The Well-Cast Heiress

        For a motion picture to be successful, dozens of specialists are brought in to provide their best opinions on how a film should be transformed from words on a page to the movements, dialogue, and emotion of the characters moving around on screen. From the director to the set designers, everyone involved in a movie has his or her personal expertise. Among the most important of the roles involved in filmmaking is that of a casting director. Although the job title might not have existed when William Wyler’s The Heiress was filmed in 1949, whoever chose the actors for the roles in the film did a phenomenal job of casting the roles of Catherine, Morris, and Dr. Sloper. Choosing the actors for a film in crucial for the quality of the end product, and something that cinematic professionals still struggle with today.

        Catherine, the self-conscious daughter of the demeaning Dr. Sloper, was portrayed by Olivia de Havilland, and possessed many of the core characteristics that define Catherine’s character. In the 1880 novel Washington Square (upon which the film was based), Henry James presented Catherine as a middle-of-the-road person all around. With looks that do not repulse but also do not turn heads, it is hard to cast an actress for Catherine’s part. With most movie stars being among the most beautiful creatures walking the earth, it took a keen eye for acting talent to find the right person for the role of the fair-weather Catherine.

        Morris, on the other hand, was not as hard to find. Being blessed with charm and good looks, he was more than likely a much easier casting decision. Montgomery Clift was very well fitted for the role of Morris because of his natural charm. His charisma not only swindles Catherine into falling for him but lures the audience into his grasp as well.

        However, the award for the best-cast role in the film has to be given to Ralph Richardson for his portrayal of Dr. Sloper. His performance in Wyler’s adaptation makes it seem that he was a close friend of Henry James. Richardson carries the aura of the cold-hearted, belittling doctor in every movement that he completes and word of dialogue that he speaks on the screen.

        The nature of the doctor is the backbone of the movie and challenges the audiences by not giving them a clear “bad-guy.” As movies continue to be made, “The Heiress” will always be used as a prototype for a well-cast film.

Marshall Toy

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