Whatís in a Beard?

†††††††† It has been said that William Wyler was a bit of a perfectionist when making his movies. It is no surprise then that he requested a perfect square, but round beard for the character of Dr. Austin Sloper, played by Ralph Richardson, in his 1949 film The Heiress, which is based on the 1880 novel Washington Square, written by Henry James

†††††††† I believe that Wyler was successful in attaining a square, but round beard for the character, and I believe that the shape of the beard was important for a good reason. It is quite obvious that the physical characteristics of certain other characters in the film (namely Catherine who was played by Olivia de Havilland) change as the character changes. Catherineís hair and clothing change, along with her character. Her appearance becomes more dignified as her character becomes more assertive. Dr. Sloperís physical appearance also helped to show his character.

†††††††† In both the novel and the film, Dr. Sloper seems to have Catherineís best interest at heart when he disapproves of Morris. He believes that Morris (Montgomery Clift) is a fortune hunter and tries to protect Catherine from him. However, in the book especially, he seems almost gleeful that his theory is proven correct even though it comes at the expense of his daughterís happiness. He is incredibly cruel to Catherine and constantly compares her to his deceased wife, whose memory he has glorified. He dislikes his daughter and is very rude to her when he finally tells her he disapproves of Morris because he believes he is after her money. One has a hard time determining whether the doctor really has Catherineís best interests at heart after all.

†††††††† Dr. Sloperís contradicting characteristics are physically embodied by his beard. It is round--a soft, approachable shape much like the concern a father would show for his daughter. But it is also square--a harsh, striking shape much like his delight at being proven right at his daughterís expense. The beard is also well kept, which makes the viewer assume the good doc is a likable fellow. At the same time, however, the beard gives him an almost devilish appearance since it borders on pointy.

†††††††† William Wyler was right to demand such strict guidelines for something as simple as a beard. All of the actors in The Heiress do a remarkable job at portraying the emotions of their characters, but they are helped along quite a bit with visual clues. Dr. Sloper is no exception.

Ashley Williams

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