what i watched last week
music friday, 1966 edition

by request: the heiress (william wyler, 1949)

(This was requested by Jeff Pike.)

I once had a complicated relationship with Henry James, and it is perhaps a mark of the turns my life has taken over the years that I haven’t thought seriously about James in 20+ years. In the early 90s, while preparing for my oral examinations for my doctorate in English, I knew I would get asked about James. I knew this because he was important, and because he wasn’t a favorite of mine … I assumed someone in the exam would seize upon this and grill me mercilessly. So I spent a lot of time in the year I did orals prep reading Henry James. I wanted to make sure I could handle anything that came up. I also prepared a canned response … one piece of advice you are given is to have a few such things saved up for when you found yourself at a loss.

And so, of course, no one asked me about Henry James. There was a short break at one point, when the people on the orals committee stepped outside, and I found myself alone in the room with the professor from PoliSci who was there as the “outside observer”. I told him that I thought I’d ducked a tough one when no one asked about James. When the rest of the committee returned, they asked the outside observer, who hadn’t spoken during the exam, if he had anything he wanted to ask me. Yes, he said … he knew I had an interest in media studies, particularly film, and so he wondered if maybe I could say something about Henry James, how I might use him in the classroom given my interests.

He was a great man, one of the best, and I imagine he had a glint in his eye, knowing that he’d tricked me. But the joke was on him, for my canned response to a James question was to talk about the movie of The Bostonians. And so I confidently jabbered for a couple of minutes about Vanessa Redgrave and Olive Chancellor.

Whew. I’m not sure, but that might have been the last time I read Henry James. I came to appreciate his work … I also learned that he wasn’t my cup of tea, which is on me, not James.

Oh, I was supposed to be talking about The Heiress, based on James’ Washington Square. (The movie review starts now.) David Thomson compared the movie to film noir, writing, “try to find a picture with worse things to say about human nature and the traps people make for themselves”. And indeed, The Heiress is bleak. I think the excellence of the movie comes largely from the acting performances from Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson. They are all fine actors, but when you see so many strong performances in a movie, you have to tip your cap to the director for making those performances possible. William Wyler always struck me as a serviceable director, and this is one of his better efforts.

Each of the three actors comes at the audience differently. Richardson seems a bit stodgy at first, but he seems to be truly interested in his daughter’s welfare. As he moves against her intended nuptials, he seems hard-headed, but he is still less than villainous. By the end, though, we have lost all sympathy for him, even though he is proven right in some of his assumptions, because we know he hates his daughter. Clift, as Townsend,  is so pretty and so charming and so, I don’t know, innocent, that he is very convincing as the man who sees de Havilland’s Catherine for her inner and outer beauty. This makes Richardson’s father seem unfair. When we find that Townsend is a cad, it comes as a surprise because Clift played the fortune hunter so well that he fooled us the way he fooled Catherine. But it’s de Havilland that really takes over the movie. This beautiful actress seems a bit dumpy during the first part of the movie, and it’s not just her clothes or her makeup … de Havilland’s expressions are those of a woman who has been told once too many times that she is plain. She blossoms in her love affair, and de Havilland shows this in her expressions as well … she seems reborn. But when things go wrong, when she realizes that her lover is false and her father is hateful, de Havilland’s countenance changes for good. She finally gets the fire than her father thought did not exist. She takes control of her life at last. And even though things don’t work out well, even though Catherine is a harder person, de Havilland somehow manages to become truly beautiful at last.

I watched The Heiress back in 2007, and wrote about it in a rather dismissive way: “it's a very good movie and there is plenty to say about it, but who really cares? It's almost 60 years old.” Well, Jeff Pike apparently cared! Back then, I gave it 8/10, but that’s too low. 9/10. For my favorite Wyler movie, check out Roman Holiday. De Havilland won an Oscar for this movie, her second in four years … To Each His Own is the other. As for Montgomery Clift, I’m on record as loving From Here to Eternity very much.