The Transitions of Catherine

         The Heiress, William Wyler’s 1949 American drama based on a 1948 screenplay, by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, adapted from the novel Washington Square (1880) by Henry James, is a film that chronicles the life of Catherine Sloper, a painfully plain woman, as depicted by Olivia de Havilland, who, although intelligent and quite wealthy, copes with an everyday life of apparent mediocrity. Dr. Austin Sloper, Catherine’s father, as portrayed by Ralph Richardson, seems to dislike these qualities of his daughter, and therefore adds to her constant struggling with his feelings of disappointment and contempt. Morris Townsend, a charming man, as presented by Montgomery Clift, who appears to be seeking a partner with a hefty inheritance, quickly shows his attraction for Catherine, and they soon begin to fall for one another. The main plot of the film revolves around Catherine’s father attempting to decode Catherine and Morris’ relationship and reveal mainly to Catherine that Morris is nothing more than a money-hungry freeloader. Catherine undertakes many changes throughout the battle she faces with her father, as well as her relationship with Morris. I will attempt to clarify the major transitions she goes through during her experiences (at least in terms of her appearance and personality), and then articulate why they added to my enjoyment of the film.

         In the early stages of the film, Catherine seems quite dull, shy, and subservient towards her father and his demands. Catherine seems to be plain in appearance, and is even quiet during most of the film’s early conversations. This is my least favorite version of Catherine. During this time, I really do not get a feel for her personality, and I essentially lose track of her as a character.

         Catherine really starts to change, however, once Morris first discovers her. As Catherine and Morris’ relationship blossoms, Catherine seems to “embrace” her plain, shy side and seems to use it as a foundation for her relationship with him. Catherine suddenly looks a little nicer, talks a lot more, and seems much happier. Catherine has found someone who enjoys the fact that she is plain, and this improves her self-esteem tenfold. However, while she does seem happier, there is still a very negative side to Catherine’s personality, and this side is quite apparent when Dr. Sloper appears before Catherine throughout the film sporadically.

         In time, Catherine’s relationship is destroyed when Dr. Sloper confronts Morris about his intentions with her. This is the point where her truly negative side becomes apparent. Catherine seems to lose complete touch with her father, and he no longer seems to have any control over her actions. Catherine’s appearance is much colder, and her facial expressions and speech seem to shift dramatically. This change has a direct impact on her for the rest of the film, where she denies Morris the chance to come back into her life, therefore ending the relationship they shared forever.

         These dramatic changes in Catherine were quite interesting, and brought a lot of entertainment to the film. It almost seemed as if Catherine was capable of multiple personalities and was able to change into these personalities at will. At first glance, it may seem as if this could shift the film into the realm of implausibility, but really it simply added to Catherine’s complexity as a character. I really enjoyed the depth Wyler was able to give her, and I look forward to more of his work in the future.

Matthew Branson

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