Guideposts Classics: Jane Wyman on Looking Outward

Guideposts Classics: Jane Wyman on Looking Outward

In this story from June 1964, Oscar-winning actress Jane Wyman recalls the priest who helped her overcome shyness and focus on God and other people.

Actress Jane Wyman

How annoyed I get today when I hear someone teased for being shy! “Come on!” they shout, dragging him into a crowded room. “Don’t be shy!” As though not being shy were a matter of will power. Or, “You’re just shy!” as though that were the most minor of problems.

Shyness is not a small problem: it can cripple the whole personality. It crippled mine, for many years.

As a child my only solution to the problem of shyness was to hide, to make myself as small and insignificant as possible. All through grade school I was a well-mannered little shadow who never spoke above a whisper. In ballet class I haunted the corners of the room, hoping the dancing master would not see me.

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The very thought of performing in front of someone made me wilt with fear, quite literally.

The saddest part of it was that I idolized Dad Prinz, the dancing master. He was the most understanding man I had ever met and I longed to tell him so. I never did.

Then my parents left St. Joseph, Missouri, and moved to Los Angeles. And now a new and more threatening dimension had been added to life outside the big city high school walls. Dating. It seemed to me that on some prearranged signal, every boy and girl in school paired off.

Every girl, that is, except me. I don’t know whether I could have had dates or not; it simply never occurred to me to try. Hadn’t I been told many times that I was not pretty? I lugged home piles of books every night and disappeared into them.

And then the Depression came. In California it seemed to hit older people like my father especially hard. Overnight I was thrust from my safe little book-world into the world of job hunting.

In all that vast, bewildering city, I knew only one person who might give me a job: LeRoy Prinz, the famous Hollywood dance coach, Dad Prinz’ son. He gave me a tryout and discovered I had a sense of rhythm. “As long as you’ve got that,” he said, “I can teach you the rest.”

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Under LeRoy Prinz’ coaching I began to get chorus parts in the movies, those lavish, glittery, extravagant movies we loved in the hungry ‘30s.

It was work when the family badly needed the money, but for a girl who had grown up in terror of being looked at, it was also agony.

Then I made a discovery: a good shield for shyness is a bold exterior. Did my heart turn over when the man with the megaphone bellowed out my name? Were all the other dancers prettier?

Never mind. I covered up by becoming the cockiest of all, by talking the loudest, laughing the longest, and wearing the curliest, most blatantly false eyelashes in Hollywood.

And then one day a fellow chorus girl gave me a piece of advice:

“Jane, you’d improve your looks about a thousand percent if you’d peel off those trimmings and wash your face.”

I was crushed. I wept. I hated her. But the next day, feeling completely bald, I showed up on the set without my disguise. We hadn’t been rehearsing half an hour before a comparative stranger stopped and stared at me.

“Gee, Jane,” he said. “You look great.”

For me it was the heavens parting. Could he have meant that I looked great? It was the first hint I had that I could be myself without the sky falling in.

But the insight went only skin deep. I shed the eyelashes, but I wasn’t about ready to shed the tough, smart little shell.

I had begun to get a few minor acting parts and they were just the kind you would expect. I was the brash blonde girl reporter rushing into the newspaper office to shout “Stop the presses!”

Then one day on the set someone else said something that shone another bit of light through the defense I’d set up.

“When I first came out to Hollywood,” he said, “I discovered there are two kinds of people here. There are the ‘closed people,’ the careful ones who don’t take risks and don’t get hurt. And there are the ‘open people,’ the ones who give life all they’ve got.

"They make mistakes, they get hurt, but they also get back a lot of joy.”

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I recognized myself right there as one of the closed people and my bright personality as the shell for a clam. I began to want very much to open the shell. I began to loathe the brassy blonde I played in the movies. Suddenly I longed to play real people, to move the hearts of real people.

Today I would call this quality of deep yearning, “prayer,” and what happened next, a small miracle. Then, I only knew that no sooner had I set my heart on changing than I was offered two roles about unmistakably real people: first in Lost Weekend and then in The Yearling .

I worked on those parts as I’d never worked before, sat up nights with my lines, studied them for hidden meanings over my meals. When those films were finished, the studio decided I was ready for the role of the deaf-mute in Johnny Belinda .

With that part came the Academy Award, and surely, I thought, surely now I will stop hiding. Surely I will feel some kind of self-esteem and confidence.

But the months passed, my Oscar collected dust on a shelf, and I made a dismal discovery. External achievements change nothing: inside I was the same tormentingly stay person I always had been.

My real self still was hiding in the shadows, sending someone else out front to greet the world. It was an exhausting way to live.

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