And now we come to The Heiress.
In a career that included Gone With the Wind, breaking the studio system’s seven-year contract practice, and five Academy Award nominations, The Heiress is undoubtedly Olivia de Havilland’s crowning achievement.
It is her best performance and my personal favorite of her films.
Based on a play adapted from Henry James’ novel Washington Square, directed by William Wyler and co-starring newcomer Montgomery Clift in one of his earliest roles, The Heiress is a masterclass in prestige filmmaking.
De Havilland plays Catherine Sloper, a plain and pathologically shy young woman living in mid-nineteenth century New York. Catherine lives in the shadow of her dead mother, a woman her father has on such a high pedestal that even a woman more beautiful and accomplished than Catherine could not live up to her memory.
Catherine spends her days eschewing parties and the company of others in favor of needlepoint until she meets Morris Townsend (Clift), a handsome but penniless man with expensive taste. He sweeps Catherine off her feet, but her father fears that Townsend is a fortune hunter with his eye on Catherine’s considerable inheritance.
Reader, I don’t mind admitting that I was unsure throughout the first half of the film of Townsend’s true intentions. Surely he could not have fallen so quickly into love with Catherine, who is awkward and painfully naïve. And yet, he convinced me as he convinced Catherine—perhaps he could see the woman beneath the veil of shyness to the woman within.
Catherine blooms under his attentions. She has none of her father’s reservations, and is determined to marry Morris. Her widowed Aunt Lavinia supports the match, though Catherine’s father (Lavinia’s brother) puts no stock in her opinion. She is portrayed throughout the film as nothing more than a gossipy biddy who never shuts up.
But Miriam Hopkins (she’s really excellent supporting material here) infuses Lavinia with a subtle wisdom—so what if Morris Townsend is a fortune hunter? Won’t that still be a happier life for Catherine, who has no other prospects and is shunned as a weirdo by every other man?
Her father outright rejects Morris’ request to marry his daughter, and Morris and Catherine plan an elopement. When Catherine’s father finds out, he grows cruel, telling Catherine that Morris must be a fortune hunter, because she is such a bore and a waste that no one could love her.
The moment forever embitters Catherine, as she realizes her father has only ever had contempt for her, not love. She puts all of her eggs in the basket with Morris, telling him she wants to elope that night. He agrees, but before he leaves to get things in order, she tells him that her father has cut off her inheritance.
That night, Lavinia finds Catherine packed and waiting for Morris, who has promised to pick her up at midnight. She is dismayed when Catherine tells her that she has told Morris about her lost inheritance.
“Why couldn’t you have been just a little more clever?” Lavinia laments.
But of course, clever is the one thing Catherine isn’t.
She insists Morris isn’t marrying her for money, and even so, she still has her inheritance from her mother’s death.
“It is a great deal of money!” Catherine claims of her ten thousand a year.
“Not when one has expected thirty,” Aunt Lavinia says.
Catherine never doubts that Morris will arrive, but as midnight comes and goes, minute by minute Catherine comes to see the awful truth.
Morris has forsaken her.
He returns a few years later, after Catherine’s father has died, wanting to pick up where they left off, claiming he always loved her but didn’t want her to lose her inheritance. She agrees to marry him and once again sends him off to get the coach. But when he returns, she bolts the door and lets him bang on the door all night screaming for her as she ascends the stairs to a life of bitter loneliness.
It is not a film that could be made today. Her moment of turning Morris away would today be celebrated as a feminist power move, not the bittersweet ending portrayed here—Catherine cuts off her nose to spite her face. She has her revenge, but at the expense of any shred of happiness.
In fact, in 1993 Tom Cruise and director Mike Nichols discussed a remake, but ultimately decided that they could not improve upon the film that Wyler and de Havilland had made in 1949.1
On the night of her jilting, the depth of Catherine’s weariness is shown in a long shot where she drags her packed suitcase back up the stairs, thwarted of her escape and left imprisoned with the father she can no longer stand.
Director William Wyler, well known for his excessive takes made de Havilland drag the suitcase up the stairs again and again. He knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what. In a moment of exhausted frustration, de Havilland threw the suitcase down the stairs when Wyler demanded yet another take.
Wyler realized immediately what was wrong—the suitcase was empty. He had it filled with heavy books and started the film rolling. Now de Havilland was no longer pretending to lift a heavy suitcase, she actually was struggling with it.2
Details like this are what made Wyler one of Hollywood’s best directors, collecting twelve Academy Award nominations for Best Director (including for The Heiress) and winning three. He also directed fourteen actors to Academy Awards, including none other than Bette Davis (Jezebel), Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday), and Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur).
And Olivia de Havilland.
That’s right, her performance in The Heiress earned her a second Academy Award for Best Actress, inducting her into one of the most exclusive clubs on the planet. At the time, de Havilland was only the third actress (and fifth actor overall) to win more than one Academy Award for a leading performance. Even today, only thirteen other women and ten men can boast this feat. It’s a club that includes Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Vivien Leigh, Spencer Tracy, Tom Hanks, Gary Cooper, Meryl Streep, and Marlon Brando.
Hollywood royalty, indeed.
The second Oscar cemented de Havilland’s place as a prestige actress, and validated her three year absence from the screen during her court battle with Jack Warner.
She also won the New York Film Critics Circle award for both The Snake Pit and The Heiress, becoming the first actress to win the award in consecutive years.3
“I want respect,” Olivia de Havilland had told Errol Flynn way back on the set of Captain Blood, her first major film. “By that I meant serious work well done.”4
Olivia de Havilland arrived in Hollywood in 1935 at nineteen years old. Now, after fourteen years, thirty-five films, and a bloody divorce with Warner Brothers, she’d finally gotten what she came for.
- Herman, Jan. William Wyler: A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director.
- Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
- Higham, Charles. Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.