Monday, October 06, 2014

Living and Learning From Experience

Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland): Don't be kind to me, Father. It doesn't become you.

Try as I might, I just can't think of Olivia de Havilland as plain.

I say that having seen "The Heiress," which premiered 65 years ago today. She won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Catherine Sloper (the title character of an adaptation of a play based on a Henry James novella that supposedly was inspired by a true story) and that character was very plain and very shy.

But I would never call Olivia de Havilland plain. She considered herself a classical actress when she was appearing regularly in the movies, and she paid a professional price for refusing to play bimbo roles. A skilled makeup/hair person could make her look plain, I suppose, but she wasn't naturally plain.

Nor would I call her particularly shy, either. She sued Warner Bros. for extending her contract at a time when studios virtually enslaved their talent through unfair contract extensions. She paid a price for that, too, but, in the end, she won, and "the de Havilland Law," as it is known, shifted the balance of power in Hollywood from the studios to the performers.

I've never read James' novella, but if plain and shy is an accurate description of its heroine, I imagine that de Havilland really must have done a superb job of portraying her because she was clearly playing against type.

The only thing that her father (Ralph Richardson) thought she had going for her was her wealth, and he was determined that de Havilland's handsome, young suitor Morris (Montgomery Clift) wouldn't get his hands on it. Catherine saw her father as emotionally abusive. I think a pretty good case could be made for protective. I've known many fathers who didn't approve of their daughters' choices for husbands.

But as Lysander said in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"...

"The course of true love never did run smooth."

It wasn't really true love, though. Turned out Catherine's father was right. Her suitor was after her money, and he disappeared the minute it seemed her dowry would be cut off.

Richardson's relationship with de Havilland was devastating to watch. He was well–meaning and wanted to protect his daughter, but he also felt disdain for her. The scene where she realized that was painful to watch — and remains so even after several viewings.

Morris surfaced again several years later, after Catherine's father had died, and insisted he left because he wanted to spare her the "grief" of being disinherited. Her words told him he was back in her good graces, but the audience could see facial expressions he didn't see and body language he failed to pick up.

She told him to pick her up that night and they would be married, but she had no intention of going away with him.

"He's grown greedier over the years," she told her aunt. "Before he only wanted my money; now he wants my love as well. Well, he came to the wrong house — and he came twice. I shall see that he does not come a third time."

"Can you be so cruel?" her shocked aunt asked.

"Yes, I can be very cruel," replied Catherine. "I have been taught by masters."

And when he returned, the door was bolted. He kept knocking, but there was no answer.

One of the things I liked best about "The Heiress" — but I never hear it mentioned — was how director William Wyler made parts of the set silent characters.

Take, for example, the tall, narrow stairway in her father's home. When Catherine was anticipating Morris' arrival to take her away from her old life, one could imagine her bounding down the stairs in excitement. The audience didn't actually see that part, just the glowing Catherine with her bags all packed waiting by the front door.

But when she made the long, arduous climb back up those stairs after reaching the agonizing conclusion that Morris wasn't coming after all, each step was more painful than the last.

The acting in "The Heiress" was spellbinding, and de Havilland, as I mentioned, did win the Best Actress Oscar, but Richardson lost Best Supporting Actor to Dean Jagger ("Twelve O'Clock High"); "The Heiress" also won Oscars for Best Dramatic or Comedy Score, Best Black and White Art Direction and Best Black and White Costume Design.

It was recognized with Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Black and White Cinematography. The movie's eight Oscar nominations and four victories outperformed every other motion picture that year, even the Best Picture winner, "All the King's Men."