“He’s grown greedier over the years. Before he only wanted my money; now he wants my love as well. Well, he came to the wrong house – and he came twice. I shall see that he does not come a third time.”
The movie industry has given birth to an array of actresses who possessed originality and enchanted audiences with their indomitable screen presence, but when it came to being powerful and intense, Olivia de Havilland was unequivocally the best.
Olivia de Havilland was a hot commodity in Hollywood during the golden days. The actress who first rose to super stardom in 1938, after being cast in the role of Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood, endured a triumphant tenure in motion pictures, and became known for her magnetic on-screen partnership with Tasmanian born actor, Errol Flynn and for being the last surviving cast member of Gone With the Wind ( 1939 ).
With the success that both films generated, Olivia was already rising to astronomical heights, but it was after her famous law suit battle and the signing of her two year Paramount contract that de Havilland really started to display the depths of her talents. Her dramatic prowess is clearly evident in productions like, To Each His Own ( 1946 ), The Dark Mirror ( 1946 ) and The Snake Pit ( 1948 ). However, the film in which she was the most lauded for was 1949’s, The Heiress, a story about a fragile and naive woman who falls in love with a suspected fortune hunter.
The story of Catherine Sloper first evolved in 1880 when Henry James published his novella titled, Washington Square, which first appeared as a serial in Cornhill Magazine and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The plot is drawn from a real life scenario that was told to James by his close friend, Fanny Kemble, a notable British actress who hailed from a prominent theatrical family in the 19th century.
Unlike his other literary works, James was dissatisfied with Washington Square. He thought the novel touched too deep into the melodramatics and was over simplified, lacking the complexity of his other books. He was that ashamed of his efforts that he unsuccessfully tried to remove Washington Square from the rest of his fictional works, but in the process he found out that the novella was a best seller with the general public.
During his tenure as an author, Henry James published an array of successful novels that were highly praised by his legion of readers. Most of his works delved into emigre Americans or dignified people of high society who were usually confronted with some sort of moral dilemma. Washington Square explored the lives of the affluent and the impoverished, but relies heavily on the emotional crisis that Catherine is plagued with. Due to the narrative structure, Washington Square is now considered to be a literary masterpiece.
Since it’s initial publication, Washington Square has followed a triumphant road. In 1947, Ruth and Augustas Goetz, the renowned husband and wife playwrights, adapted the novella into a critically acclaimed stage play of the same name that originally opened on Broadway on September 29th, 1947 and closed on September 18th, 1948, after 410 performances. Wendy Hiller, the notable English actress who was held in high esteem for both her work in film and stage played the lead role of Catherine Sloper, and veteran actor, Basil Rathbone who is primarily remembered for donning many Shakespearean roles on stage was cast as Dr. Sloper, Catherine’s abusive father. The following year the play moved to the Haymarket Theatre in the West End of London, where Sir Ralph Richardson took on the role of Dr. Sloper. The play was palatable with British audiences and lasted for 644 performances.
During it’s successful run on Broadway, the play captured the attention of Olivia de Havilland, who was particularly impressed with the part of Catherine Sloper, and wanted to bring her to life on screen. As soon as she left the theatre, de Havilland called William Wyler and persuaded him to fly to New York to see the play and to convince him that she would be perfect to portray the role of Catherine in a screen adaptation.
In the meantime, Olivia de Havilland clung to the possibility that her virtuous wish would be fulfilled. Coincidentally, William Wyler couldn’t be more agreeable. He had seen the play and could vividly picture de Havilland in the role of Catherine Sloper. With Olivia’s assistance, Wyler approached the Paramount executives about purchasing the screen rights from Ruth and Augustus Goetz for $250,000, as well as offering them $10,000 per week to write the screenplay.
The result was a masterful work of art that would receive a total of four Academy Awards out of eight nominations, including an Oscar win for Olivia de Havilland, who already had an Academy Award for her performance in To Each His Own ( 1946 ) adorning her mantelpiece. Director William Wyler played a large part in the films success. As a director he strove for perfection, and was known for his continuous efforts of directing an array of classic literature and turning them into highly profitable box-office hits.
The hardest part was the search to find actors to fulfill the other roles. Ralph Richardson who portrayed Dr. Sloper in the London stage production reprised the role on screen, and Montgomery Clift whose sudden ascent to fame was hired to play Morris Townsend. Initially, Clift was reluctant to take on the role, fearing that he didn’t possess the capabilities to play a fortune hunter, but Paramount wanted to bolster his sex-appeal and propel his popularity. Montgomery only agreed to be in the picture on the conditions that he wouldn’t be typecast. He was an enthusiastic actor and had an appetite to explore different territories that the film industry had to offer, but during the filming of The Heiress, he lacked the confidence and was continuously carrying an air of uncertainty about his performance. This meant that he would spend most of his time locked up in a drab hotel room studying his script late into the night with very little sleep. As a result, Monty would often appear tired and gloomy on set, which created problems for the rest of the cast.
Adding to the tensions on the set was the animosity that was in the air. Despite the facades of kindness, none of the cast members could develop a great rapport with each other. During filming everyone behaved with the utmost politeness, but away from the camera, hostile disputes would often erupt. Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift were distant and barely spoke. The way William Wyler favored Olivia inflamed Clift’s temper and made it unbearable for him to focus on his lines. This was coupled by the towering presence of Ralph Richardson whose consummation intimidated him. He also found Miriam Hopkins to be a nuisance, especially when he had the feeling that Wyler was letting her overshadow him and steal the scenes, though despite all the occurring dramas, Clift managed to continue on with the filming like a ultimate professional.
In a film directed by William Wyler, audiences are taken back to 1840’s, New York, and into the life of Catherine Sloper ( Olivia de Havilland ), an abnormally shy and naive woman who lacks social etiquette and remains trapped in the confined mansion of her emotionally abusive father, Dr Sloper ( Ralph Richardson ), who views Catherine as being worthless to society. Suspicions immediately arise when Catherine starts being pursued by the handsome suitor, Morris Townsend ( Montgomery Clift ) who her father believes is only chasing after her considerable inheritance. When the two announce that they want to get married, Dr. Sloper forbades the idea due to his firm beliefs that Morris is a fortune hunter.
“Can you be so cruel?”
“Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters.”
To this day, The Heiress is considered to be one of William Wyler’s greatest artistic achievements. Bosley Crowther from the New York Times wrote, “The film crackles with allusive life and fire in its tender and agonized telling of an extraordinarily characterful tale. Mr. Wyler has given this somewhat austere drama an absorbing intimacy and a warming illusion of nearness that it did not have on the stage. He has brought the full-bodied people very closely and vividly to view, while maintaining the clarity and sharpness of their personalities, their emotions and their styles . . . The Heiress is one of the handsome, intense and adult dramas of the year.”, while TV Guide stated, “This powerful and compelling drama . . . owes its triumph to the deft hand of director William Wyler and a remarkable lead performance by Olivia de Havilland.”
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is Olivia de Havilland’s performance. Olivia is known for essaying a wide array of characters on screen, but it is her portrayal of Catherine Sloper in The Heiress that really exudes her authenticity as an actress. This is the type of role that could be overacted or theatrically driven if not handled with care. The part of Catherine was given the proper treatment by Olivia, who was able to create a believable character study of a woman plagued with communication and emotional problems, who is automatically thrust into the throes of a difficult crisis when a gold-digger hidden behind an amiable facade enters her life.
For a film that is strongly anchored by Olivia de Havilland’s performance, the rest of the cast shine in their respective roles. Montgomery Clift concealed his insecurities on screen and managed to tap into his characters unscrupulous motives successfully. The Heiress marked Clift’s fourth appearance in a motion picture. The actor would continue his auspicious tenure in films before meeting his tragic death on July 23rd, 1966.
Another aspect of the film that can’t go unrecognized is Ralph Richardson’s indomitable portrayal of Dr. Sloper. Although his character is cruel and verbally insultive to Catherine, Austin infuses every scene he’s in with splashes of majestic charm and grace. Some viewers believe that Dr. Sloper is fueled with hatred for his daughter, but I tend to disagree. I don’t actually think Austin fully despises Catherine. He detests the way Catherine has decided to embrace her life, and can’t stand the fact that he’s a father to a socially inept daughter who is not a mirroring image of her mother.
Most importantly, Dr. Sloper is able to observe all of Morris Townsend’s salient traits. He is quick to realize that Morris is hiding his true colors, and he tries to deter Catherine away from him. If Catherine married Townsend she would be enmeshed in a wreath of difficulties. Austin can foresee this and threatens to disinherit her if Catherine goes off with Morris. It’s just unfortunate that Catherine has to endure the harsh criticisms of her father as well as being the object of Morris’ gold-digging schemes.
“Don’t be kind to me, father. It doesn’t become you.”
It’s obvious to the viewer that Catherine needs support – fortunately this comes in the form of Aunt Lavinia, played by Miriam Hopkins. Aunt Lavinia is the only one who can solidify Catherine’s trust, but even she is blind to Morris’ true motive and encourages Catherine to marry him.
The film adaptation closely echos James’ novella, though it does take a slight detour. In the book Henry James paints a clear picture of Morris Townsend, but in the movie, audiences can be left perplexed as to what Morris’s true intentions are. At first some might not know who the main antagonist is, but eventually Morris’s core motive is revealed. The suspense leading up to the unearthing is compelling. Does Dr. Sloper have a right to be so forthright with his feelings about Morris Townsend when his description of him is only a speculation? or why would an impoverished yet charming suitor like Morris Townsend be interested in Catherine who has had no experience with relationships and has no social skills?. These questions do make the viewer ponder over the entire scenario. If Townsend was desperate for a relationship and marriage then we can understand why he’s taking such actions, but considering the fact that he’s only just met Catherine, it makes the viewer wonder why’s he’s acting so fast. The key to a large majority of romances between the rich and poor is money. Some people crave to be affluent, and they will make sure they will get their desired wealth even if it means trapping an innocent soul in their fortune hunter schemes.
Filming for The Heiress commenced in June 1948, and opened at New York’s Radio City Music Hall to critical acclaim on October 6th, 1950. The fact that the film was steeped in acclamation and earned her another Academy Award, deeply exhilarated Olivia, but when asked about her time making the movie, de Havilland was the first to admit that it was far from a pleasurable experience. On-screen she was vying for her fathers love and affection, but off-screen she was yearning for William Wyler’s attention. Olivia later stated that Wyler was inexcusably rude, and would exclude her from his between-take conversations with Ralph Richardson. In an interview, de Havilland said, ““It is entirely possible Willie did that deliberately to make me feel … inadequate and … uninteresting.”
The year 1949 was a turning point for Olivia both personally and professionally. On the home front, she was experiencing the newfound joys of motherhood and took great pleasure in caring for her son, Benjamin, who was born on September 27th of that year. What happened behind the cameras was not of high precedence, but her artistic achievements still brought her much satisfaction nonetheless. In early February, Look Magazine labeled Olivia de Havilland and Laurence Olivier as the top grossing movie stars of 1948 – this was based on Olivia’s performance in The Snake Pit and Olivier’s acclaimed Hamlet.
After her triumphant turn in The Heiress, Olivia de Havilland continued to achieve greatness in motion pictures and other forms of entertainment. At age 102, de Havilland is the oldest surviving actress from the golden age. Although she suffers from Macular degeneration, she lives a contented life in Paris, and enjoys reflecting back on her past career.
THE HEIRESS: ACADEMY AWARDS AND NOMINATIONS:
Academy Award for Best Actress – Olivia de Havilland. ( 1949 )
Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography – Leo Tover. ( 1949 )
Academy Award for Best Costume Design – Edith Head & Gile Steel.
Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.
Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor – Ralph Richardson.
Academy Award for Best Art Direction – Harry Horner, John Meehan, and set decoration, Emile Kuri.
Academy Award nomination for Best Director – William Wyler.
Academy Award for Best Score – Aaron Copland.
To help Olivia de Havilland achieve the physically and emotionally weary and worn effect that he wanted, Producer and Director William Wyler packed books into the suitcases that the actress lugged up the staircase in the scene where her character realizes that she has been jilted by her lover.
The song sung by Montgomery Clift while playing the piano is originally a vocal romance, “Plaisir d’amour”, composed in 1784 by classical composer Jean-Paul-Égide Martini (August 31, 1741 – February 10, 1816), and was the basis for Elvis Presley‘s 1961 hit “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” written for the movie Blue Hawaii (1961).
During the spiral staircase scene, Producer and Director William Wyler made thirty seven takes with Olivia de Havilland. Only after the last one, when she fell of exhaustion, Wyler declared that was the one he wanted to keep in the box.
Cary Grant was campaigning for the role of Morris Townsend, but William Wyler declared him unsuitable for the part.
The original idea was to reteam Olivia de Havilland with her frequent co-star Errol Flynn, but this was dropped in favor of the more subtle acting that Montgomery Clift could bring to the role.
Olivia de Havilland: Born, Olivia Mary de Havilland on July 1st, 1916 in Tokyo, Japan.
Montgomery Clift: Born, Edward Montgomery Clift on October 17th, 1920 in Omaha, Nebraska. Died: July 23rd, 1966 in New York. Aged: 45.
Ralph Richardson: Born, Ralph David Richardson on December 19th, 1902 in Cheltenham, United Kingdom. Died: October 10th, 1983 in Marylebone, United Kingdom. Aged: 80.
Miriam Hopkins: Born, Ellen Miriam Hopkins on October 18th, 1902 in Savannah, Georgia. Died: October 9th, 1972 in New York. Aged: 69.
This post was written for the 7th Annual 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon A Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. To view the other entries being exhibited during this event, please visit the three hosting blogs.