Catherine: A Carefully Developed Character

†††††††† A carefully developed character is one of the greatest joys in cinema. From Mafia don Michael Corleone to weatherman Phil Connors, we love to see a character forged through strife and difficult choices. Though many films carefully explain their characters, few show us the full progression of a character, the catalysts that drive a fundamental metamorphosis in personality.

†††††††† The Heiress, directed in 1949 by William Wyler and based on Henry Jamesís 1880 Washington Square, takes great care to establish Catherine Sloper, and then shows us the events that chip away at her to leave us with an entirely different woman by the film's ending. Olivia de Havilland gives her all in the portrayal, as does everyone else involved. This cements the film as a perennial classic.

†††††††† Widower Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) is a rich, successful doctor. As his sole heir, Catherine Sloper shoulders his every hope and criticism. Is her timid awkwardness innate, or is it a result of tiptoeing around her father and the pedestal on which he has placed her dead mother? Fortunately, Catherine's vivacious Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) acts as a buffer. She takes Catherine out to an engagement ball, where Catherine meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who has just returned from Europe. He courts her intensely, to her father's disliking. Catherine will have to choose how to navigate the tensions between the two men in her life. Just as heiress Catherine Sloper takes time to bloom, so does The Heiress. It begins like a fairy tale you have heard before countless times, with a cruelly mistreated ugly duckling, a fancy ball, and a charming prince who swoops down to take her away from all of her pain. "How long," you might think to yourself, "before the plain Catherine Sloper morphs into the stunning Olivia de Havilland?"

†††††††† At some point, a colder truth dawns. The Olivia we have come to know, the sunny, piercingly beautiful woman, will not be joining us for The Heiress. Here she is plain and awkward, so convincingly so that you soon cease to question the transformation. But at times, Catherine Sloper shows spark and wit that belie her plainness. Is it an illusion?

Derek Owen

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