The Heiress (1949): 4.5/5
Beloved Best Actress winner Olivia de Havilland portrays Catherine Sloper, a young New York aristocrat — one of her two Oscar winning lead roles. Those aren’t her only accolades for this role. She also took home a Golden Globe and a New York Film Critics Circle award in the Best Actress category.
Catherine lives with a very controlling father (Ralph Richardson) and her well-meaning aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins). Catherine’s father objects when she falls for and becomes engaged to a handsome but poor suitor, Morris (Monty Clift).
The nomination and win for Best Actress are certainly deserved here. Olivia gives a powerful performance. Her character begins as a shy, meek girl who has been tormented by a lifetime of too-high expectations and emotional abuse from her father. He has convinced her that the only thing she’s good at in life is cross-stitching.
A bit of life is breathed into the character as her relationship with Morris forms, only to be sucked out again by a series of hurdles for the couple.
By the end of the film, Catherine is a strong-willed and possibly even harsh woman. She’s become somewhat manipulative and vengeful. (I won’t elaborate further, because her transformation and the film’s ending were a delightfully unexpected element of the plot for me. I hate to spoil the fun for others!)
Olivia hits all of these dimensions and personalities of her character right on the head.
She wasn’t the only award-winning (or award-worthy) part of the film, either. Three more Oscars were won for Art Direction, Costume Design and Best Music. These elements work together splendidly and serve to even further elevate the already phenomenal performances.
It’s been said that there was a bit of off screen drama between dear Olivia and her leading man, Monty. He is said to have undervalued her talents as an actress, despite the fact that she was already a one-time Best Actress winner when The Heiress was filmed. However, this doesn’t show at all on screen, which is another positive.
Olivia and Monty are able to work together well enough to get the audience emotionally invested in the relationship of their characters early on. With such chemistry, the behind the scenes drama doesn’t come through on screen, luckily for the film. Morris is very understanding despite all of Catherine’s shyness and the awkwardness that her lack of social experience causes. The result is a totally “Aww-“worthy screen pair – that is, until things begin to go sour for their characters.
My only complaint with this film is the pacing. By the time the fantastic, jump-up-and-down-cheering ending comes around it has picked up by leaps and bounds as Catherine’s character has progressed. However, there were a few moments throughout the rest of the film that almost had me disinterested. The pacing isn’t completely ineffective given the slow growth of Catherine’s comfort level with Morris, but with her character eventually taking such a turn in personality, things could have been sped up slightly.
The Heiress is a film worthy of all of its accolades and then some. Tune in if for no other reason than the “wow” factor of the ending, and for Olivia’s fantastic performance — but you’re sure to come away liking it for more reasons than just those two.
Great review! I agree that the film sags ever so slightly in the middle, but it always remains compelling, mainly because of Olivia de Havilland’s nuanced portrayal of Catherine’s development. And that ending! I was on the edge of my seat the first time I saw it.
I couldn’t believe the ending. It was a shock in the very best way. I’m hoping to rewatch it soon, to see what kind of impact the little twists will have second time around!
The Heiress definitely holds up on repeat viewings. I once wrote a paper on it for a film class, and I watched it three times in less than two weeks. There are so many little things to notice – and the ending doesn’t get any less powerful. Enjoy your rewatch when you have the chance!
I rate The Heiress as a perfect film. The camera work is just amazing. Remember the last scene where she ties the stitch together, finishes it and makes the cut with the scissor while Morris comes knocking at the door….Havilland seated on her stitching table is a scene that cannot be ever again repeated in cinema!
I have to agree with you there! I was completely blown away – as in, “stand up and flail like a crazy person/my jaw fell so far that it dug a tunnel to the Earth’s core,” legitimately amazed – by the ending, which isn’t something that happens often.