Directed by William Wyler, The Heiress (1949) tells the story of Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), the plain and socially awkward daughter of a prominent physician, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), who makes no secret of his disappointment in her. Catherine is resigned to her ordinary existence until she meets a charming young man named Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). She is immediately smitten, but her father suspects Morris is a fortune hunter and threatens to disinherit her if she marries him. Undeterred, she makes plans to elope with Morris, though not before telling him about her father’s decision. On the night they are to elope, Catherine waits all night for Morris to come and take her away, but he never arrives.
A few days later, a heartbroken Catherine has a bitter argument with her father, who reveals that he is dying. She tells Dr. Sloper that she still loves Morris and challenges him to change his testament if he is afraid of how she will spend his money after he dies. He does not and dies within days, leaving Catherine his entire estate. Several years later, Morris returns from California, having made nothing of himself. Again, he professes his love for Catherine, claiming that he left her behind because he could not bear to see her destitute. She pretends to forgive him and tells him that she still wants to elope as they originally planned. He promises to come back that night for her, while she tells him that she will start packing her bags. When Morris returns, Catherine takes her revenge. Her widowed aunt, Lavinia Penniman (Mirian Hopkins), asks her how she be so cruel, to what Catherine respondes, “I have been taught by masters.” She calmly orders her maid Maria (Vanessa Brown) to bolt, leaving Morris outside shouting her name. A satisfied Catherine then silently ascends the stairs as Morris desperately bangs at her locked door.
Catherine Sloper: He came back with the same lies, the same silly phrases. He has grown greedier with the years. The first time he only wanted my money; now he wants my love, too. Well, he came to the wrong house — and he came twice. I shall see that he never comes a third time.
The basic storyline of The Heiress originated in Washington Square, a novella written by American-born author Henry James, based on a true story related to him by his close friend, English stage actress Fanny Kemble, concerning her brother’s unsuccessful attempt to marry a rich woman. One of the few Jamesian stories set in his native land, Washington Square was published in 1880, a year before The Portrait of Lady, widely considered by literary experts to be James’s masterpiece. Washington Square was already an American classic when the husband and wife writing team of Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted it to the stage under the name The Heiress. Produced and directed by Jed Harris, the play opened at the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway in September 1947, closing a year later after 410 performances. Wendy Hiller starred as Catherine Sloper, Basil Rathbone as her domineering father and Peter Cookson as her fortune-hunting suitor, Morris Townsend. In 1949, The Heiress was staged in London by John Gieguld, with Peggy Ashcroft and Wendy Hiller alternating in the title role and Ralph Richardson becoming famous as Dr. Sloper.
Meanwhile, Olivia de Havilland had finally reached the point where she was fully in charge of her career, selecting only those roles that she felt would challenge her and enable her to grow as an actress. After suing Warner Bros. to be released from her contract and winning a landmark judgment in December 1944, she resumed her career at Paramount Pictures, winning an Academy Award for Best Actress for her heartfelt performance in Mitchell Leisen’s To Each His Own (1946). When she saw The Heiress on Broadway, she immediately felt that the role of Catherine Sloper would be perfect for her. Upon returning to Los Angeles, de Havilland telephoned director William Wyler and proposed The Heiress as a possible project on which she hoped they could collaborate. Wyler, who was also working at Paramount, was one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood at the time, having helmed such acclaimed pictures as Wuthering Heights (1939), Mrs. Miniver (1942) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
Interested in de Havilland’s proposal, Wyler went to New York to see the play in January 1948 and was instantly fascinated by its subject matter, especially the psychological tensions and the struggle between family members. He immediately contacted the Goetzes’s agent and arranged a meeting with the couple to discuss a screen adaptation of The Heiress. According to Ruth Goetz, Wyler “wanted to know all about James’s original story, and what he changed and what we had supplied. […] By the time we left him that day, we knew he wanted us. I thought he was first-rate.”
A few days later, Paramount offered the Goetzes $250,000 for the screen rights to The Heiress, as well as a salary of $10,000 per week to write the screenplay. Wyler’s only instruction to the couple was that they remove some early lines that made it clear that Morris Townsend was nothing more than a fortune hunter. He wanted the audience to believe — just as Catherine believed — that Morris was honest and straightforward. “When I saw the play in New York, it was so obvious, the way he was leering and estimating the value of everything in Dr. Sloper’s home,” Wyler later recalled. “He was clearly, heavily, and awkwardly established as being there only for the money. I decided I wouldn’t do that. It became an argument, but I still think I was right.”
For the role of Morris Townsend, Wyler initially considered Errol Flynn, who had famously co-starred with de Havilland in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and eight other pictures for Warner Bros. Because of Flynn’s reputation and persona as a rake, however, Wyler thought he would be too obviously untrustworthy from an early stage and ultimately decided against his casting. Wyler’s next choice was Montgomery Clift, who was then enjoying critical acclaim for his debut film performance in Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1948) and had just completed Red River (1948) for Howard Hawks. When Augustus Goetz first met Clift on the Paramount set, the actor was wearing a torn jacket, jeans and a T-shirt, part of a bohemian image he was cultivating at the time. “He looked like a bum, and I thought, how could he ever play the suave, elegant Townshend?” Goetz said. But when Clift showed up in full make-up and costume, the writer was astonished: “The transformation was startling. He was the most fashionable youth I ever saw.”
Wyler managed to lure Ralph Richardson to Hollywood to reprise his stage role as Dr. Austin Sloper, Catherine’s emotionally detached father. Wyler had met Richardson a year earlier at Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh’s home, where he had been immediately taken with his sharp wit and eccentricity. He was later delighted to discover that Richardson shared his affection for motorbikes. A veteran of the London stage, Richardson had been acting in films in his native England since 1931. The Heiress marked his American motion picture debut.
To play Catherine’s widowed aunt, Lavinia Penniman, Wyler turned to Miriam Hopkins, with whom he had previously worked in These Three (1936). In the late 1930s, Hopkins had been briefly married to Wyler’s close friend Anatole Litvak, who had just directed de Havilland in The Snake Pit (1948), for which she would receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Wyler and Hopkins would later collaborate in Detective Story (1951) and The Children’s Hour (1961), a remake of These Three.
Filming on The Heiress took place between late June and early September 1948 on a Paramount soundstage, where lavish sets representing New York’s Washington Square in the 1850s had been constructed. Clift was looking forward to working with Wyler, whose earlier pictures Wuthering Heights and The Letter (1940) he had greatly admired. However, he was apprehensive about the director’s reputation as a tyrannical filmmaker who demanded too many takes of his actors. Wyler later remembered that on the first of shooting, “Monty came to me on the set and said quietly, ‘If you ever bawl me out, don’t do it in front of the crew.'” Wyler assured him that he woud not, although he would later be furious about Clift’s insistence on bringing his close friend and acting coach Mira Rostova on the set and his need to consult with her regularly.
Clift and de Havilland did not get along well on the set, barely speaking to each other throughout the entire shoot. De Havilland often complained that she had to deliver her lines in front of an actor who was always looking in the opposite direction — at Rostova and not at her. For his part, Clift, a praticioner of Lee Strasberg’s “method acting,” considered de Havilland an inferior actress and made his feeling known in a letter to his friend, actor Sandy Campbell: “She memorizes her lines at night and comes to work waiting for the director to tell her what to do. You can’t get by with that in the theater; and you don’t have to in the movies. Her performance is being totally shaped by Wyler.” Later, Clift accused Wyler of letting Hopkins steal scenes and upstage him. As for Richardson, Clift felt intimidated by his consummate technique. “Can’t that man make any mistakes?” he groaned after Richardson repeated a take with him for the thirtieth time in the same polished manner, making it hard for Clift to try different things.
Wyler was in awe of Richardson; “You don’t direct an actor like Sir Ralph Richardson,” he later said. The first scene he shot with Richardson required the actor to come in and, silently, hang up his cane and take off his hat, coat and gloves. The scene in question is the moment when Dr. Sloper returns to the house and finds Catherine asleep on the couch, but obviously waiting up for him. “How would like me to play this?” Richardson asked the director. When Wyler wondered if there was more than one way of making an entrance, hang up a cane and take off a hat, coat and gloves, Richardson proceeded to demonstrate half a dozen different demonstrations. “He gave a display, laying out his merchandise,” Wyler recalled. “He entered this set as if he had lived there twenty years. I suspect that all the time he knew which way he wanted to it. That’s an actor for you!”
De Havilland and Wyler worked very well together, clashing only on one scene. When Morris jilts Catherine, she has to climb the stairs to her bedroom carrying the suitcase she had packed for their elopement. De Havilland did numerous takes, but was not able to reach to level of emotion that Wyler was looking for. Finally, she got so frustrated that the usually professional de Havilland threw the suitcase at him. At that point, Wyler realized the problem: there was nothing in the suitcase. He then ordered it filled with heavy props so that de Havilland’s efforts to drag it up the stairs perfectly captured her deep dejection.
Wyler, whose first love had been music, considered the score of fundamental importance to the film and insisted on offering the job to composer Aaron Copland, whose work on Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940) and The North Star (1943) had earned him Oscar nominations. Copland was hired over the objections of Paramount’s head of production Y. Frank Freeman, who was concerned about the composer’s involvment with the pro-Soviet The North Star, which had become the target of congressional investigations. Copland, who had read the novella and seen the play on Broadway, spent the last six weeks of 1948 in Hollywood working on The Heiress, creating five principal themes that “turned out to be, if one of his shorter Hollywood scores, his most complex and subtle one, the one that most resembled his serious concert work.”
The Heiress opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York on October 6, 1949, after Paramount ran a series of high-class advertisements celebrating Wyler and the film. The picture was a solid box-office hit in New York and received excellent reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times said that the picture “crackles with allusive life and fire and in its tender and agonized telling of an extraordinary characterful nature,” adding that Wyler “has given this somewhat austere drama an absorbing intimacy and warming illusion of nearness that it did not have on stage.” Crowther also praised de Havilland, noting that “her emotional reactions are more fluent and evident” than those of Wendy Hiller in the original play and that “her portrayal of the poor girl had dignity and strenght.” Outside of New York, however, The Heiress did not do so well, which disappointed Wyler. He told Variety, “I expected it to make a lot of money. It cost too much [the budget was $2.5 million]. It should have been done cheaper. But then it wouldn’t have been the same picture.”
At the 22nd Academy Awards held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in March 1950, Olivia de Havilland received from the hands of James Stewart — who almost became her first husband in the early 1940s — her second Oscar for Best Actress. In her acceptance speech, written by her husband, author and screenwriter Marcus Goodrich, de Havilland said, “Your award for To Each His Own I took as an incentive to venture forward. Thank you for this very generous assurance that I have not entirely failed to do so.” Later, she seemed quite subdued when she was interviewed by reporters in the press room: “When I won the first award in 1946, I was terribly thrilled. But this time I felt solemn, very serious and… shocked. Yes, shocked! It’s a great responsibility to win the award twice.” The Heiress also won Oscars for Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Costume Design (Black and White) and Best Dramatic or Comedy Score, receiving four additional nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Ralph Richardson) and Best Cinematography (Black and White).