The Criterion Odyssey
Writer: Ruth Goetz & Augustus Goetz
Based on their play and the novel “Washington Square” by Henry James
Director: William Wyler
Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Music: Aaron Copland
Company: Paramount Pictures
Release: October 6, 1949
Awards: The film won Oscars for Best Actress (de Havilland), Best Art Direction/Set Decoration in a Black & White Film (John Meehan, Harry Horner & Emile Kuri), Best Costume Design in a Black & White film (Edith Head & Gile Steele) and Best Original Score (Copland).
It was nominated for Best Picture (lost to “All the Kings Men”), Best Director (lost to Joseph L. Mankiewicz in “A Letter to Three Wives”), Best Supporting Actor for Richardson (lost to Dean Jagger in “Twelve O’Clock High”), Best Cinematography in a Black & White film (lost to “Battleground”)
We tell one hell of a lot of lies every day, both to those around us… and to ourselves.
Most of these lies are small and don’t mean much in the long run: “You don’t look fat in that.” “This tastes great.” “My car broke down.” Others have more meaning, but they are the things we need to tell ourselves in order to keep going: “You didn’t totally fuck that up.” “Your relationship isn’t over.” “You’re happy.”
“The Heiress” is about the impact those lies can have on the life of one person. It takes the classic romantic story structure, twists it and subverts it until all that is left is Montgomery Clift’s million-dollar smile, and by then we are sickened when we seeing it. It’s a film of unusual power, told with a surprising amount of honesty… one where you genuinely don’t know how to feel as the film fades to black, but you are certain you feel something.
Olivia de Havilland stars as Catherine, heiress to the rich Sloper family. She’s ugly (well, as ugly as one can make de Havilland, which isn’t much), awkward, shy and has zero understanding of human communication. What’s worse, she constantly lives in the shadow of her dead beloved beauty of a mother thanks to the constant death-by-a-thousand-small-cuts comments her father Austin (Ralph Richardson) gives her on a daily basis. She has a decent relationship with her aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins), who is essentially kept in the house by Austin as a full-time matchmaker for Catherine.
Into Catherine’s life steps the gorgeous, sweet Morris, who is so attractive one could mistake him for Montgomery Clift. Their introduction and courtship scenes are very sweet, as we watch Catherine slowly come out of her shell and open herself up to the possibility of love for the first time in her life. It’s pretty obvious from the get-go that Morris wants to marry Catherine for her money. Lavinia sees this, but encourages the match nonetheless. Catherine probably realizes this on some intellectual level, but chooses to tell herself otherwise. Plus, Morris makes her happy – even if there is a little bit of acting on his part, she’ll get a lovely husband and he’ll get her money. On the surface, it seems like a solid match… made of lies, but lies that cover the hurt.
Austin will have none of that. He brutally attempts to break Catherine and Morris apart repeatedly, finally savaging his daughter with the truth and shattering her dreams (and their father-daughter relationship) in the process. Catherine may have mentally survived that, but when he learns that Austin threatened to disinherit her, Morris abandons Catherine too… breaking her beyond repair.
Is Austin a hypocrite? Of course he is. We know how much he wallows in grief over his wife, and Lavinia calls him out early – telling him that nothing will ever match up to the unrealistic memory of her. He waves this away – he’d rather live in that lie (one that has been inadvertently hurting his daughter for decades) than face the truth. And yet it doesn’t make our heart any less when Catherine refuses to come to his bedside when he dies… we sense that he loves her the best he can – it just happens to be in a shitty way.
The screenplay by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz, adapted from their play, is quite brilliant in how it plays with the audience’s hopes, dreams and desires – it exploits our vulnerabilities about ourselves. To some extent, we all feel like the ugly duckling, like the awkward one alone at a party… and as a result Morris’ charms work on the audience much like they do to Catherine. We never see that other side of him (until the final shot) – he’s always acting when he is onscreen, and this was the smartest move the writers could make.
It’s odd that we are so emotionally torn about Catherine’s fate considering that de Havilland and Clift don’t have much chemistry together. Her strongest acting scenes are with Richardson, and when she’s with Clift, she leans a little too much into caricature – if I had to see her awkwardly bend backward when Clift leaned in one more time… But maybe that’s the point. Perhaps their casting was an incognito masterstroke – they don’t work well together because they shouldn’t work well together, but the writing is so good and our sympathies lie so much with Catherine that we tell ourselves the match is better than it is. It’s no coincidence that the love theme by Aaron Copland is used explicitly as a plot device in the movie as a way for Morris to endear himself to Catherine (he claims he wrote it and plays it for her on the piano) – it’s pretty, but it’s also not real.
De Havilland is much better sparring with Richardson, first as she cowers from his every statement and later when she finally stops giving a shit and is as brutally honest to him as he has been to her. These are the scenes that earned her the Oscar… those and the heartbreaking moment with Lavinia where Catherine realizes that Morris has abandoned her.
Cinema maestro Wyler, working here with cinematographer Leo Tover (“The Day the Earth Stood Still”), creates an astonishing world within Catherine’s house on Washington Square. Aside from a party scene and a few other brief moments, Wyler smartly keeps the claustrophobia of the play by setting every major sequence in the house. The stairs especially become a metaphor all their own – note the placement of the camera every time Catherine walks up or down them to underline her emotions in the moment. Though he has no problem with moving the camera, one appreciates the way Wyler conjures his frame… he’d much rather hold it in place while the characters within it move in dynamic, unexpected ways that surprise you.
The ending has haunted me long after the film ended. The resignation on Catherine’s face as she pulls the curtains and locks the door. The devastation on Lavinia’s as she realizes Catherine is too emotionally far gone to ever accept love again, not the fake kind from Morris or the possibility of real love later. How Catherine’s face changes to unreadable in that final moment as she mounts the stairs… but his is overcome with genuine emotion for the first time as he pounds on the locked door. And then, before he can stop, we fade out. It’s a “drop the mic” ending if I’ve ever seen one.
“The Heiress” is a masterpiece for many reasons, not least of which is because it manipulates the audience as well as it does. It understands that we’d rather be lied to, but refuses to give us that easy way out.
In its own way, it’s one of the most truthful films ever made.
Cover: A lovely cover by Danielle Clough that impresses upon first blush, then even more the closer you investigate. I love that Catherine looks like she is smiling, but focus further and realize that you may be incorrect. It’s one of my favorite covers of the year.
I award it five strings of yarn out of five.
Essay: Pamela Hutchinson writes a great introduction to the film, to Wyler, and to the intricacies of adaptation. She also does a (possibly justified) drive-by on Clift’s reputation along the way, and the part of me that loves juicy gossip ate it up.
I award it four fish heads out of five.
Extras: A decent spread.
- The centerpiece is a conversation between writer Jay Cocks (“The Age of Innocence,” “Silence”) and Farran Smith Nehme as they try to unravel the weird, messed up emotional core of the movie. They don’t always agree, and when they do agree it’s not often because of the same reason, making for an excellent sparring match.
- Larry McQueen talks about Edith Head’s costumes for both the film and her career in general. It’s a waste of time especially because, in the same breath that McQueen shows off a costume for the film, he tells us that he would have preferred getting one from “Gone With the Wind.” Then later he throws a bunch of shade at Edith Head. Skip it.
- A short film called “The Costume Designer,” primarily focused on Edith Head. It’s all very fun, and there is one outstanding sequence where Head goes through her thinking process for costuming a single scene, and we see an actress go through the many possibilities as Head talks through them. A must watch.
- De Havilland speaking on “The Paul Ryan Show.” She’s measured but engaging, though doesn’t give as much insight as one would hope.
- “The Merv Griffin Show” did a tribute to Wyler with many interesting interviews. It’s all surface, but very fun to watch.
- Wyler accepting his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. His eloquence here is divine, and it makes me want to track down the entire program.
- An excerpt from the documentary “Directed by William Wyler” featuring Ralph Richardson. It’s watchable, but why wasn’t the entire thing included?
I award them four hand warmers out of five.
Up Next: Funny Games