And the Academy Award goes to Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress!
Ah, the wonderful Olivia de Havilland. The sweet and lovely ingenue who starred opposite Errol Flynn in eight fabulous adventure films… and of course, the actress who played the ever-so-sweet Melanie Hamilton (much to the chagrin of Scarlett) in Gone with the Wind. Yes, I think most of us would agree that Olivia played her share of kind and virtuous roles… and she played them well…
Olivia with the dashing Errol Flynn in Captain Blood
But, as much as I adore those ‘demure’ Olivia roles (and can watch these films a million times and never get bored), I am mighty glad that she became increasingly frustrated with the roles assigned to her, and decided to fight for the right to expand her craft and grow as an actress by playing more challenging and varied roles. And when I say ‘fight’ I do mean fight — it involved taking Warner Brothers to court and being virtually blacklisted for a few years, but in the end it resulted in a landmark decision (the De Havilland Law) that essentially reduced the power of the studios and increased the creative freedom of actors. Needless to say, Olivia won the respect and admiration of her peers, and, well, the rest is history…
That said, during that time, the quality and variety of Olivia’s roles began to change, and that brings us to the subject of this post — Olivia’s Oscar-Winning Performance in William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949) — which was based on the 1947 play that was adapted from the 1880 Henry James novel Washington Square.
In the film, Olivia plays Catherine Sloper — the homely, shy, spinster daughter of wealthy widow Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson). She is clearly a disappointment to her father as she is nothing like her mother; instead she is “an entirely mediocre and defenseless creature with not a shred of poise”. She meets and falls in love with ‘eligible’ young bachelor Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who promptly proposes marriage to her. Her father suspects that Morris is a fortune hunter (how could he possibly love such a homely and dull girl), and threatens to disinherit Catherine. Catherine plans to elope with Morris, but after she reveals to him that her father will disinherit her, Morris doesn’t show up for the elopement as planned, leaving her crushed and broken-hearted. She becomes resentful and cold towards her father, and even argues with him bitterly when he is gravely ill. Her father dies shortly after, and she inherits his fortune. A few years later, Morris returns, begging her for forgiveness and professing his true love, saying that he left her years ago only to prevent her from being disinherited. Catherine pretends to believe and forgive him, and asks to elope with him again. And that is when she takes her ultimate revenge…
Olivia’s Oscar-Winning performance believably takes us through Catherine’s evolution from an excruciatingly naive, timid and love-starved girl into a cold, calculating and heartless woman. And — we understand her every step of the way, as she is the unfortunate victim of her father’s distance and disdain, and her lover’s selfishness and rejection. Nice job Olivia!
And now for some quotes (please note that I had to take some liberty with the pictures)…
Catherine: Oh, Morris, are you very sure you love me?
Morris: Oh, my own dearest, how can you doubt it?
Dr. Sloper: Well, I suppose you’ll be going off with him any time now.
Catherine: Yes, if he will have me.
Dr. Sloper: Why not? You’ll be a most entertaining companion.
Catherine: I will try to be.
Dr. Sloper: And your gaiety and brilliance will make up the difference between the $10,000 a year you will have and the $30,000 he expects.
Catherine: He expects nothing. He does not love me for that.
Dr. Sloper: No? What else, then? Your grace? Your charm? Your quick tongue and subtle wit?
Catherine: My father doesn’t like me…In this one thing, I know I am right…I understood it tonight for the first time in my life…We must never ask him for anything or depend upon him for anything. We must be very happy and expect nothing from him, ever.
Morris: Catherine, dear, he can’t dislike you that much. He’s bound to come around.
Catherine: No, Morris. He will not, but even if he would, I would not.
Morris: I see.
Catherine: He must come. He must take me away. He must love me… Morris must take hold of me. Morris will love me — for all those who didn’t.
Catherine: You have cheated me. You thought that any handsome, clever man would be as bored with me as you were. It was not love that made you protect me. It was contempt.
Dr. Sloper: Morris Townsend did not love you, Catherine.
Catherine: I know that now, thanks to you.
Dr. Sloper: Better to know it now than 20 years hence.
Catherine: Why? I lived with you for 20 years before I found out you didn’t love me. I don’t know that Morris would have hurt me or starved me for affection more than you did. Since you couldn’t love me, you should have let someone else try.
Dr. Sloper: You have found a tongue at last, Catherine. Is it only to say such terrible things to me?
Catherine: Yes, this is a field where you will not compare me to my mother.
Catherine: He came back with the same lies, the same silly phrases… He has grown greedier with the years. The first time, he only wanted my money. Now he wants my love, too. Well, he came to the wrong house, and he came twice. I shall see that he never comes a third time.
Aunt Lavinia: (Miriam Hopkins) Catherine, do you know what you’re doing?
Aunt Lavinia: Poor Morris. Can you be so cruel?
Catherine: Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters.
Catherine (to her maid): Bolt it, Maria… Bolt the door, Maria.
Morris (outside ringing the doorbell): Catherine? Catherine… Catherine, Catherine, Catherine!!!
And the Oscar goes to…
Olivia de Havilland for Best Actress, The Heiress
A big Thank You to Kellee (@IrishJayhawk66) of Outspoken & Freckled, Paula (@Paula_Guthat) of Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon a Screen for hosting this fun 31 Days of Oscar event! There are so many more wonderful Classic Bloggers participating in this event so please be sure to check out the other entries.
–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub