Olivia de Havilland (still living and is ninety-eight years young) is nestled in the second tier of golden age Hollywood actresses that is separated from Hepburn, Stanwyck, and Crawford mainly because of prestige. In fact, de Havilland carries with her a talent that is on par with these legends but her private life, apart from her sibling scuffle with Joan Fontaine, was not the glitzy affair that kept her in the limelight like the others. William Wyler’s 1949 film “The Heiress” is a prime example of her talent. It is an inventive melodramatic masterpiece that protrudes senses of vulnerability and scathe. The cynical tones and the brutal dynamics of the film all originate in the epicenter that is de Havilland, whose character arc in this film is one of the most surreal in all of classic Hollywood.
De Havilland plays Catherine Sloper, a woman of affluence but also of social anxiety. In relation to her social sphere, Catherine has a mundane figure that the gentlemen do not care for. Moreover, she trembles at even the thought of social engagement; the way she speaks is laughably mechanical and her eyes widened like a startled deer as she dances with another man. To make matters worse, she hides beneath the iron curtain of her domineering father, played by Ralph Richardson, a successful and prestigious doctor, who only sees Catherine as a failure in comparison to his, what seems to be, perfect realization of a human being in his wife, who passed away. So when eligible bachelor Morris Townsend, in an early role for Montgomery Clift, incessantly woos Catherine, the father has suspicion as to what really motivates Townsend's courtship. Is it really for the love or the money?
One must first exclaim before going further into this film that conventions are being inverted and even shattered in this film. Gender roles and their reversals play a huge importance in this story that corners the female lead into becoming the agent of narrative progression as opposed to the the more conventional male leads. The film can be cut into halves; the first act being the more conventional as Townsend tries to win the heart of the immensely naive Catherine. She swoons over Townsend like he's a fantastical impossibility made possible and their first kiss together renders such a feeling as she feels the face of her lover and kisses him all over with hesitant tenderness. The camera tightens its frame to reveal a raging vulnerability to this moments to hint at something ambiguous. The second half of the film is a total about-face. (Spoiler alerts ahead as there is no way to talk about the film's merits without discussing key plot points.)
When Wyler's direction and de Havilland's performance invert, it is a sight to behold. De Havilland's Catherine becomes the manifestation of the masculine dominance and cynicism that oppressed her, right from the tone of her voice to the stiffness of her eyes. Yet, there are moments of the vulnerability that she exhibited in the first half of the film that creep up on her, weakening the hardened shell that has since solidified around Catherine's mind. Her actions become vengeful, and what transpires is poetic justice that is nothing short of tragic. These same modes of framing that were to visualize a possible budding romance showcase an uneasy sense of deterioration, that Catherine has made up her mind about what she wants to do, though we don't necessarily want her to do it. But, ultimately, her actions are justified. The arc the film forces us to transfer our sympathy from Catherine to the two men in her life yet still retain an understanding for the ferocious evolution that took place within Catherine's mind.
Though much acclaim has been given to de Havilland in this film, Richardson and Clift are phenomenal, exuding the classic melodramatic feel as well as a rare glimpse of male vulnerability. The cinematography by Leo Tover, who filmed de Havilland in another great film "The Snake Pit," either looms tentatively in moments of conflict, or hovers around the characters in turmoil. He knows very well where to place the camera amid the elaborate design of the house, one closely on par with Welles's Xanadu and the Number 9 Thorton Square in "Gaslight." This would win de Havilland's second Oscar, a feat matched by very few. Yet, the number of Oscars cannot be a sole measurement of greatness. Olivia de Havilland's skill lies in subtlety within her character's context, whether it is Catherine Sloper or Melanie Hamilton of "Gone With the Wind." Here is a film that showcases an amazing, underrated talent and a cast and crew in top form of cinematic expression and genre contortion.