Friday, September 27, 2019

What Have We Inherited from “The Heiress”?

Does The Heiress, an oldie from 1949 based on a Henry James novel called Washington Square, have anything to say to us today? In this #MeToo era, we’re all aware of women who’ve been pressured by men into unwanted sexual activity. Being a woman now—at a time when sexual compliance is often expected as a quid pro quo for favors received--is hardly easy. Still, it’s got to be an improvement on the nineteenth century, when a woman’s entire life was based on the obligation to marry and produce heirs.

Catherine Sloper, who lives with her doctor-father in an elegant Greenwich Village mansion, has what may seem an easy life. Having no need to earn her living, she devotes her time to embroidery, pretty dresses, and making homelife comfortable for her widowed papa. He pays her back by comparing her—in strongly negative terms—to her dead mother, whose good looks and charm the shy Catherine can’t hope to approximate. It’s clear to her that he considers her an abject failure, because no eligible bachelor seems willing to look at her twice.

Everything changes when, at a posh neighborhood soiree, she is asked to dance by the handsome Morris Townsend, just back from a swing through Europe. Almost immediately he is courting her, and she is falling head over heels in love. Their quick engagement is applauded by her giddy aunt, who thrives on the romance of it, but Dr. Sloper is sure from the start that the attractive but impoverished Morris is a fortune-hunter. To the good doctor, it’s clear that Morris Townsend is attracted less by Catherine’s quiet charm than by her future financial expectations.

So sure is Catherine that her beloved wants her for herself alone that she chooses to face disinheritance by organizing a late-night elopement. She’s thrilled by the prospect of leaving the family home forever, and going off into a future where she and Morris will live on love.  Alas, we’re not surprised when her betrothed leaves her in the lurch, and all her romantic dreams turn to dust.  The true suspense in the story comes when—several years later—Morris returns from far-off California to resume his courtship. By this point, Dr. Sloper is dead, and Catherine is the mistress of both her house and her desires. From this position of power, how will she react to Morris’s pretty speeches about why he abandoned her (for her own good, of course) all those years ago?

Catherine Sloper was played by Olivia de Havilland, now still alive and feisty at 103. It was she who brought a successful Broadway play to the attention of William Wyler, insisting on playing the role that ultimately brought her an Oscar. Ironically, de Havilland is perhaps best known as the sweet, docile Melanie in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. Her petite prettiness was not ideally suited to the role of Catherine, despite the valiant attempts of the production staff. Yet in the latter sections of the film, the steel in her spine seems quite genuine. Britain’s Ralph Richardson was Oscar-nominated for playing her father, subtly conveying the sense of a man who doesn’t realize how hatefully he’s treating his only child. I also admired veteran charmer Miriam Hopkins as the flighty aunt. But Montgomery Clift, starting to get a reputation as sensitive leading man, somehow seems too modern for this very period piece. Kudos to William Wyler for his elegant direction (which makes vivid use of the house’s massive staircase), and to Aaron Copland, who won an Oscar for bringing his symphonic gifts to the film’s score.

No comments:

Post a Comment