(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day. These films could be nominees or they could be winners. They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee! We’ll see how things play out. Today, I take a look at the 1949 best picture nominee, The Heiress!)
— Catherine Sloper (Olivia De Havilland) in The Heiress (1949)
I’m not going to spoil too much of the ending of The Heiress, beyond saying that those are the words with which Catherine ends the film. Taken out of context, they may not seem like much. However, after you’ve spent two hours with Catherine, her father, and the man who claims that he’s in love with her, these are perhaps seven of the most chilling words ever uttered. When you hear them, you don’t know if you should cheer or be very, very afraid. Myself, I had both reactions but, then again, I often do.
The Heiress, which is based on a play that’s based on a novel by Henry James, takes place in 19th century New York City. Austin Sloper (Sir Ralph Richardson) is a widely admired and very successful physician. He’s also a very cold man, one who has never recovered from the death of his wife. He lives with his daughter, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland). Catherine is shy and is continually told that she’s plain and boring. She’s devoted to her father, though Austin is cruelly manipulative of her. Catherine, who has never been in a relationship, has pretty much accepted that she’s destined to be alone.
Or, at least, she has until she meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift).
From the first minute that Catherine meets him, Morris seems to be perfect. He’s handsome. He’s intelligent. He’s witty. He’s charming. He’s Montgomery Clift, for God’s sake! For Catherine, it’s love at first sight and Morris says that it’s the same for him. Suddenly, Catherine’s life no longer revolves around her father. Now, she dreams of marrying Morris.
Austin isn’t happy about this. Despite showing his daughter nothing but disdain for most of her life, Austin suddenly become protective of her. He says that Morris only wants to marry her because she stands to come into a great deal of money. To prove his point, he announces that, if Catherine and Morris get married, he will disinherit Catherine and neither she nor her husband will ever get their hands on his money.
How will Morris respond to Austin’s threat? Well, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out and you really should! The Heiress is a great movie, featuring noirish direction from William Wyler and brilliant performances from by de Havilland, Richardson, and Clift. Dr. Sloper may be a monster but Richardson plays him with so much authority that it’s hard to dismiss his worries about Morris, no matter how much you may want to. Montgomery Clift, meanwhile, keeps you guessing about Morris’s intentions. And, finally, the great Olivia de Havilland deservedly won an Oscar for her performance as Catherine Sloper. Over the course of the film, Catherine goes from being a withdrawn wallflower to being a … well, I can’t tell you anymore. I don’t want to spoil the film any more than I already have. The ending will leave you shaken in the best possible way.
The Heiress was nominated for best picture but lost to All The King’s Men.