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The Heiress

The Heiress(1949)

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For his third film, Montgomery Clift overcame his misgivings to accept therole of fortune hunter Morris Townsend in the 1949 period drama, The Heiress. Although some of his qualms would turn out to be true -- he was perhaps too contemporary to be convincing as a late 19th century gentleman -- it would mark the third classic in whatwould turn out to be an astonishing career. It also marked the start of athree-picture deal with Paramount Studios that would continue to build hisreputation as the screen's most promising new leading man. One sign ofhis growing popularity impacted the studio which was swamped with letters from outragedfans who felt that he and leading lady Olivia de Havilland should have beengiven a happy ending in the picture.

The Heiress began as Washington Square, a Henry James novelbased on a true story told him by actress Fanny Kemble Cooper about herbrother's ill-fated attempt to marry a rich woman. The novel was alreadyconsidered an American classic when the husband and wife writing team ofRuth and Augustus Goetz adapted it to the stage. There it had successfulruns on Broadway with Wendy Harris and Basil Rathbone as the contentiousfather and daughter and in London, where Ralph Richardson played thefather, and Peggy Ashcroft became a major stage star as thedaughter.

De Havilland was looking for a follow-up to her dramatic successes atParamount in To Each His Own, which had brought her an Academy Award in1946, and The Snake Pit, which almost brought her a second Oscar two yearslater. When she saw The Heiress on Broadway, she knew she had to doit and approached William Wyler, a director noted for his ability to draw great performances from his actors. Wyler was also working at Paramount and had been frustrated by their rejection of several recent projects he'dproposed to them. When he saw The Heiress, he couldn't believenobody had picked up the rights yet. He met with the Goetzes and assuredthem that he would craft a faithful film version. They sold the rights toParamount for $250,000 and the promise of $10,000 a week to write thescreenplay. Wyler stayed quite faithful to the play, only asking that theycut some early lines that made it clear that Townsend was a fortune hunter.He wanted to maintain some suspense on that issue, claiming that it wascloser to James' original.

Only it wasn't, and the Goetzes knew it. The real problem was simply thathe had agreed to cast Clift as Townsend, and Paramount didn't want theirnew leading man presented as an out-and-out villain. The Goetzes weren'timpressed with Clift on their first meeting. He showed up unshaven andwearing scruffy blue jeans, part of a bohemian image he was cultivating atthe time. They weren't very happy with his work on the set either,complaining that his posture was too stooped for a man of the period. Whenordering him to stand up straight didn't work, Wyler arranged for Clift tospend weeks learning the social dances of the period to help him developthe proper carriage.

To play de Havilland's emotionally distant father Wyler turned to RalphRichardson, who had done the role in London. On his first day of shooting,Richardson asked Wyler how he should play a simple scene in which he comesin, hangs up his coat and awakens his sleeping daughter. When Wyler saidthere didn't seem to be too many different ways of doing it, Richardsonastonished him by showing him six subtly different approaches to themoment. His professional poise threatened de Havilland and Clift, however. She felt hewas trying to steal scenes from her by doing little bits of business in thebackground, not realizing that Wyler had instructed cinematographer LeoTover to keep Richardson's bits outside the camera frame. Clift complainedthat Richardson never changed what he was doing from take to take, makingit harder for him to try different things.

At the same time, Clift and de Havilland had their own difficulties. Although she appreciatedwhat he was doing, the actress thought Clift was working almost totally forhimself, shutting her out of their scenes together. Yet she had toacknowledge that that helped her performance, since her character felt alienated from the real world and shut out of life. Clift, however, complained that all de Havilland did was learn thelines, then show up and ask Wyler how she should play the part. This, hethought, wasn't real acting. When Wyler started giving him notes in frontof the cast, Clift retaliated by staying in his dressing room with hisacting coach until it was time to shoot his scenes.

De Havilland's faith in Wyler was well placed, however, as she deliveredone of her best performances under his guidance. They only had trouble onone scene. When Townsend jilts her, she has to climb the stairs to herbedroom with the suitcase she had packed for their elopement. She didnumerous takes that just didn't get the right emotional tone for Wyler.Finally, she got so frustrated that the usually professional de Havillandthrew the suitcase at him. At once, he realized the problem. There wasnothing in the suitcase. He ordered it filled with heavy props so that herefforts to drag it up the stairs perfectly captured her dejection.

The Heiress was completed by early 1949, but the studio, knowing itwas a prestige picture, held up its release until the fall, the normalrelease time for serious films. It opened to rave reviews and strongbusiness in New York, though it didn't do as well in the rest of thecountry, taking several months to show a profit. But it was still one ofthe big winners come awards time, with de Havilland taking the New YorkFilm Critics Award, the Golden Globe and her second Oscar® for herperformance.

Despite its poor box office at the time, The Heiress is nowacknowledged as an American film masterpiece. In 1993, Tom Cruise and director MikeNicholas were considering a remake until they screened the original andrealized that it couldn't possibly be improved upon. Three years later,the film was voted onto the National Film Registry. A remake finallyappeared in 1997, though Washington Square took a more contemporary,feminist approach to the material. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Albert Finneywon praise for their performances as father and daughter but still sufferedin comparison to de Havilland and Richardson in the original.

Producer/Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Ruth & Augustus Goetz
Based on their play and the novel Washington Square by Henry James
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Art Direction: John Meehan, Harry Horner
Music: Aaron Copland
Principal Cast: Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Sloper), Montgomery Clift(Morris Townsend), Ralph Richardson (Dr. Austin Sloper), Miriam Hopkins(Lavinia Penniman), Vanessa Brown (Maria), Mona Freeman (Marian Almond),Ray Collins (Jeffrey Almond), Selena Royle (Elizabeth Almond).
BW-116m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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