#539) The Heiress (1949)

#539) The Heiress (1949)

OR “Like Father, Like Sum”

Directed by William Wyler

Written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. Based on their play. Suggested by the novel “Washington Square” by Henry James.

Class of 1996

The Plot: In New York’s Washington Square circa 1849, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is the reserved daughter of the respected Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), who is overly protective of Catherine and often demeaningly compares her to her late mother. After some encouragement from her widowed Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins), Catherine attends a dance and meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). The two immediately fall in love, and after a brief courtship, decide to marry. Dr. Sloper disapproves of the engagement, fearing that Morris is after Catherine’s money (her annual inheritance from her mother’s estate will triple when her father passes). Catherine learns to stand up for herself and be with the man she loves. And he loves her too, right? ….Right?

Why It Matters: The NFR praises William Wyler for “adeptly harness[ing] the diverse acting styles” of his actors, and singles out Aaron Copland’s “poignant score”. De Havilland’s Oscar win is also mentioned.

But Does It Really?: It’s by no means a timeless classic, but “The Heiress” is still an entertaining film made by A+ talent. At the center of “Heiress” is a remarkable performance by Olivia de Havilland (I’ll gush about it later), aided by a top-notch supporting cast, William Wyler’s deft direction, and Leo Tovor’s unintrusive cinematography. I just wish “The Heiress” was better remembered today outside of film buffs like me. A “maybe” on its NFR designation, but a definite “yes” for recommended viewing.

Everybody Gets One: Sir Ralph Richardson was widely considered one of the great British actors of the 20th century, alongside Olivier and Gielgud. In lieu of a biography, here’s my favorite (albeit possibly apocryphal) anecdote about Sir Ralph: While appearing in the play “Alice’s Boys” in the West End, Ralph Richardson allegedly stopped the show one night to ask, “Is there a doctor in the house?” When a doctor made themself known, Richardson asked, “Doctor, isn’t this a terrible play?”

Wow, That’s Dated: The film opens with the text “One Hundred Years Ago”. So…1921?

Seriously, Oscars?: In a rare occurrence, “The Heiress” was the Oscar contender with the most nominations (8) and the most wins (4) of the year, but didn’t go on to win Best Picture. That distinction went to “All the King’s Men“, but “Heiress” took home four deserving trophies: Olivia DeHavilland’s second Best Actress Oscar, Best Scoring, Best Art Direction, and the first of an eventual eight Best Costume Design Oscars for Edith Head.

Other notes 

  • “The Heiress” came into Olivia de Havilland’s life following her lengthy court battle with Warner Bros., with a settlement now known as the De Havilland Law. Long story short, de Havilland’s contract with Warner Bros. was for seven years of work, with time added on for any suspensions. The De Havilland Law made sure that seven years meant seven calendar years, regardless of actual amount worked. This allowed Olivia to leave Warner Bros. to pursue more challenging roles, including “The Heiress”, which she saw on Broadway and successfully lobbied to star in its film adaptation.
  • Most of my notes are about how good this cast is. Shout out to Miriam Hopkins as Aunt Lavinia, Catherine’s only support. A major movie star in the ’30s, Hopkins successfully transitioned to supporting roles when her star started to fade. As Lavinia, Hopkins is not a former leading lady “slumming it” in a supporting part, but rather an actor who know exactly how her role fits into the big picture.
  • Olivia de Havilland is on fire in this movie. After years of syrupy sweet ingénues, de Havilland plays Catherine as a meek, uncoordinated woman who confidently blossoms before a bitter betrayal. And she does it all without the hysterics and overacting associated with this era. De Havilland is, in short, the complete package, and I was ready to give her the Oscar five minutes in.
  • I hate it when a black-and-white movie makes a big deal about a specific color in a scene. “I thought you’d like the color…it’s cherry red.” I guess we’ll take your word for it, Catherine.
  • Montgomery Clift gets a nice reveal as Morris. As mentioned in the NFR write-up, Clift’s Method acting doesn’t stick out amongst his more classically trained co-stars, though I think he plays too much of his character’s hand too early.
  • Also impressive: this movie doesn’t feel like a filmed play! Even though it is primarily set in the same house, Wyler et al prevent things from getting claustrophobic or too static. The trick seems to be: cover as much of a scene as possible in one take, and let the actors (not the camera) do the moving.
  • God, de Havilland’s good in this. Even her line reading of “I love you” is heartbreaking. Can she win two Oscars for this?
  • Having now seen a good portion of William Wyler’s filmography, he definitely had a thing for female characters who defy the conventions of their time: Catherine, Julie Marsden, Princess Ann, Fanny Brice. More directors should have that niche.
  • There’s something Richard Kiley-esque about Ralph Richardson. Or is it the other way around? Regardless, Sir Ralph is doing a great job of making Dr. Sloper a grounded, realistic antagonist instead of a cartoon villain.
  • The 1840s-1850s is apparently the era of giant top hats in American menswear. This was also a time when gentlemen wore “closely-cut trousers”, and Monty Clift’s may be a little too closely-cut. Did he borrow them from Andrew Rannells?
  • William Wyler always has a subtle element of suspense in his movies. Watching Catherine waiting for Morris to return is aggravating. It’s like subdued Hitchcock.
  • Another smart choice Wyler makes in opening scenes up is using mirrors to cover two reactions in the same shot. I keep calling that the Spielberg Mirror Shot, but clearly all the greats figured it out before he did.
  • The final confrontation between Catherine and her father is brutal, but if there’s one thing Olivia de Havilland was great at, it was severing family ties.
  • Luckily, I went into “The Heiress” with zero spoilers, so I was able to genuinely go along for the ride. And what a ride. That ending stunned me, and de Havilland somehow makes the act of walking up the stairs seem powerful and incredible.


  • “The Heiress” had a successful run, and while Olivia de Havilland’s film career started to dwindle in the 1950s, she continued to grace the screen for another 40 years before retiring in France. Although I always enjoyed reminding readers that she was still alive while I was covering her movies for this blog, Olivia de Havilland passed away last summer at the age of 104.
  • The stage version of “The Heiress” has returned to Broadway every few decades, with Catherine being played by the likes of Jane Alexander, Cherry Jones, and Jessica Chastain.
  • Although there has never been a theatrical remake of “The Heiress”, there have been a few TV adaptations of the play over the years, plus the 1997 film “Washington Square”, which is more faithful to the novel.
  • While “The Heiress” doesn’t get referenced too often in pop culture, the movie did get the “Carol Burnett Show” treatment in the 1975 skit “The Lady Heir”.

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