Starring Olivia de Haviland and Montgomerey Clift, The Heiress is my favorite classic movie. Olivia de Haviland plays a homely heiress named Catherine set in the late 1800’s who suddenly receives the attention of a dashing young man played by Montgomerey Clift (Morris Townsend). Her father, a successful and wealthy doctor, who has raised her since her mother passed when she was a young child is portrayed in the movie by Ralph Richardson. His sister played by Miriam Hopkins comes to live with the pair to help raise her niece.
We never see the mother though as she is described in the movie, she was a stunning beauty; a characteristic that Catherine’s father incessantly reminds her that she did not inherit. He envisions a lackluster life for his daughter; a spinster without the need or want of a man.
When Morris played by Montgomerey Clift picks Catherine out of the crowd at a community dance, the meek and shy Catherine is struck by his handsomeness yet certain that he only asked her to dance out of pity. Her Aunt Lavina Penniman called Aunt Penni is thrilled for her. Her father is certain that the young man is a fortune hunter who is only interested in Catherine for her inheritance.
The story takes the audience through a series of emotions about Catherine’s suitor’s true intentions; is her father right? Is Aunt Penni right? Does he really love her? I won’t spoil the ending for you, but suffice it to say it is not the melodramatic conclusion that you would expect from a movie made in the 1940's.
It is the portrayal of the Catherine character that is absolutely brilliant. Using those distinctive eyes of hers, Olivia de Haviland transforms from an unwanted, unloved mousy character into a woman beaming in love, maturing before our eyes, until finally becoming the woman of whom Aunt Penni asks, “How can you be so cruel?”
Then the response delivered with perfection that makes this movie unforgettable: “Yes, I can be very cruel Aunt…I have been taught by masters.” Superb! This role won Olivia de Haviland one of her two Oscars and deservedly so, I think you will agree.
If you never take any of my recommendations, do yourself a favor and watch The Heiress whenever you get a chance. I have only seen this movie aired on Turner Classic Movies. You can order it through their website as well as many other incredible classic movies. Otherwise, you can check TCM.com for upcoming show times. The Heiress usually shows up a few times throughout the year on their movie lineup.