The Amazing Olivia de Havilland

         Olivia de Havilland's performance in William Wyler's 1949 The Heiress, based on Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, was nothing short of amazing. In this story of a fortunate young woman torn between her controlling father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), and a less than desirable admirer, Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), she perfectly portrays Catherine's journey from innocence to gallantry. In the beginning, she is a sweet and innocent young woman of wealthy descent. Her father, a doctor who believes in governing her every move, is always at her side. However, when a handsome young suitor begins to pay her attention, she instantly gains independence.

         While Catherine's new-found love is handsome and charming, he has neither a job nor money. These two not-so-small factors quickly raise the concern of her father. Dr. Sloper quickly becomes suspicious and requests that his daughter end the courtship immediately. When Catherine disobeys her father's wishes and continues to see him, a great divide is drawn between them.

         The father and daughter, who once were so close, become distant and cold toward one another. So, in a desperate attempt for love, Catherine agrees to marry her beau, knowing that, if she elopes and disobeys her father, she will forfeit her inheritance of $20,000 from her father, although she will still have the $10,000 from her mother. That evening, right after she and her father have returned from Europe, she packs her bags and anxiously awaits the arrival of her husband-to-be. However, when the next morning comes and her lover has had not yet arrived, she knows that her father had been right all along.

         Olivia de Havilland wonderfully portrays the vast change in personality and appearance that has overcome Catherine. Her character has transformed from a sweet and innocent young heiress, with a high voice and diffident manner, to a bitter and cold woman, with a deep voice and an assertive manner. After the death of her father, Catherine becomes continually reclusive; and her heart only grows colder.

         A few years later, her lover returns, wishing once again to marry the woman he had courted so long ago. This is Catherine's chance for revenge. She leads him to believe that she too has had missed his love and wishes to finally marry. On the night they are to be wed, she never comes came to the door when he returns to fetch her. His insistent knocking on the door haunts the cold house. In the final scene we see Catherine ascending the stairs with a solemn yet satisfied look upon her face. She has had finally justified her pain, while inflicting it upon Morris, as she has already done to her father.

Ashley Roberts

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