Olivia de Havilland, who you might know as Melanie from Gone with the Wind, recently celebrated her 100th birthday. The occasion reminded me of a movie I saw a few years back at The TCM Classic Film Festival – William Wyler’s 1949 classic The Heiress.
Turner Classic Movies, celebrating Olivia as their star of the month this July, had the film on their digital counterpart, available to stream. I expected to be able to get other things done while the movie was on, but that proved impossible. I was too caught up in the drama and the emotions.
If you’re unfamiliar with the film, The Heiress follows Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), a young, introverted heiress lacking proper social skills by 19th century societal standards. At a party, she meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), a poor, but handsome man who woos Catherine with great tenacity. Catherine falls for him easily, having not been paid attention to very often, if at all. Catherine’s father (Ralph Richardson) disapproves of the union because he believes Morris’s intentions dishonorable. Simply put, her father believes Morris only wants her for her money. Catherine wishes to give up her inheritance if it means Morris and her can be together. So I don’t ruin its ending, let’s just say, drama ensues!
A little background on the film itself – the film was adapted from a stage play which was adapted from a Henry James novel called Washington Square. De Havilland saw the play and knew she had to play Catherine in a film adaptation. She approached director William Wyler and then sought the film rights.
Clift was originally not wanted for the role of Morris as it was thought that he would appear too modern to be a 19th century gentleman. Clift and de Havilland apparently didn’t see eye to eye on their acting techniques either. Clift believed Olivia came to set knowing her lines and nothing else. He believed she put everything into the direction she was given which he didn’t believe to be “real acting.” Olivia respected Clift, but thought that everything he did acting-wise was for himself. Still, she said it helped her give the best possible performance as Catherine is supposed to feel isolated.
I remember seeing this film at the festival at the end of a very long day. I was ready for bed and honestly thought I might fall asleep in it. As it turned out though, the film was so mesmerizing I was overcome by a second wind. Much of that was due to Olivia’s performance – she was so incredibly understated and nuanced. A less talented actress could have made Catherine seem wooden or boring. Olivia makes you feel for her – you can see the thoughts behind her expressive face. The scenes between Clift and De Havilland at the party are some of my favorites because they so remind me of how I feel at parties.
Taking place in the late 19th century, it’s fascinating to examine the gender roles. This film almost feels like the anti-Pride and Prejudice. In Pride and Prejudice, you have a poor, but intelligent woman rejecting the concept of marriage without love, even if it means security. Whereas, in The Heiress, you have a wealthy, but naive girl rejecting the idea of a life without love, even if the person doesn’t necessarily want her for her.
The most gut-wrenching bit of the film for me is when Catherine’s father and aunt tell her they believe Morris only wants her for her money. Moreover, her father tells her she has nothing else that anyone could love her for. I was so angry on Catherine’s behalf. Just because a girl is introverted and slightly awkward and can’t play the piano, she’s not worthy of love? Absolutely ridiculous! But the idea that the two people Catherine is closest to see her as nothing is emotionally terrifying. It made me think about how much of our sense of self is built on the validation of the people around us.
The film is absolutely beautiful – the cinematography, the music, the costumes. However, at its core, the film is a classic because it is still relevant. It questions societal norms, especially in regards to an unmarried woman. Olivia’s performance is stunning and by the end, unsettling. She won her second Academy Award for the role. Her speech captures her essence – it doesn’t seem that Gone with the Wind‘s ‘Melanie’ is far from who the real Olivia is.
Also, small BTS story – When Catherine climbs the stairs, dejected in the second half of the movie, Wyler began to get frustrated. Olivia, who was known for her professionalism, ended up throwing the suitcase she had been carrying at Wyler. Wyler, seeing it was empty, told the crew to fill it up so that when she walked up the stairs, she’d feel the full weight of Catherine’s despair. And I’ve got to say, it kind of worked!
The film was apparently going to be remade in 1993 by Director Mike Nichols and Tom Cruise. However, after screening the film, they didn’t believe it could be improved upon. A remake was finally made in 1997 with Jennifer Jason Leigh, though, of course, it didn’t surpass the success and critical acclaim of the original.
The vintage trailer for The Heiress is below.
WARNING: do not plan to get anything done while watching this film. IT WON’T HAPPEN.