Monday, April 19, 2010

Olivia wins an Oscar

This week, we turned to a more serious film - The Heiress, with Ms. de Havilland in one of her Oscar winning roles.  And is this ever a tour de force performance! Olivia stars as Catherine Sloper, a plain, shy, unmarried woman who lives quietly with her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (played with grave superciliousness by Ralph Richardson) and widowed aunt Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins). Though we learn little of Catherine's history prior to this movie, we know that her mother is long dead, and that her father finds her a huge disappointment. Her mother was a great beauty, to which poor Catherine could not hope (in his opinion) to hold a candle; Dr. Sloper mourns his wife, and bemoans that fact that it was SHE taken from him (and not Catherine).  Catherine is blithely unaware of her father's true feelings, until she meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), a young man who has spent his inheritance on a long trip to Europe. He pursues Catherine; professes his love for her, but meets with resistance from Dr. Sloper.  It soon becomes apparent that Dr. Sloper is convinced that Morris' motives are less than worthy primarily because Catherine is not, in his opinion, worthy of love.  She could not possibly attract (he feels) such an attractive man, unless the only motive was her money.

We'll never know if Catherine and Morris would have been happy together. And that was much of our conversation following the movie.  The film is based on the book Washington Square, by Henry James.  Interestingly, in the book, both Catherine's mother and brother have died, leaving her an heiress because of her brother's death.  Catherine (in the film) never discusses her mother; we wondered if she had even known her mother.  Mrs. Sloper's death in childbirth would present an interesting motive for Dr. Sloper's antipathy towards his daughter, but of course, we can only present this as another way to view Dr. Sloper's attitude.

The cast here is magnificent. Olivia de Havilland's Catherine is shy, but with a biting wit when she allows it to show; controlled, but passionate when she finally meets the man of her dreams; romantic, but caustic when she has to face the truth about Morris.  Miriam Hopkins' Aunt Lavinia walks a fine line (successfully) between matchmaker and pander; Ralph Richardson is cold, aloof, and ultimately cruel as Dr. Sloper. And finally, Mongomery Clift, who creates a Morris that it is hard to dislike, but easy to distrust.

A hearty thumbs up for this movie. You should run right out to see it. In this trailer, we not only see Ms. de Havilland accepting her Oscar from Ray Milland, we see a few clips from the film:

Next week, we'll be looking at a comedy - Princess O'Rourke. Hope you'll join us then.

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