Weekend Watch: The Heiress

Lucy Scholes

Lucy Scholes recommends William Wyler's 1949 film that never gets old

09 November 2018 16:28

William Wyler’s 1949 film The Heiress, starring Olivia de Havilland in the titular role, continues to delight me no matter how many times I watch it. It was written by Ruth and Augustus Groetz, adapted from their 1947 stage play of the same title, which itself was based on Henry James’ famous 1880 novel Washington Square. It was de Havilland who set production for the film in motion. She was so taken with the play after she saw it on Broadway, she called up Wyler in Hollywood and told him to come to New York to see what she already knew would be the perfect role for her, that of Catherine Sloper, a naïve but extremely wealthy young woman whose only chance for romantic love is thwarted by her overbearing father. Wyler flew to New York, watched the play and agreed with de Havilland. Together they persuaded Paramount Pictures to purchase the rights and to hire the Groetzs to pen the screenplay. The rest is celluloid history, The Heiress was a commercial and critical success, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, of which it won four: Art Direction-Set Direction, Black and White; Costume Design; Original Score; and most impressive of all, Best Actress for de Havilland.

The fact that much of the action takes place between the four walls of one of Washington Square’s elegant townhouses – the home of Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) and his daughter Catherine – maintains the essence of the original stage play, as does the relatively small central cast that holds the story together, but no corners were cut when it came to production. First and foremost, The Heiress is a sumptuous period drama, set amongst the upper echelons of 1840s New York society, and John Meehan’s art direction, Harry Horner’s production design and Emile Kuri’s set design are all extremely worthy of the Academy’s praise, as are Edith Head’s costumes. That said, it’s the magnificent performances of the three main actors that elevates the film to something more than just opulent historical enactment: Richardson’s ramrod-straight patriarch, all suspicion and mercilessness; Montgomery Clift’s eager, puppy-like Morris Townsend, the young man who pursues Catherine, and with whom she falls in love, despite her father’s insistence that he’s nothing but a heartless fortune hunter; and de Havilland’s Catherine, who in the course of the film goes from wide-eyed, clumsy ingénue to a steely-eyed spinster who serves out her revenge icy cold.

'The Heiress' (William Wyler, 1949)

The story is a simple one; the sweet but graceless Catherine is as surprised as anyone when dashing Morris Townsend decides to court her. Slowly, she lets her guard down, falling in love with him. However, rather than rooting for his daughter’s happiness, Catherine’s physician father is convinced that Morris is only after his daughter’s money, and thus does all he can to scupper the lovebirds’ plans. In both James’ original novel and the stage play, for all his apparent unkindness, Dr. Sloper’s misgivings are proved correct, but one of the delights of the film is that Morris’s real intentions are much more opaque. Painting Clift – a familiar romantic lead – as a villain was not something the studio could get behind, but rather than coming across like a compromise, this ambiguity is one of the films great strengths. Morris is upfront about the fact that he has no money, and that he’s been what some might consider feckless with what little he did have. That which angers Dr. Sloper only endears Morris all the more to both Catherine and to the audience. It’s clear that Catherine’s fortune is a powerful aphrodisiac, but we’re never quite convinced it’s the only thing in her favour. Morris also seems genuinely enamoured with her. And even if he isn’t, she’s fallen for him, and as Catherine’s aunt points out to her cold-hearted brother, why not grant the girl her happiness, what does it matter if Morris also wants her money?

De Havilland’s Catherine Sloper is masterful; surely everything she promised Wyler and then some. She’s at the very height of her career, the Oscar she takes home for Best Actress tops a decade of powerhouse performances: Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) earns her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress; Hold Back the Dawn (Mitchell Leisen, 1941) another for Best Actress; she wins her first Oscar for To Each His Own (Mitchell Leisen, 1946); and The Snake Pit (Anatole Litvak, 1948) earns her a further Best Actress nomination. Think of Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2003), or Charlize Theron playing the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003), de Havilland’s striking performance in The Heiress belongs to the same category of transformative embodiment. Without the aid of modern prosthetics, de Havilland undergoes a series of impressive physical metamorphoses. Firstly, she’s transformed from recognisable beauty into the mousy Catherine. Her voice is timid; her hands twitch nervously. When they’re not submissively downcast, her eyes are large with awkwardness or fright. In the early scenes between her and Clift, she’s always trying to edge as far away from him as possible, contorting herself into a series of increasingly uncomfortable postures in order to escape his attentions. But then we watch transfixed as Catherine herself is transformed. First, there’s the way in which she softens as she falls in love, her growing confidence matched by an increased command over the space she inhabits. Then there’s the rigidness and coldness that comes from disappointment, the revelation of some damning home truths, and her eventual heartbreak. For readers who haven’t seen the film, I don’t want to spoil it; all I will say is that the chilling final scene ranks amongst the most powerful dénouements of the silver screen.