' ' Cinema Romantico: The Heiress

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Heiress

"When the promise is broken you go on living but it steals something from down in your soul." - Bruce Springsteen, "The Promise"

Broken hearts in movies anymore mean so little. They're a trifle, a piece of plot, signifying nothing. Think about the times when your heart has been broken. It hurts, doesn't it? It's not a tepid bruise where you attractively mope about the town while awaiting the inevitable turnabout for the happy ending, is it? Nope. The freaking thing's broken. And it's painful. And maybe other people think you're just being overemotional but, of course, they're full of it because when their hearts are broken they feel like you do. And you change, maybe for the better, maybe for the worse, maybe for a bit of both, but there is a distinct change because a broken heart is too monumental a event to leave you unchanged. And maybe that's why broken hearts in movies anymore mean so little. No one whose heart is broken undergoes any kind of real change. They don't get that faraway look in their eyes that exposes a brand new, hardened edge. It's all Movie Change where no deeper knowledge is acquired aside from Hey, She/He Really Does Love Me! But when in William Wyler's "The Heiress (1949) Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) has her heart broken not once but twice, damn, man, it counts for something. I've never seen a cinematic heartbreak count for more.

Despite the film's base material, Henry James' 1880 short novel "Washington Square", "The Heiress" starts out feeling so much like a modern day romantic comedy. Catherine is the title character, already inheriting $10,000 a year from her deceased mother, and set to inherit another $20,000 from her father Austin (Ralph Richardson), a well-to-do doctor, upon his passing. But Catherine is shy - awkwardly, painfully shy, almost a Jane Austen-esque introvert. Suddenly, one might say magically, into her life comes dashing, worldly Morris Townsend (dashing, worldly Montgomery Clift), who introduces himself at a lavish engagement party and instantly begins courting Catherine, much to the surprise of her father and aunt (Miriam Hopkins) since Catherine's anti-social nature has long left her man-less. Ah, Morris is just in it for the inheritance. Right? This is what Dr. Sloper suspects, of course, but Morris seems chivalrous in the way he admits right outta the box that he's poor, essentially penniless, and can't offer Catherine much more than in the way of love. Catherine seems convinced. We seem convinced. At least, I seem convinced. But the movie, adapted for the screen (and originally the stage) by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, has so much more on its deceitful, duplicitous mind. It takes you on a wild ride that for all its parlor rooms and top hats and fancy gowns pulls back the curtain to bitch-slap the everlasting hell out of the Victorian Age.

I have mentioned numerous times on this blog that I grew up with the films of Olivia de Havilland. My mom felt about "Gone With The Wind" the way I feel about "Last of the Mohicans" and so I'd seen her as Melanie Wilkes probably before I had any real comprehension of the burning of Atlanta. I saw her films with Errol Flynn, "Captain Blood" and "Adventures Of Robin Hood" and "Charge Of The Light Brigade", at the same age I was watching He-Man cartoons. But I'd never seen "The Heiress" and, to put it most mildly, de Havilland's work here astounded me. Despite watching it on DVR, when I needed to go to the bathroom I couldn't even pause it and walk away.

Within the first half-hour de Havilland (who won the Best Actress Oscar for her work) unleashes such expressive physicality it had me laughing out loud in pure pleasure. When the father of the soon-to-be bride at the party congratulates his daughter and her fiancé, de Havilland's face - her lips quivering ever so slightly, a tear or two threatening to roll - registers cheer and envy and heartache in equal doses. It's the sort of shot that renders character development and backstory - however well done - mute. You can see an entire life lived in that face. The joy she feels for the happy couple and the dejection that this has not yet happened to her and perhaps a resignation to the fact that it won't. And then Morris turns up on the scene and asks her to dance and they do and her eyes dart up and down, disbelieving of this event but thankful it is happening, and so he asks if he can call on her and he does, several days in a row, and he follows her around the house, the staging of this sequence being just sublime, as he leans in, eagerly, to talk and she leans back, away from him, every time, displaying her uneasiness, her lack of so-called People Skills. In fact, when Catherine's aunt mentions the flowers that Morris has sent you can see the expression form on Catherine's face of "Oh, right, now I have to be polite" and so she says "Yes, thank you, they were very fresh, I mailed you a thank you note this morning" in a rigid, rehearsed, forced tone.

This seems to be her greatest flaw. This inability to interact. She is "unmarriable", and that's the word her father - her own father - uses. His wife, as he says over and over and again and again, was perfect. She was full of "grace and gaiety" while Catherine has "no social adeptness" and is "without a shred of poise." Ouch. Richardson's turn here is outstanding, too (he won Best Supporting Actor that year), kind but domineering, adherent to the restrictive code of the Victorian Age, delivering backhanded compliments with an acidity to rival the Alien's blood. What he does may very well be in the best interests of his daughter, but the way he goes about it and, most importantly, the way he thinks of her is devastatingly cruel.

Catherine, sadly, but expectedly, remains unaware of these feelings of her father's and it is not until after Morris has told Catherine he loves her - and consider her reaction to this, when he asks "Do you love me?" and she says, quickly, almost automatically, realizing she knew even though she didn't, "Yes", and then the kiss and then she repeats with a delicate pause after each word, as if clarifying, as if savoring the joy of actually getting to say these words and meaning them, "I. Love. You." - and asked her to marry him and she says she will and her father refuses to grant permission for them to be wed until he has taken his daughter to Europe for six months to ensure that Morris does not stray and then returned to America when it becomes clear Catherine can't get Morris out of her head that her father reveals his true feelings about his own daughter to her face.

It's as brutal as a sucker punch, as ghastly as a high speed car wreck, and when Catherine and Morris then have the obligatory kiss in the rain your spirit momentarily soars until the turn, the moment when she declares, "Oh, I can do anything, my dearest." It's the first moment in the whole film when she leaves behind her soft-spoken girlish voice and sounds grown up. And just a little bit angry. She's still smiling, she's still hopeful, she's still in love with this man, but her heart has been broken and she's changed even if it's almost imperceptible at this point.

But, oh, another twist is to come - and I won't say what it is but you can probably guess - and then the naive armor cracks completely and your gut is wrenched as she climbs her stairs. This is the second of three shots showing Catherine going up that staircase and the whole movie can be found in them. Giddiness and sadness and then the second-to-last shot of the film which grips you in the vice of its conflicting emotions. The specifics of it will not be given away by me but in this final ascent there is a strange triumph but also an irrevocable bitterness. The promise was broken and, sure, Catherine has and will go on living but it's stolen something from down in her soul and you can see it. You can see it. You can feel it.

Now I want to stress that what I am about to say I do not say lightly. Not in the slightest. We all know I'm a superlative enthusiast and of this fact I am proud. After all, one of my mottos is Life Is Short - Be Hyperbolic. As the days and years scarily speed up and time goes faster and faster, I'm becoming even less about restraint. But what I am about to proclaim are not the words of the overwrought melodramatic you know so well. I first saw "The Heiress" two weeks ago and I waited and pondered, on the train to and from work, over coffee, at lunch, in those moments before I drifted off to sleep, during my 150,000 listens to "Born This Way", because my initial feelings were serious business that deserved the utmost consideration. Well, I've considered and what I've determined is that I experienced a pictorial revelation.

One question an avid moviegoer such as myself often receives is What Is The Greatest Movie You Have Ever Seen? As all avid moviegoers are aware there is a vital difference between Greatest and Favorite. We all know my personal favorites. Greatest, on the other hand, implies perfection or at least the very closest to perfection attained in the medium. So when someone asks me to name The Greatest Movie I've Ever Seen, I answer "Chinatown." When someone asks me to name The Greatest Male Screen Performance I've Ever Seen, I answer George C. Scott in "Dr. Strangelove." But when someone asks me to name The Greatest Female Screen Performance I've Ever Seen I have never really had an accurate reply. Kate Winslet is my favorite actress, sure, but as we just established that's not the same thing. Faye Dunaway is magnificent but she has never taken me on a transformative journey. Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace meant a presposterously great deal to me but in no, way, shape or form is that The Greatest Female Screen Performance. Maybe I would have said Ingrid Bergman in "Notorious" or "Stromboli" or Lauren Bacall in the first 45 minutes of "To Have And Have Not" or Bette Davis in "All About Eve." But now I realize why I never had an appropriate answer. I had not seen it. Now I have. You can scoff, yes, and that's cool, but, make no mistake, I mean what I say. This film is a fucking miracle and its lead actress belittles the term tour de force.

Olivia de Havilland in "The Heiress" is The Greatest Female Screen Performance I've Ever Seen.


Lexi said...

Well...I guess I'll have to see this one!! I am quite intrigued!

Andrew K. said...

Beautiful review, and this is one of those posts that sort of encapsulates movie reviewing/blogging/criticism - whatsoever. Do I think Olivia's work here is the greatest of all time? No; but your enthusiasm is infectious.

I do love this performance, though, Olivia is so brilliant here and it's really a performance of a lifetime. I always feel a bit miffed, though, that people seem to end their appreciation of The Heiress there, though (something you don't). It's a fine film, and I think Richardson and Clift are great too - of course, it IS Havilland's court.