Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger once dated the heiress of a pickled foods media conglomerate. She smelled like vinegar, but was a hell of a conversationalist.
"Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters."—Catherine
A carefully developed character is one of the greatest joys in cinema. From mafia don Michael Corleone to weatherman Phil Connors, we love to see a character forged through strife and difficult choices. Though many films carefully explain their characters, few show us the full progression of a character, the catalysts that drive a fundamental metamorphosis in personality.
The Heiress takes great care to establish Catherine Sloper, then shows us the events that chisel away at her to leave us with an entirely different woman by the film's end. Olivia de Havilland gives her all in the portrayal, as does everyone else involved. This cements the film as a perennial classic.
Facts of the Case
Widower Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson, Dragonslayer) is a rich, successful doctor. As his sole heir, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland, To Each His Own) shoulders his every hope and criticism. Is her timid awkwardness innate, or is it a result of tiptoeing around her father and the pedestal on which he's placed her dead mother?
Fortunately, Catherine's vivacious aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins, The Chase) acts as a buffer. She takes Catherine out to an engagement ball, where Catherine meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift, Terminal Station), who has just returned from Europe. He courts her intensely, to her father's distaste. Catherine will have to choose how to navigate the tensions between the two men in her life.
Just as heiress Catherine Sloper takes time to bloom, so does The Heiress. It begins like a fairy tale you've heard before countless times, with a cruelly mistreated ugly duckling, a fancy ball, and a charming prince who swoops down to take her away from all of her pain. "How long," you might think to yourself, "before the plain Catherine Sloper morphs into the stunning Olivia de Havilland?"
At some point, a colder truth dawns. The Olivia we've come to know, the sunny, piercingly beautiful woman, will not be joining us for The Heiress. Here she is plain and awkward, so convincingly so that you soon cease to question the transformation. But at times, Catherine Sloper shows spark and wit that belie her plainness. Is it an illusion?
But the real trick is yet to come. Catherine loses her innocence, and then the ignorance that shielded her from pain. In place she gains a voice, then a backbone, and wields them both with precise, effective cruelty. Still, nowhere to be seen is the Olivia de Havilland we know and love. It is easy for a confident, attractive, fiercely independent woman like de Havilland to shoulder the limelight with grace. But to bury her looks and charisma so thoroughly, yet craft a compelling character in their stead, is a remarkable achievement that earned her a second Oscar for best actress.
Lest I give her all the glory for The Heiress, there are at least 27 other people to thank. Since we're on the subject let's start with her co-stars. Each character in this film is drawn with realism in mind. The cruel father has reasons for his cruelty; he wrestles with his tongue; tries to find another way besides dashing his daughter's naivete. He cannot escape his initial misgivings, but we see the struggle and identify with his plight. Ralph Richardson earns credit for making a one-dimensional situation multifaceted, and granting humanity to an unflattering character. His efforts earned him an Oscar nomination.
This motif continues in all of the cast. No one is entirely likable or unlikeable. Montgomery Clift is smarmy and ingratiating, yet a charming rogue at the same time. Miriam Hopkins is so subtle with Aunt Lavinia that we cannot definitively assess whether she's being cruel, supportive, or obtuse at any given moment.
At one point she witnesses Catherine's humiliation firsthand, but later seems to have forgotten it in an effusive gush of enthusiasm for Morris Townsend's return. Under the script writers's deft characterizations, such amnesia is telling. That is the second joy of The Heiress: The writing is observant and does not patronize the audience. For a 1949 film, such emotional honesty is particularly refreshing. The Heiress is based on a play by Augustus and Ruth Goetz, which is in turn based on a Henry James novel, Washington Square. The play was a successful adaptation of the novel, and the film is one of the most successful play-to-film translations I've ever seen. It is largely limited to interior sets, but does not feel claustrophobic or stagey. Human conflict and character growth is the focus, and so externals aren't as critical.
That didn't prevent the externals from making a near clean sweep at the 1950 Oscars, however. The Heiress took awards for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. Again, these Oscars are earned. Watching The Heiress, I truly felt I'd been taken back to the mid 1800s. The men are clad in tails and tophats, but not with the glossy polish of a musical. These tails and tophats have been lived in, worn daily. A loose tie or rumpled vest here and there are as suggestive as torn jeans might be in a '60s film. The women make do with dresses that can only be described as productions, wild affairs of silk and lace that fill a corridor. Costumes are nice, but the way the costumes are handled in the context of the Art Direction gives The Heiress authenticity. And let's not forget the final Oscar for Aaron Copland's score, which subtly and boldly reinforces the themes of pain, deception, and conflict. When his low notes kicked in, my stomach dropped in dreadful anticipation. Finally, Though Leo Tover did not win, his Oscar nomination for Cinematography suggests how critical were his perfect shadows and world-weary lighting; they helped sell the emotional torment of the characters.
When acting, theme, style, music, and cinematography come together so smoothly, you practically have to grant an Oscar nod to the director. Though William Wyler lost Best Director to Joseph Mankiewicz and Best Picture to All the King's Men, it is obvious that his work on The Heiress is exceptional by any standard. Academy Awards don't always stand the test of time. The Heiress is arguably as relevant and watchable now as it was in 1949.
I haven't said much about the actual plot, but the last act deserves mention. The Heiress twists many conventions of story, particularly where "the guy gets the girl" is concerned. The story has a series of climaxes, though none is particularly fulfilling. The movie continued well past the point where I thought it had anything left to say, which was underestimation on my part. I was certain the writers had backed themselves into a corner and couldn't help but rely on a cop-out that would deflate one or more of their carefully crafted characters. On the contrary, the actual ending is swift, compelling, and memorable, and does not compromise anything. Catherine's final ascent up the stairs with her phantom of a smile is chilling.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though the film doesn't feel staged, the intro by TCM host Robert Osborne does. I don't watch TCM and I'm not familiar with Robert Osborne, so fans of his may find the intro welcoming. I just wanted to watch the movie and didn't feel I'd learned anything substantive in the intro. Aside from a trailer high in historical value, the intro is the sole extra for this film that earned eight Academy Award nominations, won four Oscars, and boasts one of the screens most enduring acting performances.
Considering the careful art direction and cinematography extant in The Heiress, the transfer doesn't do it justice. It lacks detail and I noticed frequent artifacts around areas of contrast. The transfer also seems to have been awkwardly cropped, though as a full-frame film it doesn't suffer much. The transfer is not bad, but it lacks the detail and crisp contrast of comparable transfers from Warner Brothers and Fox.
It took a few minutes for me to get into the groove; once I did, The Heiress took me for a ride and did not let go. The transfer is adequate, the extras are not, but the film itself makes up for all.
The court issues a warrant for the arrest of Morris Townsend.
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• Introduction by TCM host Robert Osborne
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