Body Language versus First Person

         The written word allows for an author to give you an unlimited amount of information about the characters thoughts, feelings, and desires. Unfortunately, this flow of information is often not possible for a film adaptation. Instead it is the actor’s responsibility to convey subtleties that are present in writing that are not able to be verbally announced. An actor ability to convey these is often referred to in terms of his skill. A very important part of this skill is the actor emphasis of body language, and the changes that might occur as the actor character is presented with different situations.

         In the 1949 film The Heiress, directed by William Wyler, the actress Olivia de Havilland playing Catherine exemplifies the use of body language to define a character. The 1880 novel Washington Square, which the film is based on, portrays a very homely dim girl that is to be the heiress of her father’s large fortune. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the film more than I did the original novel, and believe that the sole reason behind this was Havilland’s masterful use of body language.

         Henry James, the author of Washington Square, provides us with few of Catherine’s personal thoughts through her first person, via the omniscient point of view. The reader can tell that there is a transformation in the obedient love-struck daughter to stoic single woman. But, the lack of “inside information” that James chooses to not embellish with, does not as readily show the drastic developmental changes that occur in Catherine’s personality as is seen in the film.

         It is the extreme change of body language that the actress bestows upon Catherine in The Heiress that truly creates a winning story. She first portrays Catherine as a young woman completely unsure of herself. While Morris, actor Montgomery Clift, is courting her, she is constantly moving to a position that will create physical distance between them. Olivia de Havilland also includes many nervous “ticks” by continually twisting something in her hands, which shows that Catherine is unable to keep still as a young woman at that time is expected to. Her character begins to show a change in her body language, as she becomes surer of herself. This is first noted when Morris declares his love for her. She instantly switches from a slope in her shoulders and movement away from Morris to standing erect and warmly embracing him. This transformation slowly continues through the next scenes, where Catherine is shown extending her posture, and putting enthusiasm into her movements.

         Olivia de Havilland finishes the transformation of Catherine through body language in the last scenes. She moves with the grace and posture of a well-developed woman. There is no hesitation in her, as every movement seems to be well planned and direct. But, she also lends hardness to the character by creating such a stiff formal atmosphere. She manages to show Catherine’s agitation at Morris by her stabbing motions when completing her needlework. Finally, as Catherine is striding up the stairs away from Morris she lends a small hesitation noted in a slight physical softness, where the audience can tell there are second thoughts about her actions. But, this physical softness is quickly erased with an upward lift of the head and steady movement up the stairs. The actress’ stunning use of body language to portray her character’s thoughts manages to exceed the literary works ability to use first person to describe Catherine’s emotions.

Rachel Haley