The Heiress

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Drama;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins.

Leaving aside Marie Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc — a performance as unique as the film it serves — I can’t think of another actress showcase that gets to me more than Olivia de Havilland’s in 1949’s The Heiress, as long as we (getting down to basics) leave the schoolboy crushes of a 72-year-old male out of rival considerations.

Adapted from the 1947 Ruth and Augustus Goetz play whose springboard was Henry James’s source novel Washington Square, my favorite William Wyler film after The Best Years of Our Lives (with something like a dozen close runners-up) allows de Havilland to undergo a subtly eerie transformation before our very eyes in a spellbinding example of refined worm-turning.

Actually, she undergoes a transformation as well in To Each Her Own, which three years earlier had earned de Havilland her first of two deserved Oscars for an underseen grade-A soaper that may be the best movie Mitchell Leisen ever directed (it’s less arguably the best drama, though Hold Back the Dawn would get some votes). TEHO, however, takes place over a full generation, so the actress’s transformation from rural American beauty to crusty Londoner conveys the normal aging process. In The Heiress (Oscar No. 2 — and with The Snake Pit coming in the middle, talk about a run), the metamorphosis is more attitudinal. We can’t imagine the Catherine Sloper character seen early in the film displaying a cruel streak. Later, she does — because, as she says, she’s been “taught by experts” (a brutally delivered line of dialogue).

Ralph Richardson is de Havilland’s acting equal here as Catherine’s doctor father, a widower who has never forgiven her for being plain and socially maladroit when his idealized late wife was anything but. The two reside in the Washington Square neighborhood with the doctor’s sister (Miriam Hopkins) an often extended houseguest in a world of polite society, which is something to think about the next time you see somebody strumming a guitar adjacent to that neighborhood Arch down NYU way. The latter — and it’s a good role for Hopkins — is a not unsavvy flibbertigibbet, which, when combined with a romantic streak, makes her prone to cheerlead a courtship by the young Montgomery Clift’s Morris Townsend, whose dashing good looks and world travels camouflage the fact that he’s also something of a bounder.

Not taken in, though, is the doctor himself, who thinks he knows a fortune-hunter when he sees one — though Clift is such an appealing presence that the movie is probably more effective than its antecedents (I’ve read James’s wonderful novel, but it was many years ago) in making us entertain the possibility that he’s sincere in his affections. This is a tough sell for Dr. Sloper because his daughter’s social graces are so (sympathetically) clunky he just can’t bring himself to love her. There’s only so much that even a Wyler can do to turn an actress as beautiful as de Havilland into someone plain. But the character’s inability to make conversation or even to put a drink down before she steps onto the dance floor — usually with some aged poster child for gout — provide all the winces that any viewer needs.

At this point, we’re veering close to spoiler territory, so let’s see how Wyler dressed his movie up. Well, there was the Oscar win for scoring by Aaron Copland himself (no Vic Mizzy he); another for the costumes by Edith Head (subject of a featurette in the Criterion bonus section); and another for production designer Harry Horner. Though he didn’t always get the productions he deserved (stop directing the whack-job-ish camp fest Red Planet Mars — you don’t have to go much further in gauging Horner’s talent than to note that the challenger to The Heiress as his career achievement is the design he did on that incredible arena and dance floor in Sydney Pollack’s film of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (I also like the way he set up the spatial relationship between the restaurant seating and the principal actors in Separate Tables, a movie I still think is better than its now diminished critical reputation would indicate).

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The Criterion essay is by Brit critic and historian Pamela Hutchinson, who’s also known as an expert on G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (now, there’s a contrast for the ages when it comes to female protagonists). She hits all the key points, and there are many to hit dating back to James — though one of the most interesting is how de Havilland initiated the project and hand-picked Wyler probably knowing what was going to be in store: take after take and (in one case) walking up steep stairs 30 or so times with a suitcase until she looked exhausted enough to convey Catherine’s defeat. But as noted earlier, the worm eventually turns here, and I have to think this is a movie any feminist will love.

Quite the brainstorm here was the decision to put the wonderful film essayist Farran Smith Nehme with Jay Cocks, who was not only Time’s film critic when the magazine was still in its prime but the screenwriter for Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, which I love as much as The Heiress. I wish Criterion did more of these back-and-forth pairings as supplements because at least the ones I’ve seen have always worked. There’s also 1981 footage of Richardson that was shot for Catherine Wyler’s documentary on her father (the senior Wyler’s footage was completed just before his sudden death), and Sir Ralph recalls an initial clash that was soon cleared up. I wonder if his warm feelings were further influenced by Richardson’s old colleague Laurence Olivier crediting Wyler with teaching him how to act for the movies, by virtue of Wuthering Heights and the Carrie that would be Stephen Crane’s Carrie and not Brian De Palma in the girls’ locker room). The Goetz’s penned the Carrie screenplay (as they did for The Heiress), and I think it’s almost as good, sparked by what many think (myself included) is Olivier’s greatest work on screen.

We also get a two-part interview of de Havilland by Paul Ryan, in which she’s enthusiastically anecdotal — a high point being the story of how Errol Flynn once left a long dead snake wrapped up in her fresh underwear. She also joins Bette Davis (a Warner Bros. treat just by itself) on a Merv Griffin tribute to Wyler, flanked by Walter Pidgeon (lighting cigarettes galore and tossing in what-me-worry-ish asides) and The Collector’s Samantha Eggar. That gorgeous redhead’s verbal contribution isn’t included in the excerpt, though unambiguously conveyed as same universal language in her looks that goosed me into seeing that movie three or four times during its original release. It’s good to see Eggar sharing a hug-ish greeting with Wyler when he makes his entrance because there was real tension on the set of what was inherently a difficult project.

Finally, there’s Wyler’s relatively brief (maybe five minutes) acceptance speech getting the AFI Life Achievement Award back when that meant a lot more than today. It’s very funny, though obscures the fact that were massive technical problems during the taping, necessitating reshoots that I seem to recall lasted for hours. Talk about a primer in irony, given Wyler’s five-decade rep as master craftsman second to none. Case in point: I think I may be more impressed by his 12 nominations than the three Oscar wins — and that was with no best director nomination for Funny Girl, which would have happened more years than not back then).

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heiress’ and ‘This Gun for Hire’

One thought on “The Heiress”

  1. “I have been taught by masters” is the classic line. This is my favorite Wyler, just about my favorite drama, and certainly the best De Havilland IMO. Also, I think Wyler worked hard with Clift to deliberately keep Morris Townsend’s motives unclear (for example, look at he way Clift is shot when he checks out the Sloper house), resulting in lending the film a fascinating ambiguous tone while providing one of Clift’s top performances during a great run for him from 1948-53. However, I once saw the film with a huge audience during a tribute to De Havilland in L.A. wherein the lady herself appeared to discuss the film, and the audience actually hissed Morris’ upon his return to Catherine, so they weren’t buying his actions as anything but nefarious.

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