Well, he came to the wrong house — and he came twice.
Based on the story Washington Square by Henry James, The Heiress came about when the great Olivia de Havilland saw the play in New York and asked Mr. William Wyler to direct her in its film adaptation. Known for his unmatched ability to extract riveting performances from his actresses, Mr. Wyler agreed and eventually brought the actress her second Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Miss de Havilland plays Catherine Sloper, the plain-Jane daughter of a wealthy doctor, a part devoured by Sir Ralph Richardson. Although eager to have his daughter join in with the young people and form a life of her own, the less-than-affectionate doctor is rather mistrusting when Morris Townsend, played by a young Montgomery Clift, comes a-courting. Filled with the most elegant top hats and tails, gloves, ladies’ fans, and Edith Head’s radiant, Oscar-winning costumes, The Heiress crawled easily into my DVD collection, even before I knew I loved it.
What is it that I find so likable about Olivia de Havilland? Before discovering The Heiress, I was one of the many who knew her only as kindhearted Melanie Hamilton from Gone with the Wind (1939). You know her too; she was the mother of the baby that Butterfly McQueen knew nuthin’ about birthin’. Miss de Havilland brings that familiar sweetness to Catherine Sloper, who lacks any form of self-confidence and lives a life in which she is constantly compared with her deceased mother. Montgomery Clift comes swooping in, as gorgeous men tend to, and both Catherine and I wasted no time in falling for him . . . I think I beat poor Catherine to it. But in fact, poor she is not, and our suspicions that this beautiful man is perhaps after her inheritance begin to outshine that flawless smile and the jet-black coiffure that never seems to move. While he’s certainly a pleasure to look at, Mr. Clift never struck me as one of the best actors, and in this particular film, he reminds me of a lost little boy, trying to keep up with the adult actors surrounding him. From the bits and pieces I know of his turbulent life, the image of a lost child may not be too far off the mark.
The Heiress is one movie that really gets me thinking about second chances, not only in the film itself when Catherine considers a future with Mr. Townsend, but also in terms of my first viewing. For whatever reason, I didn’t enjoy my first trip through the Sloper household in Washington Square. I’ve noticed that when it comes to these films, I’m much more willing to give them a second try, and of course I fall for that “Oscar seal of approval” every time! I know so many of my generation who simply dismiss these treasures without having seen one in 20 years, not since the time when their parents made them. If you’re able to let go of such severe childhood trauma, I’d applaud any effort you make to revisit this classic in particular, and perhaps move on to the others that were forced upon you before you were ready. A constant quoter of movie lines, I did indeed pick up on some choice phrases during my second time through The Heiress. “Father won’t abuse you; he doesn’t know you well enough” is delivered perfectly in the frail voice of Miss de Havilland’s, and later she gives Catherine enough strength to slay us with “Yes I can be very cruel — I have been taught by masters.” Well, there it is, folks: my special tickle spot!
Constantly pushing Catherine towards marriage is her Aunt Lavinia, played by marvelously by Miriam Hopkins. It’s unavoidable — I see her name in the opening credits, and before I even see Miss Hopkins’ face, the raspy voice of Bette Davis comes booming over my loudspeaker: “Miriam Hopkins . . . she was a real bitch!” Despite her insertion of “terrible” in one form or another, Miss Davis did admit that Miriam Hopkins was a “terribly good actress” right after labeling her a bitch. Of course, there were rumors of Bette Davis sleeping with Miriam Hopkins’ husband years before, so perhaps the “unprofessional behavior” that occurred between the two was a bit deserved.
But yes, despite whatever version of the truth is the Truth, I can’t help but hear that wonderfully recognizable voice bestow bitch status upon Miriam Hopkins every time I see her. And I love Miss Hopkins in The Heiress as Catherine’s widowed aunt; she’s that wonderful supporting character who is so often blessed with the best lines. In her efforts to marry off her niece, she tells Catherine “If you will stay by me this evening, you will see that what I say is not always of the greatest importance. But dear, that doesn’t keep me from talking.” Life always comes back to what we learned by way of The Wizard of Oz, doesn’t it . . . or is that just me?
Academy Awards for The Heiress (1950): Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Black-and-White), Best Costume Design (Black-and-White), and Best Music.