Helmed by director William Wyler, The Heiress was originally a play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz based on Henry James’ Washington Square.
Set in 1850’s New York, It opens with our introduction to Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) and the people in the Sloper household.It is here we see her as the plain, shy woman who is undesirable to men. Her brilliant surgeon father Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) does a poor job of hiding his disappointment in his daughter, and constantly compares her to his late wife who had everything Catherine lacks, he enlists his recently widowed sister Lavinia to encourage Catherine to socialize with the young people in a party that night. That evening they go to a party where her cousin’s engagement is announced and there she meets a handsome young man named Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) a cousin of the groom who takes interest in her and who her father suspects is a fortune hunter.
Stars: Montgomery Clift, Olivia de Havilland and Ralph Richardson
Olivia de Havilland (Gone With The Wind) as Catherine is brilliant, and heartbreaking as she is pitted against two men who take no interest in her well-being. She captures Catherine’s shyness, vulnerability and desperation to be loved by someone and she sees this in Morris Townsend. Montgomery Clift (From Here To Eternity, A Place In The Sun), who plays the young and handsome suitor, gives his most least interesting role a subtle ambiguity. Ralph Richardson (Q Planes, The Fallen Idol) as the emotionally abusive father brings poise, and authority as Dr. Sloper. And Miriam Hopkins (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) as Catherine’s aunt who just wants to see her get married gives much added support to an already brilliant cast, her character is entirely blinded by Townsend’s youth and beauty.
‘We didn’t get along in the script, we sure as hell aren’t going to get along on the set!’
‘This movie isn’t about you!’
It’s interesting to note that during filming its stars did not get along. Montgomery Clift had the script re-written, and had an acting coach on set. Olivia de Havilland said she felt Clift wasn’t working with her at all (he didn’t respect her acting abilities), instead he worked with his coach and it was problematic for William Wyler as well who was already a respected director. Other problems arose when de Havilland and Clift were both threatened by Ralph Richardson’s theatrical professionalism that in scenes with father and daughter Wyler had to frame them in a particular way because Richardson improvised in order to draw attention to himself, and his technique intimidated Clift. Olivia de Havilland later said that Miriam Hopkins acted like the film was all about her. Despite relations between the stars, the film is brilliant and haunting and a particular scene that culminates Catherine’s transformation earned de Havilland her second Oscar win in 1950 for Best Actress after her previous win in To Each His Own, Richardson was nominated for Best Supporting Actor as was William Wyler for Best Director but both lost it that year while Aaron Copland won Best Music Score (it certainly does have an amazing theme!)
Highly recommended for Classic Film fans especially those who love solid acting.