The Heiress, 1949, Paramount Pictures. Starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift. Directed by William Wyler. B&W, 116 minutes.
Shy, naïve and devoted to the father who wants little to do with her, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is easily taken in by the charms of handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who sets out to win her heart with every step he knows to take. Her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) is suspicious of Morris, but Catherine is determined to marry the young man.
To prevent the marriage from taking place, Dr. Sloper first escorts Catherine on an extended trip to Europe, and later threatens to disinherit her. He is an emotionally distant father, captivated by the memory of his late wife, to whom he constantly compares his daughter with great disfavor.
Charmed by Townsend, and his greatest advocate, is Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins). Above all, Lavinia is devoted to her niece’s happiness and sees Morris Townsend as a wonderful catch for her.
Ultimately Catherine must decide for herself what kind of man Morris is, and the journey she takes to reach her conclusion is gripping and heart-wrenching.
After seeing the play The Heiress on Broadway, Olivia de Havilland went to William Wyler about the idea of directing her in a film version. A natural beauty, once again she allowed herself to be cast as a plain woman. What Hollywood magic couldn’t hide, nor would anyone have wanted to, was her remarkable poise and presence onscreen.
Montgomery Clift was a rising star at the time and already known as someone challenging to work with. He was unhappy with the script, the director and his co-star, but never complained about the studio’s promotional efforts touting him as a sex symbol.
The stage play had been adapted from the novel Washington Square by Henry James, who was inspired to write it after hearing of a friend’s brother’s attempts to marry a wealthy woman. The screenplay was very true to the Broadway production, which was more loosely based on the novel.
The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won four: Best Actress for de Havilland, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design for Edith Head and Best Original Score for Aaron Copland.
Emotionally powerful, with wonderful performances all around, The Heiress is less a stereotypical Hollywood romance and more a story of human weaknesses and vulnerabilities, strengths and virtues. It takes a simple story and elevates it to a complex tale.