I generally hesitate to spoil the ending of a film. It’s poor form to ruin a film before one has even had the chance to view it for him/her self. In many cases, it sours me on ever viewing the film in question; for example, when a friend (somewhat gleefully) spoiled the ending of The Sixth Sense (1999), I found I had lost the pressing desire to see the movie. Why watch it now, knowing that one of the most celebrated twist endings in recent filmdom has been ruined for me? (Despite this, I know I will eventually sit down and view this movie, despite my dislike for most of M. Night Shyamalan’s work–Lady in the Water? Please.)
However, in the case of The Heiress, I feel the need to discuss the ending in depth, so let this serve as a warning to those who have yet to see it. DO NOT CONTINUE READING THIS ENTRY IF YOU DO NOT WANT THE ENDING OF THIS FILM SPOILED FOR YOU.
The Heiress, released in 1949 and starring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, is an adaptation of the 1947 play of the same name by Ruth and Augustus Goetz; the play, in turn, is an adaptation of Henry James’ 1880 novel Washington Square. Both the play and the film are relatively solid adaptations, though some tweaking was, of course, inevitable.
In the film, de Havilland plays Catherine Sloper, the accomplished yet plain daughter of a wealthy doctor. Encouraged by her aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) to enter the social scene, Catherine soon falls for a charming young man, Morris Townsend (Clift). Her father, Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), is initially pleased at the interest Morris shows in his daughter, but comes to suspect the young man of pursuing Catherine solely for her inheritance. When Morris proposes to Catherine, her father whisks her away to Europe in an effort to get her to forget him; in their absence, Morris, who spends most of his time visiting Lavinia, rallying her support behind him, begins to make himself at home in their luxurious brownstone. Upon their return, Catherine insists on marrying Morris, enraging her father, who finally tells her outright that Morris is only after her money, remarking cruelly upon his daughter’s lack of social graces and beauty. Catherine decides to elope with Morris, forgoing her inheritance and determined that she and her new husband will make their way through the world on their own. But when faced with the prospect of losing access to Catherine’s wealth, Morris abandons her, only returning years later after Dr. Sloper has died, having left all of his money to his still-unmarried daughter …
Olivia de Havilland is a beautiful woman, and still thriving, apparently, at the age of 94. On a side note, her younger sister, actress Joan Fontaine, is also still kicking at the age of 92. By most accounts, the sisters have not spoken in more than two decades, a rift that reportedly has its roots in their younger years. Joan, at her mother’s insistence, was not allowed to use the family name in her acting career, and when both women were nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award in 1942, Joan’s win over Olivia cemented the feud between them (never mind that Olivia would go on to win TWO–for 1946’s To Each His Own–another excellent film–and for her starring role in this film). Their acting styles are quite different; in general, Joan is more disposed toward romantic roles as in Rebecca (1940) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), while Olivia thrives in dramatic ones. Personally, I happen to enjoy the work of both actresses, but Olivia, best known today for her work as Melanie in 1939’s Gone With the Wind, admittedly boasts the more impressive resume.
Getting back to my original point, with cheekbones to die for and wide, luminous eyes, it’s hard to see the lovely de Havilland as a dowdy spinster.
And yet, with the aid of severe hairstyles and dowdy clothes, de Havilland almost wills the viewer to believe it. She acts not only through her delivery of the script, but through her very being. She not only looks the part of the retiring wallflower, she embodies it, with the embarrassed glances, the sometimes-shuffling gait, the lowered brow and the pain-filled eyes. You believe that this woman, who is not at all unattractive, is nonetheless the plain, simple heiress of the title, an “entirely mediocre creature” (as her father calls her) with nothing of value but his money.
In adapting the play for the screen, Paramount insisted that leading man Clift’s character be written as less obviously manipulative in the interest of protecting Clift’s status as a romantic lead.
This liberty with the source material was far from new in Hollywood; earlier in the decade, rival studio RKO had done the same in rewriting the character of Johnny Aysgarth in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (which, incidentally, won the Oscar for Fontaine) because, as far as the studio brass was concerned, Cary Grant could not play a killer. Thankfully, however, the pigeonholing that occurred with Grant, who was rarely able to step outside of debonair romantic roles or screwball comedies throughout his long career, did not repeat itself with Clift. Clift’s career, though relatively short in comparison, was nonetheless marked by a wider range of roles, most notably the social climber in love with Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951), the doomed private in From Here to Eternity (1953), the psychiatrist in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), and the faded rodeo star in The Misfits (1961).
The Heiress is, in large part, about a woman scorned, both before she is abandoned and afterward. Catherine spends her entire life in the shadow of her dead mother, implicitly compared to her in multiple ways–she is not as beautiful as her mother, as accomplished as her mother, as enticing as her mother. When she falls in love with Morris, she willfully overlooks her own suspicions and her father’s outright distrust of the man. When she finds herself standing in the parlor, suitcase in hand, Morris nowhere to be found, even still she wonders if perhaps she had made a mistake, that perhaps he would come the next day. It is not until she learns that he has fled to California that Catherine hardens. It’s an almost physical hardening, too; she holds herself so stiffly she might as well be carved from granite, her expression changing from that of the hopeful and loving girl to the cold and remote woman right before our eyes. And when Morris returns, he cannot see the change, fool that he is; he miscalculates the rage burning within her, and so secure is he in the worldly charms that beguiled her before that he cannot see the obvious path to her revenge.
Catherine: “He’s grown greedier over the years. Before he only wanted my money; now he wants my love as well. Well, he came to the wrong house – and he came twice. I shall see that he does not come a third time.”
And when Catherine finally obtains her revenge … truly a sight to behold. I have little doubt that the ending of this film–the last ten minutes or so–is what secured de Havilland her second Oscar.
Aunt Lavinia: “Can you be so cruel?”
Catherine: “Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters.”
Her expression here, glancing up from her needlework, is hard and unyielding. She continues her work without hesitation, ignoring her aunt’s obvious dismay. She stands at the door, listening to Morris call her name, and you wonder, briefly, whether she will give in and let him back into her life. In an instant, though, the slight hesitation is gone. Her chin goes up, her jaw clenches, and the face becomes an impenetrable mask of dignity and strength. And when she begins to walk up the stairs to her room, listening to Morris pounding on the door, begging to enter his lost brownstone paradise, the slight smile on her lips as she ascends the staircase toward the camera is utterly chilling.
Catherine’s bitterness is not without cause. Yet, reportedly, when the film was initially released, the studio received negative feedback from viewers who wanted to see Catherine forgive Morris and live “happily ever after.” This attitude of a late 1940s film audience–that a woman should, for the sake of finding happiness, tie herself into marriage simply for the sake of being married–is unsurprising; hell, that’s the position Lavinia holds throughout the entire film, reflecting the era’s attitude toward unmarried, “loveless” women. But for modern audiences, the ending of this film is pitch-perfect; Catherine’s choice to pursue her own simple revenge is something to be celebrated. There is a certain satisfaction to watching a Victorian-era woman buck the norm and actually carve a different, solitary existence for herself. In many ways, it puts her on the same level as a man (and that may be why some members of the film’s early audience could not accept the ending). All told, it certainly brings a smile to my face.
After all, as they say, revenge IS sweet, isn’t it?
I would rank the ending of this film as one of my favorite endings of all time, right up there with Rick and Louis’ “beautiful friendship” in Casablanca (1942) and Jerry/Daphne’s “perfect” denouement in 1959’s Some Like It Hot. And even if I’ve spoiled it for you (hey, I gave you plenty of warning, so blame yourself), it’s still worth watching this amazing film.
I hope you love it as much as I do.