Olivia de Havilland climbs the staircase to freedom at the climax of The Heiress.
Although she was one of the most intelligent and dedicated actresses of the studio era, Olivia de Havilland has never quite ascended to the legendary status attained by Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn. One problem was that she lost two peak years in the 1940s to a lawsuit against her first studio, Warner Bros. She was suing because Warner's wanted to add six months to her original seven-year contract to compensate them for time she had been on suspension for refusing scripts. Two years on career hold to avoid six months' work may seem too much of a sacrifice, but that's the kind of commitment de Havilland had to her career. She thought the studio was assigning her to indifferent projects that would damage her more than her absence from the screen. When she won the case (in a landmark decision ending the addition of suspension time to seven-year contracts, which was a big boon to the leading men who had gone on suspension while fighting World War II), she was rewarded with a juicy role in Paramount's To Each His Own (1946) and an Oscar for Best Actress. Warner's got back at her by cutting her best scenes from their final film with her, Devotion (1946), turning her role as Charlotte Bronte into a supporting part. It was the kind of pettiness she had seen done to actors like Ruth Chatterton and Kaye Francis in the past
De Havilland also made some career mistakes in the 1950s (most notably turning down the 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire) before cutting back work altogether to relocate to France with her second husband. As a result, she never engaged in the kinds of reinventions her contemporaries did. Nor was she prone to the larger-than-life emoting that helped turn Davis and Crawford in particular into camp icons. She gave simple, honest performances, though over time there was a tendency to excessive sweetness. Even in her prime, in The Snake Pit (1948), she's much more appealing as a madwoman than she is sane. Her character's normal seems almost artificial next to the gritty realism of the asylum scenes. There's none of that, however, in the two nicest ladies she played — Melanie in Gone With the Wind (1939) and the romantic schoolteacher in Hold Back the Dawn (1941). Nor is there in arguably her best and most honest performance, as Catherine Sloper in The Heiress (1949).
Catherine is the plain, shy daughter of a doctor (Ralph Richardson) who resents her because the wife he has idealized as a great beauty and charming hostess died in childbirth. The makeup and hair departments did their best to make de Havilland look dowdy (they can't do anything about those wonderful cheek bones), and she plays her character's gaucheness with subtlety. There's none of the slapstick indulged in in the later Washington Square (1997), adapted from the same Henry James novel on which Ruth and Augustus Goetz had based their play The Heiress. There's something just a little off in the way de Havilland walks and curtseys. When she fans herself, she does it so vigorously people ask if she's too warm (as the great Edith Evans once said, you can do anything with a fan except cool yourself). The film opens up the play, which was set entirely in the Sloper's drawing room, so that she and her family attend an engagement party for her cousin early in the film. Sharing the scene with the people who know how to behave, particularly her aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins knows how to work a fan), she just doesn't fit in. When the handsome, young Morris Townsend (played by the handsome, young Montgomery Clift) asks her to dance, she keeps kicking him.
But then a small miracle happens. With his gentle coaching, her dancing improves. As he courts her, her gaucheness starts to evaporate. Director William Wyler shows more generosity toward Catherine than do her contemporaries. He lets her have moments of grace. And he doesn't make her cousin Marian, conceived in the play as the example of what a perfect young society woman should be, upstage her. Of course, the role is significantly diminished from the stage version. But under his guidance, Mona Freeman is only just a little prettier. She's younger, obviously, but her real gift is a confidence bred by more supportive parenting than Catherine has had.
Humanity and generosity are key elements in Wilder's films. On the rare occasions he presents a major character as a villain — Oscar Hubbard (Carl Benton Reid) in The Little Foxes (1941), Marie Derry (Virginia Mayo) in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Messala (Stephen Boyd) in Ben-Hur (1959) — they're still human beings. You know what's made them that way. When he agreed to direct The Heiress (at de Havilland's request; she knew what he could do for actors), he asked the Goetzes to make Morris less of a villain. That primarily involved cutting one section from the play in which he complains to Lavinia that if Catherine's father disinherits her the income she's inherited from her mother won't be enough to live really well (her mother left her $10,000 a year, equivalent to about $300,000 today). Montgomery Clift focuses a great deal of his performance on de Havilland. There are times he seems genuinely concerned for her, to the point that you might actually hold out hopes for their marriage. When he jilts her on the night they're to elope, it's almost a surprise.
Dramatically, of course, it's a blessing. This isn't the story of a woman blossoming as she finds the right man. It's the story of a woman's growth after she realizes the only role that will give her value in society, that of wife, has been denied her. De Havilland builds her frustration subtly as she realizes she's been jilted. And Wyler frames the scene with her in the background (one of his famous deep compositions) and Hopkins in the foreground, the aunt's desperation slowly seeping into her niece. There follows a powerful confrontation with her father, who's realized he's dying (the scene in which Richardson listens to his heart and lungs through a stethoscope is an acting gem). Where he had feigned warmth and affection in the past, only allowing his disdain to creep through in a line reading or a gesture, she makes no efforts to hide her revulsion. At this point she knows she'll never have his love, much less his approval, and flatly informs him she doesn't even want his money. The two actors work off each other masterfully, and the shift in power dynamics is truly exciting.
Wyler saves the best for last, however. After a time jump, we meet the older Catherine, now alone and very wealthy. There's a calm about her, but also a coldness. She's still a prisoner of her father's disapproval and Morris' rejection. Then Morris returns. There are two ways to play the scene. You can show that Catherine is setting him up for revenge or you can hide it and make the final moments a surprise. Wyler and de Havilland choose the former, and at first that may seem a mistake. It's not a question of Morris' realizing she's setting him up. It's all very subtle, and Clift plays his excuses with a certain forced arrogance. He can't believe that Catherine would turn him down. It's a question of how soon the audience should be let in on Catherine's plans. That's the wisdom of director and actress. Were the scene played totally sincerely, the shock when she leaves him locked out and pounding on the door at the end would upstage any other point they wished to make. Letting the audience in on Catherine's thinking, allows them to share the artists' point of view about what's happening at the end. De Havilland's reaction when Morris moves in for the kill and suggests that now that her father is dead and the inheritance is settled they're free is like a moment of revelation for the audience. You can see the realization and relief in her eyes. Once she rejects him, she doesn't have to be tied to the past roles forced on her. When she climbs the steps at the end, the last in a series of ascents Wyler has used to capture her shifting emotional states, she pauses briefly, listens to Morris' calling her name, and then goes up with just the hint of a smile. This isn't the grimace of revenge. Catherine truly is free.
In James' novella, he can tell the audience that Catherine has found a new life devoting herself to charity. Agnieszka Holland does the same thing in Washington Square, but it's too clearly spelled out. When Morris in that version watches Catherine relating to an orphaned girl, it seems like the point is hammered home. The audience is reduced to students at a sophomore-level lecture on feminist theory. It's also a little disappointing that after losing her socially dictated role as wife, Catherine moves into another socially acceptable role for women, that of caregiver.
In The Heiress, Wyler and de Havilland let the audience decide what that new freedom means. It's interesting that in the final scenes, she's almost pretty. Her face is less pinched than in the earlier part of the film, her hair is softer and she's wearing a lighter gown than previously. It's not a miracle transformation. This isn't a variation on Now, Voyager (1942). Nor is this to suggest the film equates feminine beauty with success. But it isn't Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), either. Catherine no longer has to shut herself away from a world that's hurt her. She's freed herself for whatever she wants to be. And that's a pretty powerful feminist message.
A study in contrasts: Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in In This Our Life
Olivia de Havilland is the eye of a hurricane of overblown dramatics in John Huston's second film, In This Our Life (1942). The picture was a huge misstep for Warner Bros. and Huston. Co-star Bette Davis always blamed it on the script, credited to Howard Koch, but in the studio era there's no telling how many hands got stuck into a stew like that. A lot of fans blamed it on Davis. I tend to side with her and would suggest her performance has been unjustly maligned. Ultimately, however, it's a film whose main recommendations are a strong supporting cast and some social commentary trying to break through.
Ellen Glasgow had won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel about raging passions and racial unrest in Richmond, Virginia. The book is almost 500 pages long, which points to the main problem with the movie, which tries to cram all that action into just over 90 minutes. Some of the supporting characters, particularly Billie Burke as the female stars' chronically ill mother, are given no background. And Davis' character seems to have no motivation. In 90 minutes, she steals sister de Havilland's husband, drives him to suicide, goes after her ex, who's now dating her sister, kills a child in a hit-and-run accident and tries to pin it on an African-American law clerk whose mother is the family's housekeeper. There's nothing unfamiliar about that kind of behavior. She's basically a soap opera spoiler in the tradition of Alexis Carrington, Erica Kane or Iris Carrington. Unlike them, however, she has no reason for her bad behavior. She's just there to keep the plot moving.
Davis does her best to keep the picture alive. She had originally fought to switch roles with de Havilland, arguing that a) she was too old to play de Havilland's younger sister and b) audiences were getting tired of seeing her play bad girls. She was probably right, and it would have been fun to see de Havilland take on the other role. Once she knew she had to play it, though, she threw herself into it with her usual full commitment. Her Stanley (one of the film's gimmicks is that the leading ladies both have men's names, Stanley and Roy) can't keep still. She's always dancing to the record player at home or a band or a jukebox when she's out trying to have fun. Fans didn't like her hair, makeup or costumes, but she actually does a good job of acting younger than de Havilland (whose, of necessity, more staid performance helps carry off the illusion) and there's only one costume (a harlequinade pattern she throws on when she comes out of mourning) that seems over the top. In addition, Davis' penchant for realism pays off. After her husband's suicide, when de Havilland comes to take her home, Davis wears little makeup, and her hair is a mess. Few actresses of the era would have played the scene without being practically lacquered into shape.
De Havilland is the steadier character and manages to keep Roy from seeming a total wimp. There's a weariness about her interactions with Stanley. She knows her sister is going to get her way eventually, so why make an issue of it if she doesn't have to. After Davis runs off, de Havilland is perfectly capable of driving her part of the action. She stumbles into a relationship with her sister's jilted fiancé, a lawyer played by George Brent, and has some charming scenes with him as they fall in love. Brent could be a bit of a lug in some of his films. It took an actress like Davis or de Havilland or Barbara Stanwyck (in the wonderfully soapy 1946 My Reputation) to get something out of him, so when he gets two strong leading ladies, he almost gets to shine.
The real shining in the film, however, comes from the supporting cast. As truncated as her role is, Burke immerses herself in it, and it's fun to see her break from her typecasting as a dizzy society matron (her Lavinia could be the poor country cousin of Millicent Jordan, her role in 1933's Dinner at Eight). Frank Craven is just as good as her husband; he makes long-suffering integrity touching. Lee Patrick sums up her character, a party girl who befriends Davis after her marriage, in one hip-swinging walk, then gets to show the character's depth when Davis is widowed. And Charles Coburn breaks out of his usual typing as a bluff upper-class clown to play the women's venal uncle, who cheats their father, oppresses the rest of the town economically and secretly lusts after Davis. His quietness when he realizes he's dying is a surprise in this otherwise feverish soap opera.
The other surprise is the picture's acknowledgment of racial inequality. Hattie McDaniel, as the family's housekeeper, gets her best role since winning the Oscar for Gone With the Wind. Her simple, sincere explanation of how she knows her son isn't responsible for the hit-and-run accident is another island of sincerity in the movie. As her son, Ernest Anderson goes beyond defining stereotypes; he's more of an anti-stereotype. His character growth is kept mainly off-screen, but his rise from errand boy to law clerk (as he saves to go to law school) is one of the film's most compelling plot points. When he's arrested, his repeated statement that "Nobody's going to believe me in this world" is a powerful indictment delivered simply and quietly. This isn't to suggest the film was a trailblazer by any means. Much of the novel's racial politics was toned down to pass the Production Code, and some of Anderson's work had to be cut in southern states for fear of creating racial unrest, as if cutting a few scenes from a film could stem the tides of history.
The treatment of race is the most interesting part of In This Our Life. Huston's opening shot, showing laborers at the tobacco plant where Craven and Coburn work, says it all. There's a raised dock at the level of the factory itself and a street below. The African-American workers are confined to the street level unless called for, while the whites occupy the upper level. With that set-up and the background presence of African-American servants in the two main households, race becomes like an ostinato running beneath the rest of the action. It's a pity Huston couldn't have focused the entire film on McDaniel, Anderson and the town's other black inhabitants. All the insane doings of the white populace could have been just so much noise in the background.