The Heiress (1949):  Ascending to New Heights

Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)
The Heiress (1949)

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.

Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)

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.

Miriam Hopkins and Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)

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.

Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)

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.

Olivia de Havilland poses with her Oscars from To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949)

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.

The Heiress (1949) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Notes

  1. Herman, Jan.  William Wyler:  A Talent for Trouble:  The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director.
  2. Ibid
  3. Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  4. Higham, Charles.  Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The First Divine Feud: Bette and Miriam

Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis in Old Acquaintance (1943)
Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis in Old Acquaintance
The Old Maid (1939) opening banner
Old Acquaintance (1943) opening banner

Though her feud with Joan Crawford gets all the press today, Bette Davis’ earliest and perhaps most intense rivalry was with actress Miriam Hopkins.

Their mutual loathing began back east, where they met doing summer stock theater.  Legend is that they were oil and water from the first, competitive women in a competitive field destined to clash wills.

In the theater world, Hopkins was a bigger star than Davis, and she made it to Hollywood first.  In fact, Jezebel started out life as a doomed play with Miriam Hopkins playing the leading role.  It closed to poor reviews after only thirty-two performances, a flop by any measure.

Hopkins jointly owned the play’s rights and sold it to Warner Brothers under the belief (which WB’s Walter McEwen strongly implied or outright lied) that she would reprise her role.  But the role, as we know, went to Bette Davis.

Davis winning an Oscar for her role was salt in Miriam’s wound.  She was reportedly inconsolable and wracked with jealousy.

So the stage was set for a clash of the titans when Davis and Hopkins were cast opposite one another in The Old Maid, an excellent melodrama that is often overlooked because it was made in the same year as Davis’ Dark Victory.

Based on Edith Wharton’s novel, Hopkins and Davis play cousins in love with the same man.  When Delia (Hopkins) jilts him for a wealthier man, Charlotte (Davis) comforts him with a night of passion that lands her unmarried and pregnant.  Worse, he goes and get himself killed in the Civil War before he can make an honest woman of her.  Charlotte opens an orphanage and hides her daughter Tina in plain sight among the war orphans. 

Only Delia knows the truth, and eventually adopts Tina and raises her as her own child.  Forced to pose as aunt to her only child, the sacrifice turns Charlotte old and bitter and strains her relationship with Delia.  On the eve of Tina’s marriage, Charlotte plans to tell her daughter the truth, but refrains in a moment of maternal self-sacrifice, knowing it will shatter Tina’s happiness.

The antics onset leaked into the newspapers.  On the first day of filming, Hopkins reportedly showed up wearing a replica of one of Davis’ Jezebel costumes, apparently to make Davis “blow her stack.” 

Each was constantly trying to upstage the other, running to director Edmund Goulding with suggestions and complaints.  Hopkins would hold her cigarette at an angle to purposely block Davis’ face from the camera, or refuse to engage when Davis was speaking her lines and the camera was off her.

In her memoir The Lonely Life, Davis insists she kept her temper despite Hopkins’ deliberate attempts to provoke it.  On-set, at least.  Bette admits that she, “…went home every night and screamed at everybody.”

Some of Hopkins’ provocation was justified.  She was jealous of Davis’ success, but she also knew Davis was having an affair with her husband, director Anatole Litvak.

As producer Hal B. Wallis said in an interview years after the filming, “It was an incredible feud, just fantastic.  They would each prolong their arrival on the set, trying to make the other wait. I think later the studio tried to claim it was all just publicity, but it was the real thing. Those girls hated each other.”

In fact, Warner Brothers did capitalize on the publicity of the feud, even going so far as to have Hopkins and Davis pose squaring off with boxing gloves, with poor director Edmund Goulding stuck in the middle as referee.

It wasn’t far from the truth. 

“Whatever respect they had for each other as professionals was quickly thrown out of the window when one or the other didn’t get her way,” Goulding said. “If it wasn’t lighting, it was costuming or camera angles or lines. There were times they behaved like perfect little bitches, but I loved them both, and I think the admiration was likewise.”

Bette Davis, Edmund Goulding, and Miriam Hopkins in a publicity photo for The Old Maid (1939)

But the tension between them works onscreen.

It worked so well, in fact, that Warner Brothers paired them again in 1943 in Old Acquaintance, another film that told the story of a long and complicated relationship between two women.  This time Hopkins and Davis play lifelong friends and writers Millie Drake and Kit Marlowe. 

Their real-life tension is again a boon for the film, as Millie and Kit alternately love and loathe one another over their lifelong relationship.  Millie is by turns selfish, jealous, and desperately needy.  In some ways, the audience wonders why kind and clever Kit puts up with her.

In a moment of honesty, Millie’s husband asks Kit just that.  Kit, to her credit, doesn’t try to paper over Millie’s faults. 

Kit (Davis): Millie remembers the same things I do, that’s important. For instance, she’s the only person I know, who still remembers when I used to be called Chunky.

Preston Drake (Millie’s husband): I’d think you wouldn’t want to remember that.

Kit: But one does. Funny, one does.

The film is an exploration of the ability of a woman to juggle motherhood, career, and love.  Old Acquaintance firmly establishes the belief that a woman cannot have it all.  Kit is a literary darling, beloved but broke.  Millie’s books are bestsellers that have made her rich but the critics dismiss her work as trash.

In one of my favorite scenes, literary critic Belle Carter asks Kit how her new book is coming along.

Kit (Davis): Well, I write and I write, and I still don’t like it.

Belle Carter: But, at least when you do turn one out, it’s a gem! None of this grinding them out like sausage…

Belle Carter: [looks over shoulder and realizes she has offended Millie] I suppose I could cut my throat.

Millie (Hopkins): There’s a knife on the table!

So one cannot have both critical and commercial success.  Millie and Kit are also both unlucky in love, unable to balance both a career and love.

In the film’s most famous scene, Kit calmly walks over to Mille, grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her before deadpanning, “Sorry.”

Word of the scene got around the studio, and legend tells that half of Warner Brothers showed up to watch the filming.  A reporter from Life magazine even tried to get into the studio to cover the event.

Hopkins must’ve worried that Davis would let her have it.

As Humphrey Bogart said of Davis’ on-screen slaps, “Unless you’re very big she can knock you down.”

Hopkins made sure Davis didn’t knock her down, and probably just to spite Davis, relaxed so completely during the shaking that she just bobbed around “like a doll with a broken neck,” as director Vincent Sherman put it.

Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins in Old Acquaintance (1943)

Davis stormed out, and was eventually persuaded to return for a second take.  Still Hopkins didn’t do what Sherman wanted, but knowing the stubbornness of both actresses, he cut his losses and moved on.

In the finished film, it’s an unintentionally campy moment in an otherwise serious and melodramatic film.

The film has a surprisingly touching ending—both have just suffered heartbreak from men, lashed out at one another for a lifetime of petty jealousies, and yet they spend New Year’s Eve together toasting one another and their long friendship.

And after the director called cut, they went their separate ways and never worked together again.

The Old Maid (1939) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only
 Old Acquaintance (1943) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis in Old Acquaintance (1943)