"I WAS terribly lucky," says veteran actress Teresa Wright, 64, with typical understatement. "My first four movie roles were in films that are still quite memorable." Those first three parts -- in "The Little Foxes," "The Pride of the Yankees" and "Mrs. Miniver" -- won the young actress three Academy Award nominations. "Here I was, this little girl just out of high school in New Jersey. I was a little numbed by the whole thing." For her work in "Mrs. Miniver," Wright walked off with the 1942 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Wright was in Manhattan recently for a party at Elaine's to open a two-week retrospective of Samuel Goldwyn's films. The party attracted several survivors from Goldwyn's constellation, including Danny Kaye, Claire Trevor, Farley Granger and Joan Bennett. "It was so much fun for me," Wright says. "I had no idea so many people would be there from the old days."
At the start of her career, Wright played ingenue roles, but quickly gained a reputation as a serious, thoughtful actress. Screen success came without the help of the Hollywood publicity parade. In fact, Wright strenuously avoided publicity tours and refused to be stereotyped as a "sweater girl," which led to her dismissal by Goldwyn.
"When I went out to Hollywood, it was still the thing to pose you in a bathing suit or in some contrived costume for the holidays. The publicity departments did want to pigeonhole you then. That was how they got your name in the paper. I really wanted only to act.
"I always told people exactly how old I was. And the older actresses would always say to me, horrified: 'Don't do that!' There were so many musts in those days, like, never appear in public without being well-dressed, white gloves, hair perfect . . . Thank goodness things have changed. I never could seem to get it right, and I still can't to this day."
Wright managed to create publicity for herself by defying Goldwyn, but with mixed results. "That was when I made my 'big statement,' saying actresses are treated like cattle or some such. It did make a big splash at the time and Goldwyn fired me. But over the years we reconciled and I worked with him again.
"Goldwyn wanted to be a part of everything," Wright remembers. "If it was a film he produced, he would be talking to the hair department about your hair, and to the makeup and wardrobe departments . . . He tried to have his finger in everything. If he could have played all the parts and done it himself, he would have. In a way, he should have been an author -- taken a creative idea and gone with it all the way to the end, alone."
There is a difference in the roles written for women today, Wright says. "It depends on the time. Back then, people wanted fairy tale stories. Now they seem to want honesty and realism. There were cycles when the pictures revolved around the strong women, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. And then came the time for the strong men. I didn't get to play any of the strong women, but I've been happy with my roles. I would have hated it if I had to play a simpering little wifey."
Wright temporarily retired from the movies in 1959 to marry playwright Robert Anderson, then returned to Broadway in "Mary, Mary" and a string of character roles in movies in the '60s. Before landing the plum role of the pragmatic Cora in Broadway's recent "Morning's at Seven," Wright did a few TV-movies, "including one I loved very much, Ring Lardner's 'Golden Honeymoon' for American Short Story which airs tomorrow on Channel 26 at 10 p.m. . I play a 73-year-old woman. Now I get a lot of roles like that. Enough time elapses, and I'll be playing my own age."
Since "Morning's at Seven" closed in April," Wright has been taking a breather, but says she has no intention of slowing down or retiring. "I'm reading scripts right now, and waiting to go back to work. I think I'm better off working. I have too many interests and I'm apt to concentrate more," she says. "And I always love the rehearsal period for a new show."