Catherine, The Heiress

     I can certainly understand why Olivia de Havilland received the Golden Globe best actress award for her part in William Wyler's 1949 production of The Heiress . Her performance made for a superb movie that was far better than Henry James's 1880 novel Washington Square. So often, a film version of a book does not do justice to the author's creativity. This time, however, William Wyler did an excellent job in directing this film by taking the story line in the book and making it very real.

     It seems that Olivia de Havilland understood Catherine Sloper better than Henry James himself. Henry James portrayed Catherine as a type of simpleton with very little brain. Dr. Sloper's investment in her education would have made her simplemindedness highly unlikely. Olivia portrayed Catherine perfectly as a girl, still learning about the world. She carried this off without giving the impression of stupidity as Henry James seemed to reference in his book.

     Olivia portrayed Catherine as a typical, vulnerable young girl, wearing her heart on her sleeve at the first sign of attention from the opposite sex. Olivia's makeup and carriage, in the beginning of the movie, was perfect for an inexperienced young lady with upper-class manners. She carried herself with dignity, without exposing her hurt feelings too often when being rejected . This carried through from the minor altercations on the dance floor to the final scene. Olivia shows just enough indignation in her expressions that words were often not needed. This shows such depth and understanding of her character that I do not often see in some of the present-day actresses (i.e. Julia Roberts).

     As Catherine learns about life, Olivia accurately portrays her gradual road to maturity with subtle makeup changes to include more defined eyes and lips as well as hairstyle changes defining a maturer Catherine. Acquiring an adult stature goes hand in hand with a change in clothing, which Olivia carries off equally well. Her graceful, less girlish, carriage gives a statement of a Catherine that is maturing enough to deal with what life may bring.

     Catherine's last defiant gesture of not giving in to Dr. Sloper's (Ralph Richardson) wishes to get her to promise a "no Morris" (Montgomery Clift)future, is wonderfully presented by Olivia as the last "childish" behavior one ever sees in the film. Olivia's final scenes push Catherine's character up to the level that would make any woman today proud of her gender's survival instincts.

     Olivia may have played Catherine in 1949, but her performance would withstand any "I am woman, hear me roar" character depicted today.

Julie Kinder

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