Classic Film of the Week #11: The Heiress (1949)

Once you've seen a lot of films, it becomes difficult for them to surprise you. Romantic films especially get so bogged down in cliches and tired tropes, making it a noteworthy occasion when one does break the mold. The Heiress is just such a film, the rare romance that abandons convention and does justice by its characters, even if it makes its audience unhappy or uncomfortable.

Directed by William Wyler, The Heiress features an all-star cast of Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, and Miriam Hopkins. It's the story of a painfully shy and awkward upper-class woman named Catherine Sloper (de Havilland) whose family has difficulty accepting her unusual temperament: her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Richardson), endlessly criticizes her for not being more like her late mother, while her aunt Lavinia (Hopkins) tries to get her to come out of her shell by dragging her to endless parties, where Catherine inevitably plays the part of the wallflower. But everything changes one night when, at yet another party, Catherine happens to meet Morris Townsend (Clift), who has just returned to New York from Europe. They have an instant connection, and Catherine is overjoyed to have such a handsome, intelligent man pursuing her after a lifetime of being viewed as boring or stupid by her peers. But her father is suspicious: Morris is penniless, a poor man with a rich man's taste, and Catherine is an heiress to a great fortune. He disavows Catherine's plans of marriage, but Morris swears to her that he loves her for herself, not the money; leaving Catherine to decide if he's telling the truth, and more importantly, if she even cares if he isn't.

It surprises me that The Heiress isn't more popular today, because Catherine Sloper really feels like a blueprint for all of the socially awkward young adults that have become so common in contemporary teen films--she even practices conversation topics before going out to parties in the hope that she won't get so tongue-tied! But unlike these characters, she's given no narration or 4th-wall breaking monologues to help the audience see all the wit that's hiding beneath her silent exterior. No, we get to know Catherine in the same way everyone else does, watching her stutter and grimace her way through even the most basic conversations. One notable scene has a character trying to engage Catherine, asking her a series of questions, each one of which she answers with "Oh, yes" and brief eye contact, before looking back down at her hands in anticipation of the next one. It's a scene meant to belittle Catherine--her father is introducing her to Morris's sister, trying to prove to the woman that her brother's intentions aren't honorable because how could he possibly love someone like this--and in many ways it's hard not to see his point. And yet, for anyone who has suffered from severe shyness or anxiety, this scene takes on a whole new meaning: Catherine isn't stupid, and she isn't oblivious to the awkwardness of the situation; rather, she's so uncomfortable herself--trying to make a good impression and say the right things--that she loses the ability to look outside of herself and recognize the discomfort of her guest. I must truly commend Olivia de Havilland for this performance: there's such a quiet power about her here, giving depth and dignity to this character who easily could have been played as a nervous simpleton. Her big, expressive eyes always let us know what Catherine is thinking, giving us a glimpse into all of the emotion that exists within her even when she's unable to express it verbally; all of her awkwardness and nervous tics, too, feel so lived-in and real. De Havilland proves herself a truly great actress here, creating a real person--and one incredibly different from herself--out of words on a page.

As wonderful as de Havilland is, I must also give a lot of credit to her co-stars. This is one of Clift's earliest films, but his considerable talent is already visible in the role of Morris. Morris is a mysterious character, his thoughts and motivations always held at a distance from the audience, which is quite different from the raw, tortured characters Clift became famous for playing later on; however, his trademark charm and vulnerability still come through here, making him an enjoyable enough lead. And then, of course, there's Miriam Hopkins, one of my very favorite actresses. I truly believe there is no smile--and certainly no laugh--more wonderful and infectious than hers, and even in this dramatic story filmed late in her career, she still has so much joy to offer her audience. I just love her Lavinia, a character who is so hopelessly optimistic and happy that she manages to be almost as naive and socially inept as Catherine, only on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. I like that the film doesn't try to paint her either as a wholly positive or a wholly negative presence in Catherine's life: she clearly loves Catherine, in a way no other character in the film does, but she still makes some pretty big mistakes because she doesn't really understand who Catherine is as a person.

Ultimately, though, the centerpiece of this film is the romance, and it's a good one. Something I particularly appreciate is that for a long time, there isn't anything shifty about Morris--for the first half of the film, Clift plays him completely straight as a kind, handsome Victorian gentleman who is willing to look past Catherine's shyness for the loving, compassionate woman who exists underneath. I especially love the way their characters' temperaments clash in the love scenes, with Catherine so restrained and Morris so desperate. Their love story is so believable that when Catherine's father turns on Morris, we can understand why she still thinks Morris loves her: he hasn't actually done anything to indicate that he doesn't. In a lesser film, I can imagine Morris "winking" at the audience right from his first meeting with Catherine, but here the viewer is trusted to come to their own conclusions. And even if one agrees with Catherine's father, we don't truly know Morris's intentions until the moment that Catherine does, in that brutal lead-up to the last act. It's in the final scenes of the film where de Havilland has the toughest job, having to convincingly depict Catherine's transformation into a hardened and bitter, but much stronger woman. I said that this film managed to surprise me, and what I was referring to is the one-two punch of Catherine's rejection of her father, and later of Morris. She's so cold, even vicious in these scenes in a way that female protagonists just weren't allowed to be in 1949. I don't know if we're meant to sympathize with Catherine in the last act--if it's intended to be seen as rightful revenge on her part, or if it's supposed to be a cautionary tale of some kind for the audience--but the film certainly opens itself up to both readings, and personally, I empathized with her right to the end. And that ending! It serves as a form of female empowerment, but one so laced with heartbreak and tragedy: Catherine has become strong in herself, no longer desiring false love and empty companionship, but her newfound voice is no more welcome in Victorian society than her lack of one was. In the end, she's exactly what she never wanted to be: alone. Whatever you think of Catherine's final choice, it's a powerful ending and one that offers a lot of food for thought.

The Heiress is, really, a character study about a character who defies studying. Olivia de Havilland as Catherine is perhaps the best portrayal I've ever seen of a truly, hopelessly awkward and shy person, and surrounding her is a complex, layered script that does full justice to the career-best performance at its center. The Heiress is a fascinating and unfortunately under-seen film, and one that comes highly recommended.


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