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Monday, October 17, 2016

The Heiress

Olivia de Havilland won two Oscars. Her first was in 1946, for To Each His Own, which seems to not exist on any home consumption platform. Her second was three years later for The Heiress, which is available on DVD and one of many classics directed by William Wyler.

Based on a play which was in turn based on a novel by Henry James, The Heiress concerns a homely, socially awkward woman who is the son of a rich doctor in New York society. She is swept off her feet by a handsome but penniless man, Montgomery Clift. But her father (Ralph Richardson) suspects that Clift is only after her money. He threatens to cut off her inheritance, and what Clift does when he finds out devastates her.

de Havilland deserved her Oscar if only for the sharp turn her character takes. At the beginning, she is scared of her own shadow, preferring embroidery to parties. Clift's interest in her makes her giddy, and they plan to marry after only knowing each other a few days. Her father (Ralph Richardson) takes her to Europe to see if she will forget him, but it doesn't work. But things reach a breaking point when Richardson tells his daughter that Clift couldn't possibly love her--she has no redeeming qualities, other than neat embroidery.

She realizes her father never loved her, and she turns cold and cruel. The ending is quite famous, and even though it's a nearly seventy-year-old film I hesitate to spoil it, but it involves Clift banging on her front door, while she callously (or perhaps rightfully, depending on your point of view) ignores him.

The film is slow to build but that last act is a doozy. I particularly enjoyed an exchange between Richardson and Clift when they have it out--they insult each other in such sophisticated ways. Richardson tells him, "You are being impertinent," and "You are beneath contempt." Those swells that lived on Washington Square were so polite, even when arguing! And then when de Havilland lets Richardson have it, that's her Oscar-winning scene. Gone is the meek little kitten, and out comes the lioness.

This is a terrific film, a true classic, and so far it's my favorite of de Havilland's performances. I still have to see The Snake Pit, though.

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