We are so used to parents adoring their children to absolute stupidity and seeing everything they do as flawless, that it takes a very long time for both the audience and the heroine of William Wyler’s film, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland), to accept that the father of our story, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), absolutely despises his child. Although convincingly disguised as a love story, The Heiress deals with rejection and contempt more than anything else; and although we, the viewers, seem to have deciphered it sooner, we are still in a terrible position, as we have to experience the disappointment and ache twice: once for us and once for our heroine, who we have grown to really care for.
Catherine is a simple, sweet and innocent girl. She’s polite and average-looking, shy and respectful, good at embroidery and unhealthily attached to her father, whose recognition she desperately craves. Her mother, on the other hand, as we hear again and again from Dr. Austin Sloper who worshiped her while she was alive, was a particularly vibrant woman, glowing and blooming. She was beautiful and opinionated, witty and intelligent. She owned the clothes she wore and the street she walked on. How could anybody ever live up to her? Let alone this average creature she went and left in her place.
Read at Unsung Films: Roman Holiday.
Little by little – much earlier than Catherine – we become aware of the fact that her father hates her. He sees her as a weak and unattractive replica of his glorious wife, a burden and a hindrance. Actually, it becomes increasingly evident that very few people see anything at all in Catherine – even strangers seem to be left disappointed by her. It is never clear to us why we should look down on this girl, but when she’s put next to Morris (Montgomery Clift) the comparison does become inevitable. She loses this particular battle, thanks to Morris’ stunning looks and charming ways, but she still has something of importance to offer – at least to us. If it had been any other, more normal looking man, the contrast wouldn’t have been half as hard-hitting.
But Montgomery Clift is an impossible-to-resist smooth talker, and he could have anybody he wanted. So why does Morris choose Catherine? Why is he visiting her house more than three times per week and why is he so eager to be close to her? Why is he so desperate to marry her, even tonight if possible? Is it that he has seen her inner gentleness? His sister seems to believe so and she is very impressed by the maturity of her brother’s emotions. Dr. Austin Sloper, however, knows better – it’s Catherine’s large and hard-to-miss inheritance. An unkind suspicion that we can’t believe he’s even humouring. A diagnosis, he insists.
So is Morris after the inheritance or Catherine’s heart? It takes us – and Catherine – a long time to discover. But how much is the journey worth it – how brilliantly is every little detail exposed, every human trait revealed, every major turning point handled. Montgomery Clift, Olivia de Havilland and Ralph Richardson make a destructive trio that leaves everybody irreversibly damaged, and Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s play and script give all three central characters moments of joy and grief, but decide on only one to come out victorious in the end. The writing’s sheer intelligence and brilliant humour and Clift’s naturalness and charisma make The Heiress one of the most timelessly thought-provoking, meaningful and unique films I have ever experienced – one that stays with you for days after watching it and one that teaches you the most magnificent lesson on integrity and pride.
Watch the trailer for The Heiress here: