Feb. 19, 2010

The Heiress (1949)
Grade: 94/100

Director: William Wyler
Stars: Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson

What it's about. Set in a well-to-do New England neighborhood, and based on the 1880 Henry James novel. Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) is the grown daughter of wealthy Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson). Catherine is plain, shy, and naive, but also virtuous and eager to please. Sloper is a distant and diffident man who secretly holds contempt for Catherine because she lacks the alleged brilliance and beauty held by her late mother, whose memory Sloper practically worships.

Sloper nonetheless hopes to integrate Catherine into genteel society through the efforts of her Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins), a vivacious middle-aged widowed socialite.

Enter Morris (Montgomery Clift), a handsome and well-spoken man who aggressively courts Catherine. She quickly succumbs to his charm, but he fails to win over the shrewd Dr. Sloper, who is convinced that Morris is after Catherine's fortune. Morris makes plans to elope with Catherine, but Morris has second thoughts once he learns that her father plans to disinherit her.

How others will see it. The Heiress was a first class Paramount production, directed by William Wyler as the next project after his greatest film, The Best Years of Our Lives. The casting was ideal. Some believed that de Havilland, so glamorous and beautiful in her 1930s films, was miscast as the wallflower heiress. But she is older and closer to frumpy here, friendless aside from the intrusive Aunt Lavinia and obsessed with her embroidery.

Plus, it is necessary for Catherine to be moderately attractive, so that the motivation of Morris to wed her is not completely mercenary. Morris needs her money, and covets her position in society. The question is, would he be a cruel husband, or an attentive one? Wyler knows the importance of the question, and wisely refuses to resolve it. It is certainly possible that Morris would have been a good husband even though he is a wastrel.

The Heiress received eight Oscar nominations, winning four. The most important among these was Best Actress, de Havilland's second. Her first Oscar was not for Gone With the Wind, or her many films with Errol Flynn, but for To Each His Own (1946).

How I felt about it. The major theme is the transformation of Catherine's character. By the end of the movie, she is chronologically a few years older, but she's much older in terms of worldly wisdom. She no longer sees only the best in others. Now disillusioned, she instead interprets their actions suspiciously. The perpetually innocent Maria (Vanessa Brown) asks a simple favor of her, and Catherine convicts her of flattery. The prodigal Morris has no chance with her.

Catherine's character change is understandable. As she says, she has been taught by masters. The mercenary motive of Morris, and the matchmaker motive of Penniman, are also obvious. More challenging to assess is Dr. Sloper's opinion of Catherine. Because she lacks conversational skill or her mother's beauty does not make her a failure. His harsh assessment of his own daughter is at odds with his otherwise perceptive nature.