Saturday, November 19, 2016

Best years, given or given up

I was browsing a biography of Teresa Wright in the library, looking first at the pages about Shadow of a Doubt (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1943) and The Best Years of Our Lives (dir. William Wyler, 1946). And my confidence in the writer began to drop. Here is his discussion of the title of Wyler’s film:

“The best years” cannot refer to the time of the war, nor to what preceded it — that would be too cynical and would reduce the significance of the heroic exploits of these men. Nor can the title refer to what is in the future — that would be hypothetical and, from a narrative standpoint, a cheat. Nor can the best years indicate what we see in the present, which is obviously a time of disillusionment and disappointment.

The title makes sense only if we understand it not literally but ironically. That is certainly the impact of the only moment in the picture when the phrase is spoken: when the character played by Virginia Mayo complains loudly to her husband (Dana Andrews), ”I’ve given you the best years of my life!" In fact, she’s given him nothing of the kind: she married him less than three weeks before he went off to war, and he has returned to find her frivolous, avaricious and adulterous.

Donald Spoto, A Girl’s Got to Breathe: The Life of Teresa Wright (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016).
But that’s not what “the character played by Virginia Mayo,” otherwise known as Marie Derry, says to husband Fred. What she does say:
“I’ve given you every chance to make something of yourself. I gave up my own job when you asked me. I gave up the best years of my life! And what have you done? You've flopped.”
Selfish Marie doesn’t claim to have given Fred anything — except chances. But she has given up , given up what belonged to her — the time that has been lost to war, time that can never be regained. In an earlier scene, when Marie speaks of being “right back where [we] started,” “just as if nothing had ever happened,” Fred tells her, “We can never be back there. We never want to be back there.”

I suspect that the title of Wyler’s film lurks behind a passage in Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 translation of the Odyssey . In book 23, Penelope speaks to Odysseus of their twenty years apart:
what difficulty the gods gave: they denied
life together in our prime and flowering
kept us from crossing into age together.”
“Our prime and flowering years” — or the best years of our lives.

[Fitzgerald served in the U.S. Navy in the Second War. He writes about that in the postscript to his translation of the Aeneid .]

comments: 4

Pete said...

I haven't seen the film since high school, but as I remember it seems the title refers, somewhat perversely, to the husband's war years. Those years of combat, while horrific, were full of meaning and purpose for him - unlike the quiet and empty years after the war.

Michael Leddy said...

My guess is that if you watch now, you’ll see Fred differently. See what you think.

Unknown said...

I'm guessing we shouldn't expect any better from Spoto, whose principal contribution to the literature of film was inventing the pathography with his takedown monograph on Alfred Hitchcock. This, curiously, after an earlier, very good overview of that director's work. Now, Spoto seems content to function as film scholarship's answer to Geraldo Rivera.

Michael Leddy said...

I didn’t realize that for more informed readers his reputation precedes him. He was close to Teresa Wright, and her family was involved in this biography — a case of misplaced confidence?