Despite knowing nothing about the story going in, I had very high hopes for The Heiress, what with it being directed by William Wyler (his first film since The Best Years of Our Lives ), and featuring one of the best casts of this or any surrounding year. And brother, did this movie exceed even my lofty expectations. The Heiress–a taut, exquisitely acted, mellifluously shot chamber piece, the true Best Picture of 1949–earned Olivia de Havilland her second Best Actress award, and was William Wyler’s fifth consecutive film to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Director.
De Havilland plays the titular heiress, Catherine Sloper, whose drab, socially isolated existence in 1840s New York is upended by the romantic overtures of an alluring young rogue named Morris (played by alluring young rogue Montgomery Clift)–she falls in love with him in about as long as it takes you to read this sentence, but her father suspects Morris is just out for her money (she stands to inherit an income of $40,000 a year upon his death–I checked it out, that would be over $1,200,000 a year today). He can’t be swayed from this opinion no matter what Morris or Catherine say, because he knows Catherine is so plain, uninteresting, and simple that no man would want her if a fortune were not involved.
Her father, Dr. Austin Sloper, is played by venerable British actor Ralph Richardson, and he plays the part to perfection, toeing a tricky line between showing his daughter utter contempt and doing everything he can to keep her from being taken for a ride. For my money, Richardson deserved the Best Supporting Actor award over Dean Jagger’s just-decent performance in Twelve O’Clock High. He is austere, unforgiving, arrogant, and stiff…everything an overbearing father should be.
It should have gone like this.
The best scene in the film is between Richardson and de Havilland, as Dr. Sloper finally reveals the depth of his scorn for his daughter, angrily telling her that it is impossible that any man could love her for anything but her money. Within hours, he is proven right–Morris flakes on their planned elopement upon finding out that Catherine is to be disinherited, and therefore live on only $15,000 a year (a paltry $462,803 in today’s world)–but soon discovers how wrong he was about Catherine.
I don’t want to give too much away, since this is a film everyone should watch, but I’ll just say that Catherine is a fast learner. Having seen how little her own father and the man she thought she loved care for her, she grows up fast and turns the tables on them in a deliciously satisfying way. Even when her father reveals he hasn’t long to live, she continues to taunt him by promising to return to Morris and allow him to squander her entire fortune, just to spite him. And when he does die, there is no cheesy tears, no Hollywood deathbed reconciliation. Just this:
No joke here. This is her reaction upon hearing the news that her father is going to die.
A character going from young and naïve to tough and resourceful is similar to de Havilland’s previous Oscar-winning performance in 1946’s To Each His Own, in which she learns to cope with the pain of having to give up her child after the father is killed in the war. The difference in this film, of course, is that her character sheds not only her naïveté but also her compassion and trust. It’s hard to fault this transformation, given what she’s gone through, and her final ascent (brilliantly staged as such by Wyler…it truly is a victory, if a pessimistic one) is just a thrill to watch. The sight of Morris pounding impotently against her door as she walks away like a goddamned badass is one of the few cinematic endings for which I actually cheered.
Hahaha…eat shit, you loser.
It would have been very easy to stick them together as the credits rolled, implying that love will truly conquer all (or, even more insidious, that it’s better for a lady to marry a man who doesn’t love her than face the world as a weak, fragile woman). Either of those would have been a “happy ending” in 1949, and probably would have thrilled the Hays office. I was actually very fearful, coming down to the final sequence, that they would do exactly that, but I should have had more faith in Mr. Wyler to do the right thing.
Amazingly, Montgomery Clift went un-nominated for his tantalizingly ambiguous role as Morris. He keeps you guessing, almost for the entire story, about whether he is truly in love with Catherine or merely, as her father suspects, a gold digger. He acts the role with an easy grace and charm, his eyes as sincere as eyes can be…which is, of course, the whole point, and Clift seduces us right along with Catherine. Even after the façade begins to crack, you’re not sure…and because it’s Montgomery Clift–and because Catherine is Olivia de Havilland and nobody screws over Olivia de Havilland–you want him to be virtuous and true. (This was a deliberate and, it turns out, inspired bit of studio intervention, as they requested that Morris’ character be made less overtly evil than in the stage play, to capitalize on Clift’s budding leading-man status.)
In the end, his true colors are flown for all to see. The final, irrefutable proof of Morris’ duplicity comes very late in the film, and it is a devastating moment…
No, no! He grew a villainous 1940s mustache! He IS evil! WHY, MONTGOMERY? WHY???
It is, for all intents and purposes, a perfect film. How Wyler was denied his third Best Director award in favor of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “point the camera at actors” approach in A Letter to Three Wives is mindboggling. De Havilland decisively earned her Best Actress Oscar, and the film picked up three more in technical categories, making it the biggest winner of the night. However, it was denied Best Picture by…
Having stepped away from overt commentary the previous year in favor of some quiet Shakespeare, the Academy brought the former back with a vengeance by awarding Best Picture to All the King’s Men, a “vital, very great” movie about corruption in politics and how the only way to stop it is by gunning it down. Which makes it just about the most American American film of the 1940s. While I did enjoy the movie and was intrigued by the way it was edited and acted, it isn’t much more complex than that (admittedly snarky) summation, and I think it was the wrong choice for the top Oscar.
The best way to describe the film is that it is the exact opposite of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): instead of a young, idealistic progressive fighting to keep his wits and his integrity against the realpolitik of the Washington machine, All the King’s Men tells the story of an old, cynical reactionary who starts corrupt and fights to become even more corrupt, shocking his corrupt corroborators with the sheer depth of his corrupting corruption.
Though to its credit, the film fools you at the beginning by dressing him in grandpa pants and a very honest hat.
I suppose the film is trying to make a point about American politics, not about how power corrupts but rather how easy it is for such a nakedly power-mad individual to rise to power. Unfortunately, this makes for a static narrative and a terribly boring protagonist…while Willie Stark’s journey from country bumpkin to state governor might be what drives the plot, he himself doesn’t do a great deal to move the story forward, and nothing about him changes from beginning to end except that he loses his oxygen habit. Part of this might be the fact that he is played by Broderick Crawford, who I have trouble picturing as anything but a loudmouthed, brash, uneducated blowhard.
The role was originally offered to John Wayne, and man what an amazing performance that would have been. Despite his reputation nowadays (which he himself carefully cultivated), Wayne was a good actor before he realized there was more money in just stepping in front of the camera and being himself. And because he had that all-American, patriotic, beatnik-thumping persona, it would have been very interesting to see him in the role of Willie Stark. Watching Crawford bluster through the film, one simply accepts that he is evil and is just impatient for the supporting characters to figure it out…if it had been John “not-Sands-of-Iwo-Jima-because-he-would-have-been-in-this-film-instead” Wayne, the film could have been far more subtle, Stark would have been a far more dynamic character, and we the audience would have been right with the other characters, trying desperately to hold onto our idealized image despite the mounting evidence against it.
Ultimately, he elected to be simply John “Sands-of-Iwo-Jima-because-he-found-the-script-for-All-the-King’s-Men-unpatriotic” Wayne, which was much catchier on a marquee.
The film becomes a little better if one considers the supporting cast, the ones who aid and abet Stark’s machine, to be the true main characters. After all, it is a corrupt politician’s retinue of corroborators, bulldogs, and hangers-on that drives them to, and keeps them in, power, and in this respect the movie is very realistic and unforgiving. I’m thinking particularly of John Ireland as Jack Burden, the journalist who sells Stark to the people and quickly becomes his hatchetman–he’s the only character in the movie who changes (albeit only a little) by the end, and the only one to finally realize that Stark’s obviously immoral actions weren’t in pursuit of some nobler, populist end, but were simply a means to more power.
Beyond Burden, the rest of the film offers little in terms of character development, which was surprising for me, considering two of its performers won Academy Awards. If 1949 had an award for Most Badly Written Character, all five nominees would be from All the King’s Men. Don’t get me wrong, Broderick Crawford is wonderfully obnoxious and slimy as Willie Stark, but since, as I said, his character is never anything but obnoxious and slimy, his performance is terribly one-note. Stark goes through the whole film solving every problem by shouting at it or threatening it until finally he kills it, or it kills itself. Compare this to Gregory Peck’s Frank Savage in Twelve O’Clock High–a character with an actual arc and more than one type of reaction to a given situation–and Crawford’s Best Actor award makes very little sense.
Same goes for Mercedes McCambridge, whose character goes from jaded, faux-sassy politician’s moll to jaded, faux-sassy politician’s ex-moll. Clearly the acting challenge of a lifetime. It becomes even weirder when her character pretty much vanishes from the narrative halfway through and does absolutely nothing of consequence for the plot.
That empty coffee cup turned out to be a more intriguing character…where’s its Oscar?
But the highest honor in the Badly Written Character category must also go to Joanne Dru as Anne Stanton, whose sole purpose in the film is to be Stark’s fawning, disturbingly loyal and naïve mistress. Her character literally has no agency or higher brain function, as she willingly and unthinkingly helps Stark drive her beloved uncle to suicide. She ends the film still in love with him, firmly believing that he is a moral, misunderstood champion of the people.
“Oh, please, as if Abraham Lincoln never murdered a judge. Get off your high horse.”
If the film was innovative in any area, it was in the editing. The original cut of the film ran far too long–director Robert Rossen, despite his best efforts, just couldn’t seem to get it under four hours. So he instructed his editor to take each scene, find what he considered to be the emotional and/or narrative “center” of the scene, and chop off everything outside one hundred feet of film before and after that point. This resulted in short, sweet scenes with abrupt transitions, giving the film a nervous energy that imbues it with far more tension than does its script. The style–even though done out of necessity rather than artistic curiosity–anticipated the experimental jump cuts of the French New Wave a decade later, particularly Godard’s Breathless.
And that’s 1949…personally, I think of the nominated films, The Heiress would have been a far better Best Picture winner; perhaps it doesn’t have the political and social punch of All the King’s Men, but it, like almost all Wyler films, features fully-formed, impeccably-acted characters and a rich story that, despite being set in the 19th century, does not feel dated. Now it’s time to move ahead and give Joseph L. Mankiewicz a chance to redeem himself in 1950!