Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Heiress

Last night I watched The Heiress, a film based on the Henry James novel Washington Square.  Directed by William Wyler and starring Olivia DeHaviland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson, this was perhaps the saddest movie I've ever seen.  It wasn't the classic Hollywood tearjerker, where the main characters were doing well and would have continued to do so but for an unexpected event that interrupts their lives.  From the moment we meet Catherine Sloper, the socially inept heroine of the title, and her rigid, controlling, perfectionist father, we know that things are going to End Badly.  Despite brief glimpses of hope in mid-story, the trajectory is almost entirely downward, and I was dry-eyed at the end because the final tragedy was so inevitable.

In brief, Catherine's father (Richardson) has never forgiven her for not being the reincarnation of her deceased mother, a brilliant, beautiful, charming and talented woman.  He ignores his daughter's frantic attempts to win his love and approval and undercuts her self-confidence at every turn.  When she is courted by the poor but gorgeous Morris Townsend (Clift), he does his best to destroy the relationship, finally telling her she is such a nonentity that no man will ever want her except for her money.  Shattered by this cruelty, Catherine tries to repudiate the inheritance from her father and elope with Morris, only to be rejected by him in turn once she is no longer an heiress.  The rest of the movie is Catherine's revenge on the two men who have killed her innocence.

One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is the question of Dr. Sloper's motives for rejecting Morris as a suitor.  On the one hand, he seems to want Catherine to marry and marry well, so she will appear "normal" to others and also have someone to protect her (he's sure she's too incompetent to manage alone).  On the other hand, he's also convinced that no one will marry her except for her inheritance, which would seem to eliminate everyone he would consider a suitable husband from consideration; if that's so, why not accept Morris, who if he is a fortune hunter is also doing his best to make Catherine feel cherished?  Perhaps the doctor's real concern is not for his daughter, but for the money he has earned through hard work and careful investing.  Deep down he may feel it's better for Catherine to remain single forever than for some undeserving scoundrel (and any man interested in Catherine must be an undeserving scoundrel) to enjoy her inheritance after their marriage.

Richardson is absolutely chilling as the disdainful, rejecting father, and DeHaviland is superb as Catherine.  I was a little surprised that she was cast as a character who is repeatedly referred to as plain; despite the best attempts of the hair and makeup people, no one with her huge, expressive eyes could possibly be considered plain.  After seeing the film, though, I understand perfectly.  Very few actresses have the emotional range needed for this role, but DeHaviland was perfect as the shy girl in love, the tormented victim in the moment of rejection, and the implacable woman bent on justice for her wrongs.  She won the 1950 Oscar for Best Actress for this movie; well, duh.

Aunt Penniman: Can you be so cruel?
Catherine Sloper: Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters. 

~The Heiress

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