Catherine and the Blank Look

         The Heiress is a 1949 theatrical release directed by William Wyler; it is an adaptation of the 1880 book Washington Square by Henry James. The main character of both is a young woman, Catherine, who is faced throughout with decisions, usually surrounding her interest in the character Morris and her father's disapproval of him. Olivia de Havilland, the actress playing Catherine, did a superb job in her portrayal of her character in the movie.

         As the movie begins the audience is introduced to Catherine. While she is not gorgeous, she is still moderately attractive. Catherine is also a bit naïve and shy. Olivia de Havilland portrays this wonderfully through the way she speaks her lines. The lines are delivered with hesitancy when she talks to people other than her Aunt Penniman (Miriam Hopkins). She stutters and stumbles over her words when speaking to her father (Ralph Richardson), Morris (Montgomery Clift), or others that she feels may be in a position to judge her. This is perfectly expressed in the hesitancy and tone of the actress's voice.

         However, even more important to the performance was the use of body language. By her nervous and timid movements Olivia de Havilland helps us to understand Catherine clearly without ever saying anything. Examples of this understated but brilliant acting through simple movement are her uneasiness around Morris by leaning back, her nervousness when she first meets Morris, and, my favorite, a blank look when she clearly does not understand others actions or motivations.

         The actress's taleny is most clearly expressed in the last scenes of the movie, when they are compared to the rest of the picture. It is clear that Catherine has aged and become more assertive simply through the inflection in her words and the preciseness through which her actions are completed. She easily commands the house and exacts revenge on Morris while looking even more beautiful, making her retribution even more fulfilling.

         All of these transformations are understated but understood because of Olivia de Havilland's rich portrayal. Overall she completes a beautiful and understated character for Catherine.

Sandra Way

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