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11. THE HEIRESS, 1949

A riveting, emotional, classic drama

On July 1, the magnificent Olivia de Havilland will turn 104 (I know this because she and I share the same birthday!). Seeing that she is probably the last living legend of classic Hollywood, in her honor I am presenting “The Heiress”, an all-time classic containing one of her Academy Award winning performances. This film and Olivia are both among my very favorites.


There are so many elements that come together to create a classic film and "The Heiress" has them all. A riveting script, inspired performances, meticulous directing, stunning costumes, cinematography, music, and art direction for starters. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards (including “Best Picture”) winning four. “The Heiress” is a period film taking place in a time when there was a rigid social etiquette. A time when women had dance cards at balls and gentlemen would “call” upon a lady at her house to court her. What may seem at first like a nice costume drama soon becomes deep and chilling emotional combat, at times so intense that even today it makes my jaw drop. There is so much gold in the writing and performances that I find new insights and depths every time I rewatch it.


The film is based on a play “The Heiress”, which in turn was based on a novel by Henry James titled “Washington Square”. Immediately after watching the play on Broadway, Olivia de Havilland called director William Wyler telling him to see the play, obtain the rights, and direct her in the film version. He agreed and they made an amazing film. She knew what she was doing.

William Wyler

William Wyler is another of the all-time top directors. His directing is so smooth and flawless that it is sometimes invisible yet it is the core to why his films are so outstanding. Known as a perfectionist with a very strong personality, he always wanted the best and could be tough in getting it. One of his nicknames was "99-Take Willie”. Wyler directed films from 1925 until 1970 and so many are classics including “The Heiress”, “The Best Years of Our Lives”, “Mrs. Miniver”, “Ben-Hur”, “Roman Holiday”, “The Little Foxes”, "Wuthering Heights”, "Dodsworth", "The Letter”, and “Funny Girl”. He was nominated for fourteen Academy Awards (including one for “The Heiress”) winning three, and was also awarded an honorary Oscar in 1966 for his body of work. He was married twice, including his marriage to actress Margaret Sullavan. He had an affair with Bette Davis who said he was the love of her life and the one that got away. Bette also credits him with making her an actual movie star (with her Oscar winning performance in “Jezebel”, followed by “The Letter” and “The Little Foxes”). William Wyler died in 1981 at the age of 79. He also shared the same birthday with Olivia and I. If you are watching the films on this blog (and I truly hope you are) you will definitely see many more of his films as we go along.


Olivia de Havilland

Olivia de Havilland, who stars as “Catherine Sloper”, is one of the screen’s most talented actresses, most beloved stars, and is Hollywood royalty. She exuded a warmth and elegance onscreen, along with her beauty and class. She was of the rare actresses (like her dear friend Bette Davis) who fought for good roles and would change her looks depending on what the part called for. Even though she was very pretty, glamour was not her priority. In "The Heiress” she was made to look plain and unattractive (as unattractive as you could make Olivia de Havilland) and she gives an incredibly moving, layered performance. Just watch her face change as the film progresses and her character deals with life. She won her second “Best Actress” Academy Award for this film out of five career nominations. She was arguably the greatest actress of the 1940s, when she appeared in a majority of her best films and generally gave her most brilliant performances. Olivia de Havilland was born in Japan to British parents. Her sister, born a year later, was actress Joan Fontaine (Joan took her stepfather’s last name), who also became a star, and whose films we will also be seeing. Olivia and Joan had an infamous feud that left them not speaking to one another for most of their lives. To this day the reason for the feud isn’t exactly clear, and there are different versions floating around (including one in Joan’s autobiography). It seems to have been either about their childhood, winning Oscars, or careers. Who knows. Olivia, Joan and their mother moved to California when the girls were young, and soon Olivia was doing regional theater. She was the second understudy for actress Gloria Stuart as “Puck” in a production of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Hollywood Bowl. As fate would have it she got to play the part. Also in the cast was Mickey Rooney, and she and Mickey were picked from the cast for the Warner Brothers film version. Olivia got signed by Warner Brothers and began her film career mostly playing the nice, sweet love interest. In 1935 she was cast to star alongside another hardly known actor named Errol Flynn in “Captain Blood”. It launched both of their careers and they became one of Hollywood’s iconic screen duos, starring in eight films together (a few of which will be on this blog). She appeared in several classics during this time but was unhappy at Warner Brothers calling it a “prison” and studio head Jack Warner the “warden”. As I mention briefly in the BRIEF INFORMATION TO UNDERSTAND THE STUDIO SYSTEM section in the “Bringing Up Baby” post, when you were under contract a studio practically owned you. Being a serious actress, Olivia was unhappy with being typecast in the ingénue roles Warner Brothers kept giving her. She would get more meaty parts when loaned out to other studios (such as to David O. Selznick for “Gone With the Wind”) and started refusing roles at Warner Brothers. If an actor under contract to a studio refused a role they would be put on suspension. While on suspension they would not get paid and were forbidden to work anywhere else. In addition, the amount of time for which they were on suspension would be added to the end of their contract, extending it so they could easily be tied to their original contract for extra months or even years. While many actors were upset by this and knew it was wrong, they were afraid to dispute it. In 1943 Olivia found the courage to fight her seven year contract with Warner Brothers in court, stating that her contract meant seven calendar years and not seven years of work. Her battle made it to the Supreme Court and she won. The “De Havilland Law”, still in effect today, is a California law limiting performers to seven year contracts which include any suspensions. The law reduced studio power, gave more creative freedom to artists, and has been cited as being one of the "most significant and far-reaching legal rulings in Hollywood". After the ruling, studio chief Jack Warner did everything he could to stop other studios from hiring her. Paramount Pictures eventually hired her to play the lead in their 1946 film “To Each His Own” for which she won her first “Best Actress” Oscar. Olivia worked less frequently from then on, but managed to get excellent parts in excellent films. Just some of the classic films from her career include, "The Heiress", “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, “The Snake Pit”, "They Died with Their Boots On", "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex", "Dodge City", "Captain Blood", "The Dark Mirror", "My Cousin Rachel", "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte", and her most remembered role, Melanie in "Gone With the Wind”. In 2017 Ryan Murphy produced a TV show titled, “Feud: Bette and Joan”, about the alleged tension between stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Olivia is portrayed in the miniseries (strangely by Catherine Zeta-Jones), and in one scene even calls Joan Fontaine a “bitch”. Olivia objected to the inaccuracies in the show as well as the way she was portrayed. The show made her look like a snide gossip. Knowing a lot about Olivia even I was taken aback at the portrayal. Olivia stated she was never consulted or asked permission to use her name or likeness and she took Murphy to court for defamation (when she was 101 years old). Unfortunately, she lost this battle. I’ve heard rumors that Olivia is currently working on her autobiography. I hope so. That is a book I definitely want to read! She currently lives in France. Happy Birthday Olivia!


Montgomery Clift

Montgomery Clift who plays “Morris Townsend”, is an actor you previously saw in “A Place in the Sun”, where I talk more about him. “The Heiress” was Monty’s third film, and he supposedly took this role since it was so different from his first two parts. It is said he was never happy with his performance in this film and there are also rumors he wasn’t happy on the set working with the rest of the cast or director. I think he does a superb job keeping the film real while treading the fine and difficult line his character treads. One of the many reasons the film works so well is from Monty’s nuanced and believable performance, which keeps the audience on a questioning tightrope the entire time. When I first saw this film it took me several viewings to figure out his character’s true motivations. A really difficult part played to perfection. At this point in his career Monty was becoming a heartthrob.


Sir Ralph Richardson

The other male lead, in the part of “Catherine’s” father “Dr. Austin Sloper”, was played by Ralph Richardson. Richardson was a distinguished and most revered actor, considered one of the greatest British stage actors (along with his friends Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud). He was the first actor in his time to be knighted and became Sir Ralph Richardson in 1947. He appeared in well over 100 stage productions throughout his career (primarily Shakespeare and the classics) and appeared in British films beginning in 1933. “The Heiress” was his first American film and he is sensational, even earning a “Best Actor” Oscar nomination for it. In 1984 he would garner a second “Best Supporting Actor” nomination for the film “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes“. Sir Ralph liked his role in “The Heiress” so much he reprised it on the London stage shortly after the film. Even though he was truly a stage actor, Sir Ralph enjoyed making films. He loved acting and was quoted as saying "Acting is the ability to dream on cue”. He appeared in over 80 films and TV shows (British and American) including such classics as “The Heiress”, "Doctor Zhivago", “Exodus", "The Citadel”, "The Fallen Idol", and opposite Katharine Hepburn in "Long Day's Journey into Night”. Sir Ralph Richardson died in 1983 at the age of 80.


Miriam Hopkins

Miriam Hopkins, who plays “Aunt Lavinia Penniman”, is another of my favorites, and an actress I fear is not remembered much these days. She was a huge Hollywood star in the 1930s, and an accomplished and versatile actress who could play smart sophisticated and flighty women, or working class tarts. She had a very natural quality about her along with a distinct voice and manner, and is always exciting to watch! “The Heiress” is later in her career and she delivers a fabulous performance with that “Hopkins style” still evident. Miriam was an established Broadway actress before appearing in films. Her first appearance on celluloid was in 1930, and she quickly became a respected film actress. She made a strong impression as “Ivy” in the classic 1931 horror film, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. She played several risqué parts in the Pre-Code years, most notably in several classic films by director Ernst Lubitsch, "Trouble in Paradise” and “Design for Living”, which made her a full fledged star. Miriam starred opposite Bette Davis in two films, and they had a well publicized feud and dislike for each other. Funny that they were both famous for being difficult to work with. Evidently Miriam suspected Bette of having an affair with her then husband, writer and director Anatole Litvak. Hopkins was outstanding in both comedy and drama, and was nominated for a “Best Actress” Academy Award for her role in 1935’s "Becky Sharp”. She appeared in several classics including “The Heiress”, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "The Story of Temple Drake ", "Trouble in Paradise", “Design for Living", "Old Acquaintance", and "The Children's Hour" (a 1961 remake of the riveting 1936 film "These Three” in which she also appeared - both directed by William Wyler). She was one of the first actresses to appear on TV at its start in the late 1940s and continued her TV career through the 1960s. She was married four times, including her marriage to Anatole Litvak. Miriam Hopkins died in 1972 at the age of 69.


Edith Head (who I talk about in the “A Place in the Sun” post) won an Oscar for her stunning costumes in “The Heiress”; John Meehan, Harry Horner, and Emile Kuri all won Oscars for their impeccable art direction/set design; and the wonderful composer and conductor Aaron Copland won an Oscar for his marvelous score.


Get ready for a completely compelling classic film, “The Heiress”. Enjoy!




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