Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Plain Jane

Film: The Heiress
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I work with a guy named Ron who has a thing for Olivia de Havilland. We’ve discussed this back and forth with him pushing de Havilland and me stumping for Barbara Stanwyck. While I won’t ever give over to Ron on this, he’s got me in the fact that Olivia de Havilland won a pair of Oscars and Stanwyck, for all her nominations, got skunked. One of those Oscars came from her role in The Heiress.

This is a strangely dark and angry little romance of both manners and ill manners. Young Catherine Sloper (de Havilland) lives a quiet and solitary life with her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) and her aunt, Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins). She is a plain girl, shy and retiring, and spends her time doting on her father and tending to her embroidery. Her father compares her unfavorably to her late mother, who was vibrant and lovely. Her aunt, though, sees the good in her and wants nothing more than for her to be happy.

Enter Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who immediately takes a liking to the girl and begins to pursue her romantically. At least that’s what he claims. Her father seems to disagree, though, thinking that Morris is after her for her inheritance. She’s inherited a tidy sum from her late mother, and stands to inherit twice that amount more when her father dies. Morris, we soon discover, is fairly dissolute. He spent his own fortune roaming around Europe, buying himself the finest clothing, and essentially ignoring his widowed sister and her five children. With that as his history, Dr. Sloper smells a bit of a rat.

The awkward Catherine refuses to see this and is convinced that he loves her for her and not for her money. Morris comes to plead his case, and does so unsuccessfully. He creates a plot to elope with Catherine in two nights, but she convinces him that they should elope that very evening. Running off to a small church and marrying, and damn the inheritance, since her father has threatened to rewrite his will should she marry Morris.

In a stunning turn of unexpected assholery, though, Morris doesn’t show up. Instead, he borrows money for passage and goes to California, completely avoiding the situation and abandoning Catherine to spinsterhood. Eventually, Dr. Sloper dies, and while he threatens to cut off Catherine’s inheritance, he does not, leaving her a very wealthy woman.

Of course, Morris returns. The remaining 15 minutes or so of the film, though are too good to spoil, so I won’t. Suffice to say that the ending is extremely satisfying.

There’s a lot of this film that really works, and a lot of what works is de Havilland. She was, as most of the classic Hollywood legends were, a stunningly attractive woman. Here, she is made plain and average. She’s not unattractive; she’s just very, very ordinary. She also tones down her vibrant personality in exchange for one that is painfully shy and drab. It’s a transformation similar to that of Charlize Theron in a film like Monster, or her own transformation in The Snake Pit.

I also like the performance of Ralph Richardson here. He’s generally an actor I enjoy watching, and in this film, he has a tendency to steal most of the scenes he is in. He plays the doctor with a combination of supreme knowledge and decided malice. One of the most effective scenes here is when he confronts Catherine about the real motives of Morris, telling her that she has no real good qualities save that her embroidery is consistently good. It’s a magnificent moment for both actors—he, acting as a doctor performing what he sees as lifesaving surgery without emotion, and she, realizing in that moment (as she tells Lavinia) that her own father dislikes her. His lack of emotion and her flood of realization at this cruelty are both palpable.

I should mention Montgomery Clift here. He’s certainly a capable actor, as his career attests, but I don’t love him here. Most of what draws me away from him is his accent. There is a touch of England in most of the characters in the film, while Clift comes across as a bit of a hick, like the lone American in a British drawing room drama. There’s something off-putting about the way he speaks throughout the film. Couple this with the fact that not a single person uses a single contraction, and there are times when the proceedings feel a bit too stiff and formal, or as formal as they can be when one person can’t seem to get the hang sounding like everyone else.

Regardless of that, The Heiress is a masterful film, precise and measured, and served with exactly the right combination of emotional reactions at exactly the right time. I have a feeling that this is a film that I will revisit again in the future, and I look forward to doing so. As much as I hate to say it, Ron might be onto something here.

Why to watch The Heiress: Olivia de Havilland at her very best, and an ending that is surprising.
Why not to watch: Montgomery Clift’s accent.


  1. This is perhaps my favorite de Havilland film. She plays so against type and just owns the entire picture. As you said, the ending is the ultimate comeuppance and exceedingly rewarding.

  2. I recommend The Snake Pit as another surprisingly good film in which de Havilland plays against type.

    My favorite part of her portrayal here is how she grows as a character over the course of the film. She's always sort of meek, but as the film continues, we start to see some steel under that soft exterior.

  3. I think I liked Clift better than you in this film, but otherwise I quite agree with you. De Havilland's transformation is just fantastic. It is also what you mention about how Cathrine Sloper is made up as a a drab and plain girl. She is almost a non-entity, a piece of background. Very well done.

    1. I'm not a believer in Clift in general, although there are films where I like him. He just never does much for me.

  4. With a central performance this strong the movie would be worth catching for that alone but in this instance there is so much more to it.

    It’s a very good adaptation of the source novel, expertly guided by Wyler and a terrific eye for detail in its sets and clothes. But it’s the other performers that swirl around Catherine that add strength to her work. Richardson is flat out amazing in his ability to make the martinet he’s playing sympathetic at times though you can never really like him because of his obdurate disregard for his daughter’s feelings. A nice touch is that Miriam Hopkins and Selena Royale as his sisters look enough alike and like him to believably be related. One of my favorite things in the film is their tiny scene before he goes in and rejects Morris where the two sisters try and explain to Dr. Sloper that Morris might make Catherine a good husband whatever his motive and he just can’t see their point. It’s sharply played by all three.

    Glad you mentioned that scene between father and daughter when he exposes his contempt of her, you actually see in a way the death of Catherine’s illusions and Olivia’s entire demeanor changes as she slowly descends into the chair. Her work is just so layered no one could touch her this year. I didn’t mind Monty Clift in this, he was somewhat different from the other performers but he’s supposed to be an outsider trying to get in so it makes sense.

    It’s an incredibly enjoyable film. The ending is perfect.

    1. It's one of the great performances of its decade, without question. I am often intrigued by de Havilland's performances because she was so clearly willing to dive into the non glamorous end of the swimming pool and take a role for its potential, not for its potential of making her look good.

      That ending, though, is the sort of thing that stays with the viewer for a long, long time.