does her best to craft a strong relationship based on both love and friendship and wins her strength from her ability to let Eleanor not be completely swept off her feet but actually realize the sentiment of her own feelings and being aware of them. But the two actors still did not truly fit together, mainly because Gary Cooper always seemed to be most comfortable with actresses who either possessed a stronger personality than his own or who would take the lead in their relationship – but while Teresa Wright does manage to shape the tone of the love between Lou and Eleanor, the script never allows her to be the more decisive part in this marriage, always keeping her a reacting character who waits for Lou to set the tempo and the tone. Ultimately, Teresa Wright’s sweetness might be charming but it is not always satisfying and she also constantly retreats from the movie by choice to let Gary Cooper shine and by force since the screenplay drops her far too often, preventing her from meeting the demands for the perfect co-star for Gary Cooper.


So, even if the part of Eleanor did not allow Teresa Wright any artistic stretches, she was still able to add a warm and welcome presence to the proceedings. Taken by itself, her performance may not not truly satisfy but she still manages to craft Eleanor as a lovely, lively, intelligent and appealing young woman in the context of The Pride of the Yankees, And she finally got a chance to show more than just a beaming smile during her final scenes and actively crafted some of the movie’s most poignant moments. Her breakdown at the doctor’s office in which she promises that she will never let Lou know that she is aware of his fatal illness is a quietly done but still very effective display of human tragedy and later Teresa Wright delivers a classic ‘smile through tears’ scene, hiding Eleanor’s grief behind a masque of laughter and cheerfulness even if her display of those contrasting emotions sometimes feels a bit too obvious and forced. But her final moments on the screen certainly belong to the most unforgettable work of her career, remaining behind, letting Lou enter the spotlight on his own, underlining her role as the supportive wife in the background but crafting a haunting moment with her lonely close-ups, portraying love, grief, pride, misery and happiness in a single moment. So, to sum it up, there is no denying that Teresa Wright is an actress who can be beautifully natural in her parts and always feels completely comfortable in her roles – but she also tended to limit her own possibilities whenever a screenplay did not show her how to add depth and layers to her character. And in The Pride of the Yankees, the limitations of the character only added to the overall one-dimensionality of her performance. Overall, Teresa Wright’s approach to the part is charming and lovely but it is neither truly impressive nor challenging. Still, she created some of the movie’s most memorable moments and always adds a welcome change of pace whenever she appears. An appealing performance of a weak role.


4 comments:

joe burns said...

I think your ranking will be;

1. Davis

2. Hepburn

3. Garson

4. Wright

5. Russel

Sage Slowdive said...

I thought her charming presence was much more effective with Carol, and she also got to do alot with her. Here, she's just "the wife" and never pans out.

Again, that's just me :)

Louis Morgan said...

I liked the movie well enough, as just an old fashioned bio picture. The ending scenes were particularly effective.

dinasztie said...

I have a feeling that Hepburn's gonna be your pick. But who knows? :-) Anyway I'm rooting for Bette, she's my pick.