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For his third film, Montgomery Clift overcame his misgivings to accept the role 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 what would turn out to be an astonishing career. It also marked the start of a three-picture deal with Paramount Studios that would continue to build his reputation as the screen's most promising new leading man. One sign of his growing popularity impacted the studio which was swamped with letters from outraged fans who felt that he and leading lady Olivia de Havilland should have been given a happy ending in the picture.
The Heiress began as Washington Square, a Henry James novel based on a true story told him by actress Fanny Kemble Cooper about her brother's ill-fated attempt to marry a rich woman. The novel was already considered an American classic when the husband and wife writing team of Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted it to the stage. There it had successful runs on Broadway with Wendy Harris and Basil Rathbone as the contentious father and daughter and in London, where Ralph Richardson played the father, and Peggy Ashcroft became a major stage star as the daughter.
De Havilland was looking for a follow-up to her dramatic successes at Paramount in To Each His Own, which had brought her an Academy Award in 1946, and The Snake Pit, which almost brought her a second Oscar two years later. When she saw The Heiress on Broadway, she knew she had to do it 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'd proposed to them. When he saw The Heiress, he couldn't believe nobody had picked up the rights yet. He met with the Goetzes and assured them that he would craft a faithful film version. They sold the rights to Paramount for $250,000 and the promise of $10,000 a week to write the screenplay. Wyler stayed quite faithful to the play, only asking that they cut 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 was closer to James' original.
Only it wasn't, and the Goetzes knew it. The real problem was simply that he had agreed to cast Clift as Townsend, and Paramount didn't want their new leading man presented as an out-and-out villain. The Goetzes weren't impressed with Clift on their first meeting. He showed up unshaven and wearing scruffy blue jeans, part of a bohemian image he was cultivating at the 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. When ordering him to stand up straight didn't work, Wyler arranged for Clift to spend weeks learning the social dances of the period to help him develop the proper carriage.
To play de Havilland's emotionally distant father Wyler turned to Ralph Richardson, 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 comes in, hangs up his coat and awakens his sleeping daughter. When Wyler said there didn't seem to be too many different ways of doing it, Richardson astonished him by showing him six subtly different approaches to the moment. His professional poise threatened de Havilland and Clift, however. She felt he was trying to steal scenes from her by doing little bits of business in the background, not realizing that Wyler had instructed cinematographer Leo Tover to keep Richardson's bits outside the camera frame. Clift complained that Richardson never changed what he was doing from take to take, making it harder for him to try different things.
At the same time, Clift and de Havilland had their own difficulties. Although she appreciated what he was doing, the actress thought Clift was working almost totally for himself, shutting her out of their scenes together. Yet she had to acknowledge 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 the lines, then show up and ask Wyler how she should play the part. This, he thought, wasn't real acting. When Wyler started giving him notes in front of the cast, Clift retaliated by staying in his dressing room with his acting coach until it was time to shoot his scenes.
De Havilland's faith in Wyler was well placed, however, as she delivered one of her best performances under his guidance. They only had trouble on one scene. When Townsend jilts her, she has to climb the stairs to her bedroom with the suitcase she had packed for their elopement. She did numerous takes that just didn't get the right emotional tone for Wyler. Finally, she got so frustrated that the usually professional de Havilland threw the suitcase at him. At once, he realized the problem. There was nothing in the suitcase. He ordered it filled with heavy props so that her efforts to drag it up the stairs perfectly captured her dejection.
The Heiress was completed by early 1949, but the studio, knowing it was a prestige picture, held up its release until the fall, the normal release time for serious films. It opened to rave reviews and strong business in New York, though it didn't do as well in the rest of the country, taking several months to show a profit. But it was still one of the big winners come awards time, with de Havilland taking the New York Film Critics Award, the Golden Globe and her second Oscar® for her performance.
Despite its poor box office at the time, The Heiress is now acknowledged as an American film masterpiece. In 1993, Tom Cruise and director Mike Nicholas were considering a remake until they screened the original and realized that it couldn't possibly be improved upon. Three years later, the film was voted onto the National Film Registry. A remake finally appeared in 1997, though Washington Square took a more contemporary, feminist approach to the material. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Albert Finney won praise for their performances as father and daughter but still suffered in 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