Happy Birthday to Olivia de Havilland. She's 98 today. She made the 90s look terrific.
Directed by William Wyler, it's 1949's The Heiress starring Olivia de Havilland as the shy, sweet, insecure woman who is starved for affection and may only be loved for her money.
Catherine is the caterpillar we hope will become a butterfly. Her cocoon is a large, tasteful New York City townhouse she lives in with her wealthy widower father, a physician. Dr. Sloper (sharply played by Ralph Richardson) can heal the sick but he does nothing to mend his wounded relationship with his daughter. She's a good, devoted daughter. He withholds affection. He makes comments that can be as cold and cutting as a scalpel. Catherine's late mother was a great beauty. He reminds Catherine of that. Catherine can't grow in that house competing with the ghost of her dead mother for her father's affection.
This is one of those Olivia de Havilland movies that I've seen numerous times -- like Gone With The Wind, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Snake Pit and My Cousin Rachel. She fascinates me in this move. She and Wyler were at a creative peak here.
Notice how she holds herself as Catherine in the first half of the film. There's the tension of awkwardness in her shoulders and in her eyes. She's not an "ugly duckling." She just needs some love, support and a makeover. Tweeze those eyebrows and ditch that spinster hairdo. Catherine speaks in an upper register, a vocal tone right for a female character who lacks self-confidence and is seeking approval. Her cold father dominates her in scenes. He towers over her or he seems bigger.
Even though the movie's action is set around 1850 in downtown Manhattan's Washington Square (now the home of NYU), the skeptical Dr. Sloper character is very relevant today. There are parents who will declare "I'm a good parent! I've never hit my child!" yet they are emotionally abusive. They humiliate, shame or criticize with their remarks. Their damage to a child's spirit can be more lasting, more hurting than the pain of a single slap. Dr. Sloper is one of those emotionally abusive parents who will learn that karma can be a bitch.
Notice Catherine's body language in her father's presence. The pitch of her voice. The needy and almost comically confused look in her eyes. There is humor in this performance of de Havilland's. That's a Wyler touch I love in this. Watch her at the dance in the open of the movie. When she jokes with her chatty, silly Aunt Lavinia, we see that Catherine is not without spark and wit. She just doesn't fit into her father's or society's mode of what a woman should be and how she should behave. To put her in today's terms, it's as if society gives the impression that woman's worth is based on a Red Carpet moment. Looks and what she's wearing count more than talent and character. Catherine is not the type to use feminine wiles to get a man. She's too direct for that. She lacks pretense. She's not without talent and discipline. She embroiders. It may seem simple but it's a detailed, complicated craft that she has mastered. In that engagement party scene, we also see her vulnerability. When a father addresses the guests and declares his love and pride for his daughter, we see a shot of Catherine. Notice the tears in her eyes. Her father never declares such warmth of feeling for her.
When the jilted daughter verbally cuts down her father, he's so stricken that he must leave the room and go upstairs.
Catherine's angry, defiant gaze is fixed on him. The way Wyler shoots Dr. Sloper's exit, her gaze seems to dwarf her father as he leaves the room. It's a terrific cinematic moment thanks to cinematography by Leo Tover. Look at Catherine's body language in that frame. She doesn't shrink back as she did early in the film. Gone is the awkward tension in the shoulders. She is defiant. Strong. Square-shouldered.
Olivia de Havilland's first Oscar win was for To Each His Own. To repeat, I feel this William Wyler film is a masterpiece. For young people who seek acting careers but can't afford acting classes for whatever reason, they should study classic films and learn from performances like Olivia de Havilland as The Heiress. It's outstanding. If you are taking classes, make the viewing of classic films such as this part of your homework.
If you've ever been stood up on dates or were passed over because you weren't considered attractive enough, put The Heiress on your list of must-see feel-good DVD rentals -- along with Stephen King's Carrie starring Sissy Spacek. You'll feel better after watching it. Trust me. I did. Several times.