on January 21, 2004
"The Heiress" is William Wyler's screen adaptation of Henry James' novella, "Washington Square." For a modern viewer trained to seek out heros and villains in any story the structure of this film might be summarized thus: The insecure and none too bright young woman played by Olivia de Havilland does eventually get it through her thick skull that her father (played by Ralph Richardson) has a deep-seated contempt for her and that her suitor (played by Montgomery Clift) is after nothing but her fortune. Newly armed with this knowledge she is able to see her father's threat to disinherit her as the bluff it is and call him on it, and to close the door on Montgomery Clift's advances. Someone inclined to see the movie this way would thrill to our heroine's triumph over the two villainous men in her life while reserving a little sadness for the fact that she's resigned herself to a life of spinsterhood.
The film is well worth watching even if you choose to read the film this way because the performances by the three principal actors are a beauty to behold (de Havilland won an Oscar for her performance) and Wyler's cinematic story telling techniques are so accomplished. For instance, watch Ralph Richardson open and close those pocket doors between rooms. It lets Wyler move seamlessly from cut to cut while appearing to maintain the flow of a long scene while at the same time suggesting Richardson's controlling nature.
But a more careful look at the Clift and de Havilland characters is what gives this film the richness and subtlety of a five star movie. In the opening minutes of the film we see a short interchange between de Havilland and a servant in the household which reveals de Havilland to have a clever sense of humor. It's her insecurity with her father and with social situations with strangers that freezes her up and makes her appear much more dimwitted than she is. Likewise, shortly after Montgomery Clift appears at a party we see the revealing crack of insecurity in his facade of charm when he fetches de Havilland a drink and momentarilly thinks he's been ditched when he returns (nicely mirroring de Havilland's experience of being ditched by an earlier party companion). So what we see when we look closely is a woman with an insecure exterior who has an inner capacity for charm that dovetails with Clift's public charm, and in Clift a man with the potential to discover and appreciate those hidden charms even though his overwhelming initial motivation is that of a male gold-digger.
It's that vulnerable charm of Clift's that makes him much more than simply a cad. And Clift's subtle portrayal of that unexpected depth and vulnerability is what's so often missed by viewers. I think Clift was the greatest actor of his generation and the upwardly striving, vulnerable charmer role is suited for him perfectly (see his more famous performance in "A Place in the Sun"). It's that possibility that this imperfect man, for all his mercenary motives, might be de Havilland's best, though slight, hope to find a soul mate that makes that locked door between them at the end of the movie as tragic as it is.
on February 23, 2003
THE HEIRESS is a surprisingly complex drama of paternal brutality, starry-eyed love, and bitter revenge. Director William Wyler adapted Henry James' short novel WASHINGTON SQUARE and during the film's nearly two hours managed to convey the collision of conflicting dreams. Each of the three major characters: Ralph Richardson as Doctor Sloper, Olivia de Havilland as his dowdy daughter Catherine Sloper, and Montgomery Clift as the mercenary Morris Townsend all dance a three-partnered minuet in which emotional ties clasp and unclasp in ways that are suggested more by gentle innuendo than by overt deed. Doctor Sloper is a uncaring brute who rules his house with vicious wit and the threat of withheld inheritance. To him, there are two kinds of men: those who have already made their mark in the world (like him) and those who have not (like Morris) but seek to obtain it deceitfully through marriage to plain but rich women (like Catherine). The more Sloper puts Catherine down with harsh barbs, the more he increases the inevitability that Catherine will someday rebel by latching onto the first glib male golddigger, thereby proving himself right all along. Sloper's problem is that his paternal tunnel vision does not allow the possibility that Catherine might be more than a one-dimensional stick figure forever doomed to spinsterhood. For Catherine, life is a gilded cage, plenty of the physical necessities, but not a whit of the emotional ones. The more she is starved for affection, the more she will reach out even to those men like Morris who are likely mercenary. One of the film's bitter ironies is that her father's oft repeated warnings about Morris's motivations might yet be valid. When Morris promises to elope with her, then abruptly changes his mind after finding out that Catherine will be disinherited, his disappearance results in one of filmdom's most tragic of underplayed scenes--that of her waiting forelornly for a doorknock that does not come. For Morris, his motivation as a gigolo is not crystal clear. He may very well be as mercenary as Doctor Sloper accuses, or he may humanely have concluded that it is better to dump Catherine at the mock alter of the Sloper door than to risk leaving her destitute.
THE HEIRESS is a movie of several memorable scenes, nearly all of which take place within the Sloper living room. When Morris fails to appear, Catherine expects a modicum of understanding from her father. Instead he delivers yet his most vicious of cutting remarks. Catherine replies that she would have married him anyway, knowing that he did not love her, if only he would have offered the illusion of warmth and human contact. The closing scene in which Catherine orders her maid 'Bolt the door, Maria,' shows that the passing of time has done more to harden her heart against a man who just may be as greedy as charged--or perhaps his earlier explanation that he wished not to impoverish her may be true. We never know his motivation, but THE HEIRESS makes clear hers. When she defends her decision to seek revenge against Morris, Catherine replies coldly, that of cruelty, 'I have been taught by masters.' The bolting of the door is the symbolic equivalent of the closing of her heart. It is no surprise that Morris's loud pounding on the Sloper door does not resonate with a heart that has learned only too well the lessons taught by Doctor Sloper.
on February 1, 2003
Olivia de Havilland gives a great performance as Catherine, a young, naive, trusting, love-hungry heiress. She meets Morris, a good-looking young fellow who seems to be enamored of her. Catherine's father doesn't believe Morris's feelings are genuine and talks Catherine into a trip to Europe to forget him. It doesn't work and they return home. Her father threatens to disinherit her if she marries Morris. Catherine basically tells him to stuff it. She'll marry who she pleases and she doesn't want anything more to do with him. Unfortunately, she told Morris she was cutting her father out of her life, and didn't want his money. Morris takes off for parts unknown leaving Catherine waiting up all night for him to wisk her off to be married.
Did Morris really love Catherine and ran away because he didn't want her to disinherit herself? Or, was he really a gold-digger out for her money? Catherine grows to hate her father after Morris runs out on her. What her father told her had come true, or seemed to. She hated him for that. And she hated Morris for validating what her father had told her.
Catherine develops a hardness. She has become wiser, but not happier. She is no longer anyone's fool. Great ending.
It's a tour de force for Olivia de Havilland as she plays Catherine Sloper, the mousey, naïve daughter of a wealthy doctor (Ralph Richardson) in 19th century New York. Catherine has grown up with her father telling her how clumsy and unattractive she is compared to her late mother, so when a dashing, though penniless, young man (Montgomery Clift) comes to call, she falls head over heels. Big mistake.
De Havilland rightly won Best Actress of 1950, for her stunning portrayal of the meek and frightened girl who, older and wiser, becomes a steely and confident woman. Everything about her changes in the transformation, from her posture to her voice, and above all, her inner bearing. She's unforgettable. Richardson is also superb as the cruel father and Clift is perfectly cast as the oily suitor.
The magnificent gowns and detailed sets capture the period beautifully and the literate script overflows with memorable lines about harm done in the name of love. This is a stunning movie that can be enjoyed again and again.
on July 1, 2002
The recent unsatisfying film adaptation of James' WASHINGTON SQUARE starring Jennifer Jason-Leigh only shows how wise William Wyler was to film the Goetz's stage version rather than retain James's original storyline. James's little novel about an Old New York heiress, Catherine Sloper caught in a tug-of-war between her heartless father and her fortune-hunting suitor (Morris Townsend) ends with a very Jamesian ending: Catherine learns to grow beyond her father's and Morris's petty battle, and in so doing shows her superiority to both of them. In adapting this novel for the stage, the Goetzes decided that such an ending (admittedly sublime on the printed page) would be hard to do onstage, and instead retain the Balzacian melodramatic air James drew upon by allowing Catherine her vengeance on father and Morris alike. The result is spellbinding. William Wyler crafted out of this melodrama one of the most hard-to-forget films of the Hollywood era, a masterful little exercise in emotional cruelty that has been championed by (among others) Martin Scorsese, who regularly lists it as one of tyhe five films that most influenced his own work.
The sets are superb, and there's a lovely film score by Aaron Copland. But what really makes the film is the acting. There are only four major performers--Olivia De Havilland as Catherine, Sir Ralph Richardson as her father, Montgomery Clift as Morris, and Miriam Hopkins as Aunt Penniman--and all four give their best performances ever here; they seem to spur one another on to better work than you'd imagine them capable of doing. De Havilland is the one who most stands out: at first, though suitably old, she seems too beautiful to be effective as Catherine. But her fine portrayal of Catherine's crippling shyness makes her unattractiveness to both Morris and Dr. Sloper exceptionally believeable. When Catherine undergoes her awful education, De Havilland very bravelly allows herself to change a great deal so that while she's still Catherine you're aware of how radically she's changed. The highlight of the entire film is Catherine's showdown with her father, when she more than outmaneuvers him and utterly devastates him: De Havilland here does some of the acting the screen has ever seen. The scene begins with De Havilland's words "Morris jilted me," which she manages to deliver with about a hundred different levels of feeling, from shame at herself to almost bemused exasperation at Morris's shallowness to fury at her father. It ends with her dramatic (and surprisingly terrifying) declaration to her broken father, "That's it , Father--you'll never know, will you?", which leaves you aware not only of how thoroughly Catherine has beaten her father but at what a cost to her own soul. I can't imagine even one of the great stage actors doing more with this scene than De Havilland does. It's the performance of a lifetime.
on May 4, 2002
This film in its acting, direction, photography, and musical score is sheer perfection. The elegant haughtiness and razor-sharp wit of Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper enrich a characterization as polished as any of those that great actor ever gave. Olivia de Havilland for her part traces a grand arc, from the timid, cowering girl whose occasional sparks of wit and independence barely peep out to the ramrod-postured, acid-tongued, triumphantly self-possessed daughter "who has found her tongue at last." William Wyler's direction here turns every frame into a work of visual art. The opening out of James' tale to include a brilliantly witty, extended party sequence is a high point in screen adaptation. The glorious camera work in such scenes as those where the heroine and her aunt, sitting like figures in Greek tragedy, wait for Morris' arrival, the closing of parlor doors in the audience's face to terminate our presence at moments of intense private grief, and the images of the dreary flights of stairs the heroine must labor up in her misfortune, to have her on a level with their landings only
in the concluding shots - these linger in the memory as moments of classic cinema. Similarly, Aaron Copeland's score creates through authentic songs and dances the appropriate 19th Century background while underlining with original composition the moments of high romantic passion and rage.
The weaknesses of the film, in my view, stem directly from the stage adaptation of the James novella which in several places vulgarizes the story unduly. The film unfortunately reproduces these changes. Namely, we see a bitter Catherine who refuses to attend her father in his dying moments, a character far less stirring than the story's still dutiful, nursing daughter who nonetheless now makes clear to her too controlling father where his influence ends and her area of personhood begins. More important is the changed ending. Not to give this away, I'll simply point out that what was in James a story of the individual's education and growth is by this alteration reduced to a mere tabloid tale of vengefulness.
Nonetheless, as a film this work remains as one of the grand achievements. There was talk several years back of remaking it with Tom Cruise as Morris and having Mike Nichols as director. These worthies viewed the Wyler film and both decided a remake was unwise as they didn't see how they could improve on it. One wishes the director of the version that was remade had had the taste and intelligence of Cruise and Nichols.
on August 20, 2001
One of the best lines in this adaptation of Henry James's novella, "Washington Square", uttered by Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) to her Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins). And the master in question is her father Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson). Olivia de Havilland won an Oscar for her portrayal of the plain, painfully shy Catherine Sloper, an heiress being courted by handsome and charming Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who may or may not be a fortune hunter. At least that's the contention of Dr. Sloper, who has a considerable fortune and a stately home on Washington Square. Dr. Sloper has everything, it seems, except compassion for his daughter, the daughter he holds to blame for his beautiful wife's childbed death. The daughter is the antithesis of the graceful woman he describes to his sisters. Things come to a head when Catherine and Morris announce their engagement, with heartbreaking results.
Oscar notwithstanding, I think Olivia de Havilland's Catherine is much better in the first half of the film, before the Great Turning Point that defines the rest of her life. After that, I found her turnabout to have little relation to the preceding characterization--I could not see this as the logical outgrowth from that personality.
Montgomery Clift is very good as the clever Morris--one really can't make up one's mind about him until the climax of the film. Miriam Hopkins does a good job as the romantically inclined Aunt Lavinia who is enjoying Morris's courtship of Catherine vicariously.
But for my money, the best performance in the whole piece is Sir Ralph Richardson's Dr. Sloper, who fairly drips with poorly concealed contempt for his inadequate daughter. When I watch this movie--and I have, several times--it is always for him. My favorite scene is one in which he doesn't even talk; it's when he has just learned of the engagement, and he sits alone in the parlor, contemplating what action to take. It shows the psychological complexity of the doctor, who is not merely a hating machine, but capable of some despair.
Don't wait for your inheritance to come through to watch "The Heiress"--make it your business to do so today.
on March 31, 2001
Olivia de Havilland gives a masterful, oscar winning performance as the wealthy spinster, Catherine, in William Wyler's well-crafted production of Henry James' celebrated novel, "Washington Square." Ralph Richardson is commanding as her stern and seemingly unfeeling father. As the only heir to the family fortune, Catherine attracts the attention of the dashing fortune hunter, Morris Townsend, convincingly played by Montgomery Clift. On learning that she plans to marry the young Morris, her father threatens to disinherit her. Learning of this, Morris deserts her on the eve of their planned elopement. Years later, Morris returns to a wiser and more calloused Catherine who is now sometimes sharp and tactless in her delivery. When asked how she can be so cruel, she answers with the movie's classic line, "I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters." Strong dramatic performances, stunning period sets and costumes, a powerful, gripping dialogue and a fitting score by Aaron Copland make this a memorable film to enjoy through the years.
on February 24, 2001
Maybe much said at all about this film should bear a SPOILER ALERT. See the movie, which is EXCELLENT first, then read my comments.
For me, the heart of the experience of viewing this film has always been understanding that you will not understand all you think you do about the characters. Comments on this film often speak of the plot in terms of Catherine's vengence, and of Morris Townsend as a simple gold digger. But I think Wyler's version is the far better of the two films of this story precisely for leaving Morris' motivation and character ambivelant. Yes, you can read it as a simple tale of comeuppance. --But you can also see it as a "mischancing of human affairs" in which everyone loses something that will destroy them in some way.
--In fact, I have always thought the title, The Heiress, refers to the real legacy, which is a hardening of her humanity, Catherine Sloper is clearly seen to have received from her father. --In the end, she takes the same misdirected pride her father seemed to in the souring of his attitude toward everything. Like him, she may or may not, by the final reel, mistake an acid tongue for a clever mind, and bitterness for wisdom. --But isn't it likely this is just another in a probable string of mistakes and blind chance spelling the end of the Sloper line? I see the end as a tragedy, moreso for Catherine than Morris.
on February 24, 2001
Maybe much said at all about this film should bear a SPOILER ALERT. See the movie, which is EXCELLENT, first, then read my comments.
For me, the heart of the experience of viewing this film has always been understanding that you will not understand all you think you do about the characters. Comments on this film often speak of the plot in terms of Catherine's vengence, and of Morris Townsend as a simple gold digger. But I think Wyler's version is the far better of the two films of this story precisely for leaving Morris' motivation and character ambivelant. Yes, you can read it as a simple tale of comeuppance. --But you can also see it as a "mischancing of human affairs" in which everyone loses something essential to them, that will destroy them in some way.
--In fact, I have always thought the title, The Heiress, refers to the real legacy, which is a hardening of her humanity, Catherine Sloper is clearly seen to have received from her father. --In the end, she takes the same misdirected egotistical pride her father seemed to in the souring of his attitude toward everything. By the final reel, she may, like him, mistake an acid tongue for wit, and cynicism for wisdom. --But isn't it likely this is just another in a string of mistakes that will spell the end the Sloper line? I think it is clear that the end is a tragedy more so for Catherine than Morris. Catherine loses her humanity and capacity for hope; Morris loses only an anticipated windfall and a bit of his no doubt resiliant self-respect in the process.