Mic-dropping over how dazzling Olivia de Havilland’s portrayal is of Catherine Sloper in The Heiress is too easy, not because there’s no “there” there, but because the part is so well-scripted, -directed, and -acted, it—and de Havilland’s Academy Award®; Golden Globe Award®; and New York Film Critics Circle Award® for Best Actress for the role—speaks for itself.
It’s Catherine’s father Dr. Austin Sloper, played by Ralph Richardson, I’m interested in. To be clear, Ralph Richardson also delivers a pitch-perfect performance—and drops an anachronistic mic of his own—but his character is less easily summed up because he’s both drawn and plays to type, meaning, the script calls for him to behave a certain way, and within the story, the character also “plays up” how he is perceived by other characters, which works to disguise…a lot.
On the surface, he’s a snobby, wealthy, reluctant single father, who accepts his child in his household because, well, he was part of that whole conception thing, in wedlock. Catherine’s birth cost Dr. Sloper his wife, something for which he’s never forgiven Catherine, we think. We come in at the point when Catherine’s childhood is over and are left to imagine the many ways her father’s resentment has played out over the years. What we are told is that by this point, Dr. Sloper sees an unbridgeable dichotomy between his intellect and what he thinks of as his daughter’s simplemindedness.
And yet there’s more going on. In fact, I call bull**** on Dr. Sloper’s entire shtick. Don’t get me wrong. Watching him in this movie on TV a bunch of times, he almost had me fooled. It wasn’t until I saw him on the big screen—where his subtle body language, facial expressions, and bits of acting business gave him away—that I realized Dr. Sloper, as a well-drawn character, was running a serious game on folks both inside and outside of the movie. As I exited the theater, I struck up a conversation with the stranger whom I’d been sitting next to and compared notes with her. Twenty minutes later, we were still at it. We had noticed what I’m guessing whole bunches of folks who left that theater had noticed. In fact, we had likely just exited a huge Big-Screen Revelation Fest.
Taken at face value—coming through a smaller television screen, with the coffee table, a pet, the family, good food, a phone, a blanket, a book, and a remote causing distractions—we can all be forgiven for “falling for” the ruse part of the screenplay, the layer that tells us Dr. Sloper is…a snobby, wealthy, reluctant single father. On the big screen, though, where one can see the details on a fingernail and catch a meaningful eyebrow lift, Dr. Sloper’s story doesn’t quite add up.
For easy starters, Sloper appears to be perennially tired of Catherine, and yet he’s tailored his entire life around her, including never remarrying. He’s a wildly successful physician in a bustling New York City, with two sisters who have a Meddling Quotient of 100, and yet, somehow, he has not managed to find another wife. He never really makes the case that it’s because he still misses his late wife. At social gatherings, he spends the entire time monitoring closely whether his daughter is fitting in, and it’s not because he wishes to spare the family any embarrassment and save his reputation. He’s an established Cantankerous Rich Man. He doesn’t care what people think beyond the top layer. No, it’s because his primary preoccupation is Catherine and the state of her existence. He presents as “dreadfully put upon” by her but tends to her minutest needs, retrieves party punch she never drinks—leaving him holding the cup by the dance floor—and displays perfect manners before her always, including refusing to sit down until she has. For a guy who can’t believe he ended up with the likes of Catherine for a daughter, he slots her into a whole lot of his life.
Where catching the red herrings gets a little more complicated is when a young suitor named Morris (Montgomery Clift) begins to circle over Catherine. Dr. Sloper wears his mask well, adding consternation to his façade and pouring on the uppity. He appears to disapprove of Morris solely because he believes him to be a shiftless grifter after Catherine’s fortune. She is, after all, an heiress. Here, we say, “Yes. Yes. Her father doesn’t really care about her. He’s worried about his money.” Except…the big screen reveals some very telling body language by Dr. Sloper. Considering the time period (19th century), it’s more than a little awkward when he physically leans into Morris’s space. He drops the social grace of social distance, not so much because Morris doesn’t warrant the better behavior—one gets the sense, maybe falsely, but nevertheless, that social graces tended to be unilateral in those days and displayed regardless of who the recipient was—but as if to say, “Back away from what’s mine.” He reluctantly, you can tell, because he knows it gives him away, betrays deep irritation with a smirk or a raised eyebrow, and it’s always at those moments when Morris is making romantic headway with Catherine. It’s the romance that’s bugging Dr. Sloper, not the headway. The headway, alone, could ultimately be crushed. It’s the romance that will edge out Sloper as Catherine’s Number One Guy.
Then there’s minor stuff: Upstairs, in his Washington Square mansion, Dr. Sloper has one sister (Miriam Hopkins, above, l.), and across town, living with her husband and children, another (Selena Royle, above, r.). When the one not under his roof summons him one morning, he’s so busy with his patients, he arrives still wearing his stethoscope, claiming he barely has a few minutes to give her. But when he senses Morris is about to close in on Catherine for the kill, on no notice, he shuts down his medical practice for six months to travel around the world with Catherine. Again, the auspices offer one explanation: He’s so eager to keep his money away from Morris that he’ll take the bait—his daughter—overseas and out of reach.
But, hold up. Isn’t she dead-boring, unsophisticated, and dull? Isn’t monitoring her inability to recognize her own station in every room she’s in exhausting? Isn’t Morris such a reprobate he is easily outmatched and disposed of in, say, a week spent working at the task? Is a six-month trip around the world necessary to Sloper’s goal when he kind of (or more like purportedly) can’t stand Catherine? And, yet, he’s willing to spend half a year with her, and only her. We get a glimpse of that time on the road, and the only thing we see is his ordering for her at a cold outdoor café her hot drink of choice that he makes sure is ready before she arrives and is subjected to the cold air. He hasn’t ditched her for society parties or dropped her in a fancy art school. They’re hanging. When he senses she’s miserable, you see genuine disappointment in Dr. Sloper’s entire countenance. It’s like a six-month date gone bad and cut short at the three-month mark. When they return home, and he discovers that his in-house sister has let Morris make himself at home in Dr. Sloper and Catherine’s absence, the camera is on his face, but his back is to the room, where his sister and daughter are. For now, he can drop the mask, and we see from his expression that a deep loss has set in, and it’s not the financial one he’s thinking about. Nor is it the blow to his ego for having lost the figurative chess match to another male. He knows he’s lost Catherine. Morris isn’t going away. (This is just one of many moments when William Wyler, who was nominated for an Academy Award® for Best Director for The Heiress, proves he’s the best director who ever lived.)
When the reality that he’s lost to his rival becomes undeniable, like any jealous man, he unleashes on Catherine. The cruel things he tells her are things he could have packaged gently throughout her childhood to correct the flaws he accuses her of having. But if we know that, under the mask, those things don’t really bother him, then we see the tirade for what it is: a panicked, jealous outburst, wherein he cuts Catherine to the quick out of frustration and to cause pain to the one he’s losing. He doesn’t want to see Catherine leave, plain and simple. To be clear, there’s nothing untoward, unseemly, or unchaste about Sloper’s feelings for Catherine. He simply loves his daughter more than he allows anyone, most of all, himself, to realize.
To be sure, if he were in the witness stand offering up testimony about what a needlepointing disappointment his daughter is, he’d be easily impeached on cross-examination with his own actions. In closing to the jury, one could submit that what’s really going on is that, after the death of his wife at Catherine’s birth, it made Dr. Sloper feel needed to have Catherine so dependent on him. He both fed the mediocre tendencies of and created a pared down daughter to end up with a situation in which he was clearly supreme—and could dictate most or all her interactions, relationships, and assessments of herself in good and bad times. His attitudes throughout the film betray that he did so because he cared about the daughter who was the product of an enduring love-match and not merely to demonstrate control of or status over a weaker being. Along the way, he created a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum in determining whether he wrote or merely reads the label of inadequacy slapped on his daughter. By the time she’s grown up and fulfilled his negative prophecy, he has no idea he’s the culprit, so solidified is Catherine’s insecurity and low estimation of herself. His narrative has taken hold.
But in a triple-agent kind of way, he created Catherine’s inadequacies to justify his distance, which masks his genuine love and need for her. (When, later, for reasons not revealed here, they experience a real rift, he’s distraught, and, for the first time since we’ve known him, subdued. He’s flummoxed by both the situation and the fact that he’s in the situation.) From a writing standpoint, it’s genius. Certainly, Ralph Richardson’s Academy Award®–nominated (Best Supporting Actor) and National Board of Review®–winning (Best Actor) performance delivers the subtext of the character brilliantly. But without the screenplay (nominated by the Writer’s Guild of America® for Best Written American Drama), there’s only so much that geniuses like Wyler and Richardson can do. It’s one thing to write a character one way, and, with a convenient plot twist (“He’s really a spy.”), transform him into something else. It’s another, much-more-difficult-to-write thing to use a character’s own psyche to hide who he is from himself and the audience, and reveal him slowly, through conflict and tripping-up of oneself, all the while making us—and him—wonder if he knew he was in there all along.Yet, like Cary Grant, who always made it look too easy to win an Oscar®, The Writers Goetz were maybe too smooth for their own good. They refused to bludgeon us with faux-good writing or give de Havilland and Clift and Richardson scenery to chew so they could remind us they were “ack-tors”. The Goetzes wove a complicated tale about human nature using the subconscious parts of human nature to mask that the story was about human nature. Huh? That triple-agent thing, again. They won no household-name awards for their efforts, but in a way, that proves they should have. We never saw them work their magic. That kind of sleight of hand with the pen makes for the best stories. ♠EL
The Heiress is available on DVD here.
Deborah Leigh is not an Amazon Associate.