Monday, September 26, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Heiress" (1949)

"The Heiress" is an interesting rumination on physical beauty. The protagonist, Catherine Sloper, is a plain woman who has been unable to attract suitors despite the fact that her father is a fabulously wealthy doctor. She is also painfully shy, but it's pretty clear that the one flows from the other -- Catherine is aware of her lack of looks, and has convinced herself (with no small help from her father) that this is indicative of the absence of any other attributes.

Of course, Catherine is played by Olivia de Havilland, one of the great actresses -- and great beauties -- of Hollywood's Golden Age. The filmmakers do a convincing job of making her less attractive, including an unflattering braided hairstyle and a lack of makeup. De Havilland also holds her face in unflattering positions to accentuate the change.

When a suitor does finally arrive, it's in the form of Morris Townsend, a slick young man lacking any money or prospects. Dr. Sloper (played by Ralph Richardson, forever the aged sorceror from "Dragonslayer") immediately suspects that Morris is a mercenary after Catherine's inheritance. It takes Catherine herself much longer to make her own decision, but her father has planted the seeds of doubt in her mind.

Morris is played by Montgomery Clift, in one of his earliest roles. Clift was a moody actor who did not wear his mantle of stardom well, clashing with most of the directors, screenwriters and actors he worked with. His career never really recovered from a serious 1956 car accident that ravaged his face, and he died young and alone.

But Clift was also one of the most physically striking actors ever to grace the silver screen, and his handsomeness is fully exploited by director William Wyler. Every cinematic trick used to make de Havilland seem uglier is turned around to make Clift seem to positively glow in every scene.

Part of Catherine's initial hesitancy is based around the dichotomy of their looks: She simply cannot believe that such a good-looking, well-spoken young man could possibly fall for her. Interestingly, her resistance falls after their first kiss. In the mid-1800s, the mannerisms of the New York upper crust were firmly set in a labyrinth of arcane rules and unspoken codes, including not letting a male suitor to be in the same room alone with a young lady. Catherine's Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins), who encourages the romance, helpfully obliges by getting the vapors whenever an opportunity presents itself. It seems clear that it was physical passion that overcome Catherine's sense of logic.

The film is adapted (by Ruth and Augustus Goetz) from the play "Washington Square," which in turn was based on the Henry James novel. It was nominated for a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, and de Havilland took home her second Academy Award for her performance.

Though at times a staid melodrama, it also has several scenes with genuine emotional punch. The watershed moment is when Catherine, after returning from a six-month European visit insisted upon by her father as a ploy to make her forget about Morris, resolves to run away and elope on the first night of their return. Dr. Sloper has made it clear how much he truly disrespects his daughter, and she promises never to see him again.

Morris is appalled, not wanting her to be disinherited from her father's $20,000 a year of income upon his death. But she says they will still be wealthy enough with the $10,000 a year she already inherited from her mother.

Catherine sits all through the night waiting with Aunt Lavinia for Morris' carriage to show up, but of course it never does.

(I'm curious why in stories set in the 19th century or earlier, wealth is always referred to as how much they receive per year rather than the total pile of dough. Nowadays we don't say "Warren Buffet has $5 million a year," we say he's worth $20 billion, or whatever it is. Perhaps this is because back then income was derived primarily through the ownership of property -- renting it out or agricultural uses -- rather than investments.)

I enjoyed "The Heiress," less for the story than the things it leaves unsaid.

3 stars out of four

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