August 28, 2016

Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress

as CATHERINE SLOPER
WON: Academy Award - Best Actress | New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actress | Golden Globe - Best Actress

And so, after a strenuous two year journey perusing through Oscar's finest of the 1940's, we end the road with William Wyler's The Heiress. I saved this one for last for obvious reasons: film quality notwithstanding, Olivia de Havilland's work in the film is often regarded as the sole saving grace for an embarrassingly desolate slate of Best Actress options in 1949. I was worried that she might not live up to the praise seemingly everyone gives her, and perhaps this might have rang a tiny bit true, but the fact is: The Heiress is a superb film, and its lead actress delivers a superb performance.

I think what was surprising to me was how non-explosive this performance is. In the words of Austin Sloper, de Havilland takes on this role of "an entirely mediocre and defenseless creature with not a shred of poise" in a very vivid manner. de Havilland makes Catherine so lovingly meek, so plain, so awkward and so naive for much of the film, and yet her presence is always impactful. She plays these qualities up in such a studied, thorough manner -- (scenes such as those in which Morris courts her are so humorous) but it didn't resonate with me just how invested I was in Catherine until it came time for that pivotal scene in which she waits for him to come pick her up for their elopement...those expressions of pain rang so deeply to me, and I think that's primarily due to de Havilland's commitment to the character.

I was taken by Catherine's breathless whimsy in Morris, her words singed with guilelessness, a more foolish Melanie Wilkes if you will -- and in retrospect it's such a contrast from the harder, rigid work she had turned just a year prior. The role itself is very much of a slow burn, and following my initial watch I was left with the slightest sense that I may have missed something. Having revisited it, I found additional layers of precision in de Havilland's work, especially in those wherein Catherine has become an embittered matriarch from her original doe-eyed, naive girl. In these scenes, my mind goes to the daggers she stares at Ralph Richardson, that cold, deeper register she uses on those around her, or that complicated display of emotions when Aunt Penniman reintroduces Morris back into Catherine's life (some awesome stuff - as she interacts with Morris she trounces seamlessly through shock to vulnerable insecurity to longing to anger within seconds). In short, this is a really great, calculated performance. The final score I give her shouldn't take away from her work -- I didn't have that sense of utter exhilaration watching de Havilland in this film as I've had with other five statued performances, and instead it was like respectfully watching a very comprehensive piece of work unravel. I may very well bump this one up in the future...but in any case, a really nice end to an otherwise shoddy decade of offerings.



6 comments:

  1. This is one of the great ones ... a performance so out of left field that you're saying 'where did that come from?' de Havilland begins a Melody-like character only to eviscerate it in the second half. Her sanguine and unformed remarks early on belie a fierce intelligence and when she gets her moment ... she takes it. I particularly like her acerbic responses to Richardson in their rapprochement scene and the way de Havilland uses the pitch of her voice to underscore character changes. Her hardening makes one want to recoil, yet the years of hurt justify the change and de Havilland nails that. Her sotto voce remarks "yes, I can be very cruel ... I have learned from masters" and the starkly directed "Bolt the door Mariah" display how hardened and cruel she has become...left thereafter only to live in a world of such creatures.

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    1. Interesting that you say that. I unfortunately did not get that thorough of a read on Catherine in the scenes/moments you mentioned. Perhaps that's just how I receive de Havilland's acting - but for the most part, I've not quite been as impressed with her as the majority...though I do really appreciate her work.

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  2. I'm glad you liked her, although I probably liked her more.

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    1. Yeah, my feeling is that others liked Olivia more than I did. I gave the film another go and alas - I just really really like it...as opposed to loving it.

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  3. Hello again. Nice to be back. Excuses? One or two health issues, a blistering summer, and a six year old Dell desktop gone kaput forcing a new one and Windows 10, like it or not. ( I do not.)

    As Beyond The Forest was tanking at the same time Heiress was wowing, biographical spice has it that perpetual Bette Davis nemesis Miriam Hopkins sent the departing Warner's queen a telegram essentially noting 'it was better to be No. 2 in a winner than No. 1 in a loser."

    Bette's own verdict on Forest was and remained that it was a stinker, neutralizing Hopkins' barb. More than one historian of Davis's career disagrees with her, Ed Sikov recently declaring 'Rosa Moline is the hearty appetizer before the main course of Baby Jane Hudson.'

    The Heiress, of course, is deHavilland at her best, and a big step forward for Cliff. Olivia did not get along with Richardson, whom she claimed indulged upstaging gestures that broke her concentration.

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    1. Welcome back! Good to see you again. Hope all is well.

      I thought Hopkins was lovely and deserving of a nomination.

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