While in New York City recently, I was lucky enough to catch a production of the revival of The Heiress before it was due to leave Broadway in February. My trouble with seeing this play is that the 1949 William Wyler film adaptation of the Ruth and Augustus Goetz play, starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift and Ralph Richardson, is one of my favorite movies of all time. And there is nothing worse than seeing an adaptation (whether a film or play adaptation) of something you love and having it be an awful, hideous interpretation of the beloved work (do I have to even mention the Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake of 1998?). This 2012/2013 Broadway production of The Heiress, which is loosely based on Henry James’ classic novel Washington Square, did not let me down. It was not BETTER than the Wyler film, but the play held its own against the powerhouse cast of the 1949 film.
The Heiress is a magnificent film that defies 1940s Hollywood logic…the woman and man do not walk into the sunset hand-in-hand. Actually, what is even more defiant for a film of this era is a woman having power over a man. Yes, 1940s were the days of the powerful woman in Hollywood: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, etc. But, the films those women were in were mostly about tough ladies who needed the love of a good man to set them straight. The Heiress is nothing like that. The film begins by establishing that shy, naïve Catherine, the wealthy daughter of a stern New England doctor, will probably never marry. Catherine is plain, timid, and lacks, as her father claims, what men look for in future wives…aside, of course, from her money. Enter Morris Townsend, who takes a liking to Catherine but her father disapproves and believes Townsend is just an opportunist. By now I’m sure you’re wondering where the “powerful” women are. Well, Catherine learns quite a few life lessons over the course of the film and in the end she is a strong, confident woman who knows exactly what she wants and doesn’t want. Even though George Cukor was known in Hollywood circles as being the best “ladies director,” I feel that director William Wyler gives Cukor tough competition here and with some of Wyler’s other movies (Roman Holiday, Mrs. Miniver, Jezebel, Funny Girl, etc.). This film is a tour de force for de Havilland, but Wyler’s brave direction increases both the power of Catherine and the tone of the whole film.
And even though as I was watching the play, I did keep making comparisons throughout, I was able to enjoy the play on its own merits. Jessica Chastain, who plays the de Havilland role of Catherine Sloper, manages to shine in the role that won de Havilland her second Best Actress Oscar in 1950.
The Heiress: 1949, not rated, 115 minutes, directed by William Wyler, starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins. The Niles Library owns this title on DVD.