At times William Wyler’s “The Heiress” comes across as an extravagant stage production. That makes sense since it was adapted from the popular 1947 Broadway play. But the original story actually came from the the 1880 novel “Washington Square” by Henry James. Husband and wife playwrights Augustus and Ruth Goetz brought James’ book to the stage and were later convinced to write the film’s screenplay. Their familiarity with the material and their mellifluous writing style mixed perfectly with Wyler’s perfectionism. The result was a highly acclaimed that still garnered critical praise and several Academy Awards.
In many ways the film’s star Olivia de Havilland can be thanked for making the movie happen. She went to see the play based on a recommendation and before it was even finished she was making calls. She first convinced the wonderful William Wyler to direct the film. He was instrumental in getting studio support and in convincing Augustus and Ruth Goetz to write the script. Montgomery Clift added another popular face to the production and the wonderful Ralph Richardson, who had taken part in a London stage version, was also cast.
The story is set in 19th century New York City and focuses on a plain and reserved young woman (de Havilland) from the upper-class Washington Square neighborhood. She lives with her wealthy and proper father (Richardson) who does a poor job of hiding his disappointment. Her shyness and naivety draws her father’s insults and disenchantment and her feelings of self-worth are practically nonexistent. But their relationship takes a worse turn when she starts a relationship with a charming young man named Morris (Montgomery Clift). Her father thinks Morris is after her inheritance and he certainly doesn’t believe she’s capable of attracting a decent man. This three-way conflict makes up the core of this story.
“The Heiress” is unquestionably talky, but when the script is so fluid and its placed in the hands of such great performers, it’s easy to get lost in it. The Goetzs have no problem moving the story from stage to screen and Wyler’s directorial fingerprints are everywhere. His calculated long takes and his precise attention to detail are just some of the things you’ll notice. The film moves at a wonderful pace and it always keeps its focus. It also takes some pretty heavy subjects and treats them with respect.
And then again you have the marvelous performances. Olivia de Havilland is nothing short of fabulous and she would go on to win her second Academy Award for her performance. Ralph Richardson is simply perfect as the arrogant aristocratic father. His well-spoken eloquence and tinge of snobbery is exactly what the role demanded. And then we have Montgomery Clift who I think does marvelous work. Apparently he didn’t think so. It’s said that Clift disliked his performance so much that he left the premiere before the film ended. That is definitely a case of being your own worst critic because I thought he was excellent.
“The Heiress” is a true motion picture classic and it is crafted by the talents of some of the best filmmakers and performers to ever work in the business. It has a very stagey feel and rightfully so. But it’s great drama that dissects and exposes its characters while telling a dense and emotional story. This film may not draw the attention of some modern moviegoers but it should. If you love movies, treat yourself by seeing “The Heiress”.