Friday, November 7, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE HEIRESS (1949)

Olivia de Havilland won her second Oscar for Best Actress for The Heiress (1949), William Wyler's dramatic adaptation of the Henry James novel, Washington Square. The awkward, naive protagonist de Havilland plays is a far cry from the unshakably sweet Melanie Wilkes, the role for which de Havilland is best known, but Catherine Sloper is a far more complicated and dynamic character, which gives de Havilland the opportunity to prove that she is every bit as talented an actress as any leading lady of her era. Romantics and sentimental types beware: The Heiress offers no salve for wounded hearts except the cold, cruel comfort of revenge, which de Havilland's heroine metes out to the men in her life with all the fury of a woman scorned. Despite its decidedly cynical perspective on love, The Heiress is a winner for classic film fans, with excellent performances from Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins, and Montgomery Clift, as well as Oscar-winning work from Edith Head and Aaron Copland.

The heiress of the title is de Havilland's character, Catherine, a shy, simple girl who falls woefully short of her father's expectations in a daughter. Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) constantly compares Catherine to his beautiful, accomplished wife, who died in childbirth; to Catherine he is cool and condescending, but to others he more openly complains of her faults and his own disappointment. When the penniless but handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) courts the lovestruck Catherine, Dr. Sloper assumes that he only wants her money and tries to break the match, but his heartless tactics have unintended consequences. His widowed sister, Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins), encourages the young couple, but even she underestimates the extent of Catherine's resentment against those who have conspired to break her heart.

Catherine's climactic disillusionment gives de Havilland very different emotional states to play in the first and second halves of the film. When we first meet Catherine, she is not exactly plain, for de Havilland's natural beauty shines through no matter what, but she is very shy and introverted, never sure what to do with her hands or where to look during a conversation. She always leans away from the person who addresses her, shrinking with self-consciousness, but she can be clever when she speaks to her aunt, and if she is awkward it is partly because she possesses keen feelings that are easily overwhelmed. Catherine feels happiest when left alone with her embroidery, but as a young woman of the nineteenth century she is expected to be decorative, graceful, and, above all, marriageable. Dr. Sloper and Morris both make assumptions about her because of her perceived vulnerability, but cold iron waits beneath the softness that they manage to tear away. The moment of transformation is marked; everything about Catherine changes forever, even her voice, which drops from a tremulous whisper to a clear, hard snarl. In the later Catherine de Havilland gives us a fierce, sharp-edged fury of great beauty and burning eyes, feeding a bonfire of resentment beneath a calm exterior. She is absolutely terrifying, especially in the final scenes, when Morris returns after many years of separation.

The supporting players lend their characters subtlety and nuance that keep us from easily guessing their motives or their true natures. Miriam Hopkins is the most transparent and sympathetic as Aunt Lavinia, who enjoys life and the prospect of young love enough to hope for the best for Catherine, even if she also suspects that Morris is chiefly attracted to the girl's fortune. Ralph Richardson's Dr. Sloper, a bit devilish in his neat goatee, might actually love his daughter in some capacity but doesn't realize how deeply he wounds her until he has gone too far. He is certainly a selfish, insensitive father, who describes his only child as "an entirely mediocre and defenseless creature without a shred of poise." He never realizes how important Catherine's love for him is until he loses it forever. Montgomery Clift gives the most inscrutable performance as Morris; we never know how he really feels about Catherine. He, too, might love her, as he perpetually claims, even if he sees her wealth as necessary for his own comfort. His face never betrays him, but he does demonstrate quite a taste for the finer things in life, as well as a complete inability to work for them himself. Because the audience never knows for sure, we never know if Catherine's wrath is warranted. Is the ending terrible justice, or is it only tragedy?

The Heiress earned eight Oscar nominations in all, including a nod for Best Picture, with four wins. For de Havilland's other Oscar-nominated performances, see Gone with the Wind (1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), To Each His Own (1946), and The Snake Pit (1948). William Wyler also directed Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Ben-Hur (1959). See more of the handsome, tragic Montgomery Clift in Red River (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951), and From Here to Eternity (1953). You'll find Ralph Richardson in The Four Feathers (1939), Anna Karenina (1948), and Richard III (1955). Miriam Hopkins takes leading roles in earlier films like The Story of Temple Drake (1933), Becky Sharp (1935), and The Old Maid (1939). For the sake of comparison, you might try the 1997 version of Washington Square, which stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as Catherine and Albert Finney as her father, but the most famous adaptation of a Henry James story is certainly the 1961 horror classic, The Innocents.

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