Can Olivia Play Catherine?

         All my life I have grown up visualizing Olivia de Havilland as the weak and mousy Melanie Wilkes in the 1939 film Gone With the Wind. When I realized she was going to play Catharine in William Wyler's 1949 movie, The Heiress, based on Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, I was a little skeptical. I could not imagine her playing anyone but Melanie. I was curious if she could transform into the strong, independent woman Catherine becomes at the end of the book.

         In the beginning of the film, Miss de Havilland played a shy and stand-offish Catherine. I was a little disappointed at first, not because of her acting but because of the character. I had expected a little more personality like Melanie's, such as her intelligence and unconditional kindness towards others. I still could not get past that stereotype. But as the film went on, I stopped think of her as Melanie and gradually began seeing her as Catherine.

         When Catherine had had her heart broken by Morris (Montgomery Clift), Catherine began to open up. She became more real by showing more emotions.

         Before this she had let people, especially her father, Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) and her Aunt Lavinia Pennimen (Miriam Hopkins) walk over her and had little personality of her own. De Havilland's deeper voice and straighter posture made Catherine come across on screen as so much stronger and more independent. The way Catherine was able to be the heartless and careless daughter while her father was on his deathbed was so shocking. It really left a permanent impression on the viewer. Melanie was also a strong character, but her strength came from her love towards the people in her life. Melanie's character and actions were always predictable because of her kind and forgiving heart. Catherine's new found strength came from her anger and resentment mainly towards Morris (Montgomery Clift) and her father, Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson).

         Perhaps unfortunately, Olivia de Havilland is in a way typecast. If you walked up to people on the street and started to discuss her, in order for people to know who she was you would have to mention her role in Gone With the Wind. However, her role in The Heiress showed how versatile an actress she really is. It is impressive to watch her go from the mousy extreme to a stronger, more heartless woman. Seeing her in this light has given me a new-found respect for her abilities as an actress.

Brittany Fentress

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