Warning: The following essay contains spoilers for Gregory Hoblit's 1996 film Primal Fear, just to bring that up as fair game.
Watching William Wyler's 1949 classic film, The Heiress, I was entranced by a lot of things. Technically, the film was utterly fantastic, and the performances across the board were excellent, and I could certainly write about how the film was great in those regards... but I was particularly caught off balance by Olivia de Havilland. Sure, I knew she was a fantastic actress (and one who still would act if she were given a proper role, though she has not since 1979 in a feature film) but this was a showcase of a role, there are no two ways around it. Of course, everything else is essential to balance the film; but her performance was so stellar that it is worth talking about in its own right. Especially in the more highly dramatized version of the tale, adapted from Henry James's 1880 novel, Washington Square, Catherine Sloper's character arc is so bold it requires a great actress... and of course they found one.
At the beginning of the film, she is shy and the sort that could be taken in easily by a charmer... like Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). She does not believe in herself all that much; and, when Townsend speaks to her in a way that is not condescending, it pulls her in. Olivia portrays her very perfectly from the get go, her eyes cast downwards and voice higher pitched, letting us know all about this character and how she feels. Her movements are uncomfortable as she is at the party, for example. You can see her character not knowing what to say really and how to turn an offer to dance down or how to get up as she patiently waits for a man to come back. She is a social misfit and has never been given the full opportunity to be otherwise. Olivia makes this character fully realized with all the smallest moments, from her quiet reactions and "aw shucks" movements... and she is also obviously overcome with Townsend. How slowly she begins to give in to him. There is a moment so fluid where she flies up the staircase, flowing right with the music, which acts so perfectly with how her character feels. We see her give in and start speaking more giddily, still higher pitched, but head-over-heels as opposed to shy, and yet still.
When her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), speaks condescendingly of Townsend, her shock is one that is not willing to accept the possibilities. It is all part of the character slow-burn, becoming less shy, but coming into her own to realize more the different levels of human interaction. Olivia nails Catherine's turning feelings to her father, particularly how she ever slowly turns against Townsend. Olivia lets us know without a doubt what she is thinking inside, even as the moments are concealed where she faces the facts, like the doors shutting as she weeps and the time lapse from her father's death. When the doors open and we see her walk out, we see what she has realized in her every move. As she embroiders at the very end, and speaks to the others around them... we again see the very coldness and cruelty that she is carrying out before it really happens. We do not know how, just that she is not being honest. I brought up how she speaks to them... and this is one of the most knock-out parts of it. Her voice changes to something much deeper and stern, no more beating around the bush. Her movements reflect this, as she acts in a firm way... a calculating way. This could be somewhat goofy, but it is hit out of the ballpark.
Edward Norton in Primal Fear strikes a chord with me in a similar way. Of course, his character is being manipulative from the start; but that is beside the point. He uses his voice very effectively, as he stammers about in a higher, shyer voice to the deeper, more sinister tone of his true self. Edward Norton does it differently, only that when we watch it through, he is keeping us out of his head, where we are right with Catherine and how she is changing. The realization that Norton has been lying plays with our sympathies, because he has made us love him so much. We see that stammering kid who was led to commit sexual acts for a priest is one that we feel for, and we understand how this schizophrenia could break out. It is a mental disease, we think... until you can watch the film again and see the mechanics of his performance. It is all in how shy he acts... and no doubt to how Richard Gere's character speaks of him and defends him, just as the other characters in The Heiress lead us into Catherine's mind. It is a different sort of character study, from the deception of Norton's performance to de Havilland's performance leading us to see her every thought. No doubt, though, that these great performers deserve a tip of the hat for turning the tables so effectively.