- Outstanding Henry James Adaptation 4/28/2007 12:00:00 AM by dglink
Certainly among the finest literary adaptations, "The Heiress" was based on Henry James's novel, "Washington Square" and features arguably Olivia de Havilland's finest screen performance. Morris Townsend , a handsome young man with ambiguous motives pursues Catherine Sloper, a plain spinster, who is slightly past marriageable age and possesses limited social skills. The young woman, who is the heiress of the title, is vulnerable prey for a penniless fortune hunter.
However, Montgomery Clift plays Townsend in an enigmatic manner, and viewers can debate his true intentions. Catherine's father, played by Ralph Richardson, and her Aunt Lavinia, played by Miriam Hopkins, take opposite sides in Townsend's pursuit of Catherine. Although both her father and her aunt appear to see through the handsome suitor, Aunt Lavinia is practical and sensitive to her niece's emotional needs, and she counsels compromise in pursuit of happiness, if only fleeting. However, Catherine's father is unyielding and essentially unloving in his opposition to the match. Throughout, Dr. Sloper compares his daughter's virtues to those of his late wife, and Catherine comes up lacking in every quality that he values. Sloper threatens to disinherit his daughter if she marries the suitor.
Montgomery Clift may appear shallow and transparent to some, but in essence those are the traits of his character. While Morris is slick and obviously fawning, he is not intelligent enough to be totally deceptive. Only someone as naive and needy as Olivia could fail to grasp that Morris may want something more than her love. Olivia de Havilland transcends her other performances and skillfully and convincingly evolves from a shy, introverted girl into a strong, vengeful woman. De Havilland has often portrayed women who appear genteel and soft on the outside, but whose hearts and backbones can harden into pure steel (e.g. Gone with the Wind; Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte), and Catherine Sloper is the finest of those roles. With able support from Richardson and Hopkins, Clift and de Havilland make the most of an outstanding screenplay, which was adapted from a stage play. William Wyler directs with a sure hand, and the atmospheric cinematography captures 19th century New York life. Period films are often unraveled by their hairstyles, which generally owe more to the year in which the film was made rather than that in which the story is set. However, even the coiffures excel in "The Heiress." De Havilland's hair looks authentic 19th century and underscores Wyler's fastidious attention to detail.
With an award-winning de Havilland performance, a handsome Montgomery Clift on the brink of stardom, and an engrossing Henry James story, "The Heiress" is one of the finest films of the 1940's. Without qualification, the film holds up to and merits repeat viewings if only to better argue the underlying motives of Clift and the fateful decision that de Havilland has to make.
- "Her father had broken its spring . . ." 5/29/2006 12:00:00 AM by eadoe
One of my favorite movies, based on one of my favorite books. Henry James sitting in the audience would have been proud of this insightful filming of his novel, "Washington Square," because the film retains so much of the subtlety of his own writing. Usually, Hollywood eliminates any of the subtlety of a great author's voice (see the recent remake of "Washington Square" if you want to see a real Hollywoodization of a novel – it actually depicts a young Catherine peeing her pants in public – an inane "Animal House"-type Hollywood requirement that degrading a woman by showing her peeing is an erotic boost for any movie). But "The Heiress" is pure James. Olivia de Havilland is perfect as James' unlikely heroine, going from an awkward gawky girl eager to please her beloved father, to a simple, loving young woman who steadfastly stands by her lover, to an embittered middle-aged woman who understands that, as Henry James says, "the great facts of her career were that Morris Townsend had trifled with her affection, and that her father had broken its spring."
If you liked this movie, read the novel. Listen to James' descriptions of Catherine and her father and see if this isn't exactly what Ralph Richardson and Olivia deHavilland portrayed:
"Doctor Sloper would have liked to be proud of his daughter; but there was nothing to be proud of in poor Catherine."
"Love demands certain things as a right; but Catherine had no sense of her rights; she had only a consciousness of immense and unexpected favors."
" 'She is so soft, so simple-minded, she would be such an easy victim! A bad husband would have remarkable facilities for making her miserable; for she would have neither the intelligence nor the resolution to get the better of him.' "
"She was conscious of no aptitude for organized resentment."
"In reality, she was the softest creature in the world."
"She had been so humble in her youth that she could now afford to have a little pride . . . Poor Catherine's dignity was not aggressive; it never sat in state; but if you pushed far enough you could find it. Her father had pushed very far."
Clifton Fadiman, in his introduction to "Washington Square," says that the novel's moral is: "to be right is not enough. Dr. Sloper is 'right'; he is right about the character of Townsend, he is right about his own character, he is right about the character of Catherine. But because he can offer only the insufficient truth of irony where the sufficient truth of love is required, he partly ruins his daughter's life, and lives out his own in spiritual poverty."
Dr. Sloper's contemptuous "rightness," penetrating and accurate as it is, is no substitute for the kindness and love his adoring daughter craves from him. In "The Rainmaker," a great Katharine Hepburn movie, also about a plain woman seeking love, only this time with a loving father, the character of Hepburn's father sums up this moral that "to be right is not enough" when he says to his self-righteous son: "Noah, you're so full of what's right that you can't see what's good!"
- Breathtaking 4/9/2004 12:00:00 AM by jemmytee
To call this film well-acted is like calling "Citizen Kane" a nice movie and Alfred Hitchcock an "okay" director. William Wyler was known for eliciting excellent performances from his actors (he's responsible for them receiving a record 14 Oscars in acting; more than twice as many as any other director) and in "The Heiress" he's in top form. This movie should be played in every acting class ever taught to show the brilliance of subtlety and range of expressions possible when one is conveying a character's inner emotions.
Olivia De Havilland is a beautiful woman, but you believe she's an ungainly bundle of shy awkwardness in the role of Catherine Sloper. And her transformation to a cruel wounded creature is perfectly believable. And Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper and Miriam Hopkins as Aunt Lavinia are letter perfect beside her. Sir Ralph (at least, I THINK he was knighted) can do more with stillness and a flick of an eyebrow than any actor I've ever seen (including Brando, Penn and any other method actor you care to toss into the mix). He was robbed at the Oscars.
Montgomery Clift was beautiful and seductive and, except for a couple of moments where he seemed too 1950s instead of 1850s, just right for the part. He almost holds his own with Sir Ralph when they meet to discuss him marrying Catherine, but he did do better work in "A Place In The Sun" and "From Here To Eternity."
Wyler's simplicity and grace in directing only enhanced the story. The use of mirrors to deepen emotional content (as in when Dr. Sloper, now ill, goes to his office after getting the cold shoulder from Catherine) is stunning. So is his willingness to let a scene play out rather than force along the pacing of the moment, as so many directors do, today (as in when Catherine offers to help her father rewrite his will).
There are no easy answers in this movie. You can think Dr. Sloper is right about Morris and only wants to protect his daughter, or you can see his actions as those of a vindictive man who blames her for the death of his beloved wife (in childbirth). Morris could be a fortune hunter, or he could be a man who does care for Catherine, in his own way, and would make her happy. Or all of the above. The whole movie is so beautifully composed, it's breathtaking. A definite must see for anyone who appreciates great stories well-told.
- Brilliant superb astonishing movie 3/16/2005 12:00:00 AM by jacmuller2004
I had the pleasure to watch again "The Heiress" 1949 movie tonight, and it is absolutely brilliant! ; what a gem! the script, the directing, set designs, lighting, but above all the acting, are all extraordinary. The performances by the three main characters are simply superb. Olivia De Haviland is utterly convincing in her transition from a, not so young, unwanted and unloved woman, into 3 different phases of her personality as the plot unfolds ; all her acting is beautiful. Montgomery Cliff delivers a great performance and mastery at portraying deceit with a charming smile. Ralph Richardson commands respect and holds an air of definite authority as Catherine's father. His aristocratic demeanor is also very well portrayed for a prominent New York gentleman of the late 1800's. The human tragedy of miscommunication between beings unfolds with impeccable timing. The film by today standards may be considered as slow, but underneath is found a study of characters that runs very deeply. The contrast between the real Love and the pretense is striking. You cannot help but feel sorry for the way the characters are held captives to a set of stiff conventions and untold feelings. A human tragedy at its best.
- Meticulous adaptation 3/7/2007 12:00:00 AM by kenjha
Henry James novel of spinster daughter of wealthy doctor being wooed by a fortune hunter is meticulously brought to the screen by Wyler and a stellar cast. The beautiful de Havilland, made to look plain and dull, is quite good in her Oscar-winning title role. Also fine are Clift as the gold digger and Hopkins as de Havilland's understanding aunt. However, the best performance is given by Richardson as the cold, domineering father who wants to protect his daughter but also despises her meek existence. Brown, who plays the maid, looks like a young Grace Kelly. The cinematography is excellent and there's a fine score by Copland.