Thursday, January 3, 2008

For Love or Money

I watched another film the same day I watched Bullets Over Broadway and Dance, Girl, Dance, but it's so great that it deserves its own post. That film is The Heiress (1949), directed by the fabulous William Wyler, and starring Olivia de Havilland in an Oscar-winning performance. I wanted to write about it in more depth because this is one of my favorite films ever, and Olivia de Havilland is unquestionably one of my favorite actresses (definitely in my top 5, maybe even top 3 - I'd have to think about it). I think she's one of the greatest actresses in film history. She's still alive today, too. That's awesome. Sadly, so many of the stars from Hollywood's Golden Age are gone. She's 91, and I keep hearing rumors that she might make another film. She should! It would be instant Oscar right there. I mean, she'd probably deserve it anyway. And why hasn't the Academy honored her yet with some sort of lifetime achievement deal? She's still around and should be celebrated and honored! What's wrong with them?

So, I love Olivia de Havilland. Her performance as Catherine Sloper is one of the most brilliant in film history (I know I keep making all these grand declarations, but they're true!). It takes place in the mid-1800s in New York. De Havilland plays a young heiress, obviously. Her father is a successful doctor. She's very shy and plain and destined to become an old maid. Her father, played deliciously by Ralph Richardson, resents her because her mother (whom he adored) died in childbirth. He tells her constantly that she's a lousy replacement. He's an awful man, but Richardson makes him so much fun to watch. Seriously, he does mean, haughty British arrogance as good as anyone, even George Sanders or Rex Harrison. It's delectable.

Olivia de Havilland was insanely beautiful, and they did a really good job of making her look plain. But that kind of beauty can't be extinguished. It's still there. Catherine is very shy and has an ally in her aunt, played warmly by Miriam Hopkins. She encourages Catherine, at the behest of her father, to mingle and socialize. At a party, Catherine is approached by the dashing Morris Townshend (a swoon-worthy, never better-looking Montgomery Clift). He's so charming, and she falls instantly in love. Her aunt is thrilled, but Dr. Sloper is suspicious. Catherine already gets money every year from her mother's death, and when he dies, she will receive, total, $30,000 a year (in the mid-1800s). So, she'd be ridiculously wealthy. Dr. Sloper thinks Morris is only after her inheritance. He doesn't think Catherine could possibly interest anyone on her own. Morris proposes, but Dr. Sloper won't give his approval. If she marries him without it, he'll cut her out of his will. Goodbye, money. He throws down the gauntlet. What will Catherine and Morris do?

So, that's the basic plot. I won't say anything else about it, because it unfolds wonderfully. It's a rather exciting, suspenseful drama that keeps you constantly guessing and consistently hypnotized. I talked disdainfully about Dance, Girl, Dance. The Heiress was made in 1949, only 9 years later. There's no style in Dance, Girl, Dance. It's technically miserable and cheap-looking. It's lazy. The Heiress is the perfect example of what you could do within the studio system if you made an effort (There were many great, innovative films - I'm just using these two as examples since I saw them most recently. Trust me, no one will champion the studio system and the Golden Age like me.). You didn't have to churn out a cookie cutter movie. You could have flair. You could be brilliant. And William Wyler was a brilliant man. Anyone who says he's not a visual filmmaker (and there are people who say it) is crazy. The Heiress is gorgeous. Every angle, every shot - everything is meticulous and perfect. The mise-en-scène is overflowing with creativity. The cinematography is so crisp and beautiful. The costumes by the incomparable Edith Head make you feel like you're in the mid-1800s. The compositions are all so rich and layered. The production design and art direction are decadent and awe-inspiring. It's an exquisitely made film.

The acting is amazing across the board. Miriam Hopkins is so sweet and enthusiastic. There's more life in her eyes than in all the actors and actresses in Dance, Girl, Dance combined. Ralph Richardson, as I've already said, is sinisterly wonderful. Montgomery Clift, besides being a dreamboat, is so lively and sincere in his performance. It was one of his first films, and he brings such passion to the screen. He was an original. But Olivia de Havilland obviously steals the film. There is so much nuance in her performance. Her whole body is engaged in the acting process. She's even acting out of her pores. She's so sweet and innocent and naive at the beginning, all fluttery and awkward. And then she changes. By the end of the film, she's barely recognizable. It has nothing to do with costume or make-up. It's her own physical transformation through acting. I don't want to spoil it by saying how her character is different, but let me assure you that it's astonishing to see what de Havilland does to convey Catherine's arc. Her voice, her face, and her whole body just make this drastic shift. It's really astounding. It's one of the most thrilling performances I've ever witnessed.

The Heiress is a remarkable film. It hasn't aged a bit. It still seems as fresh and exciting as if it was 1949. Olivia de Havilland had won an Oscar only a couple years earlier for To Each His Own. After winning for The Heiress, she said: "When I won the first award in 1947, I was terribly thrilled. But this time I felt solemn, very serious and . . . shocked. Yes, shocked! It's a great responsibility to win the award twice." How humble. What a classy lady. I'm not shocked, though. Nobody who sees The Heiress could possibly be shocked. She's a genius. For once, the Academy got something right.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

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