Tuesday, July 1, 2014

On Olivia de Havilland

If I'd had a daytime talk show as popular as Oprah's -- and with as lush a budget -- I would have flown to Paris to tape a short interview with actress Olivia de Havilland.  This interview would've been included in a show called "Champagne Ladies" and would've highlighted women who've shown great taste in aging.  Like champagne, they improved with age.  Olivia de Havilland has lived in Paris for years.  She's one of our oldest living 2-time Best Actress Oscar winners.  She's the only surviving star of the 1939 classic, Gone With The Wind.  That film brought de Havilland her first Oscar nomination.  She was up for Best Supporting Actress.

Happy Birthday to Olivia de Havilland.  She's 98 today.  She made the 90s look terrific.
See what I mean about being a "champagne lady"?  I would've rather seen her on a top magazine cover in the last few years instead of a Kardashian girl.  But that's just me.
A few years ago when I was seen hosting Top 5 on Food Network, I was taking acting classes in New York City so I could learn new things and improve my craft.  One of my favorite teachers taught us how to read and break down a script for auditions and performance.  It's not just saying the lines, as you know.  It's making specific changes.  It's your lines and the lines said to you.  It's also body language and tone of voice.  Very important.  With that in mind, I want to highlight one of my favorite Olivia de Havilland performances.  It's the film that brought de Havilland her second Oscar for Best Actress.  To me, this film is a post-World War 2 Paramount Pictures masterpiece -- like Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. and George Stevens' A Place in the Sun.

Directed by William Wyler, it's 1949's The Heiress starring Olivia de Havilland as the shy, sweet, insecure woman who is starved for affection and may only be loved for her money.
If I had a daughter in high school who was interested is seeking a career in acting, I would urge her to watch this film and learn from de Havilland's performance and her acting choices.  Heck, I've learned from them.

Catherine is the caterpillar we hope will become a butterfly.  Her cocoon is a large, tasteful New York City townhouse she lives in with her wealthy widower father, a physician.  Dr. Sloper (sharply played by Ralph Richardson) can heal the sick but he does nothing to mend his wounded relationship with his daughter.  She's a good, devoted daughter.  He withholds affection.  He makes comments that can be as cold and cutting as a scalpel.  Catherine's late mother was a great beauty.  He reminds Catherine of that.  Catherine can't grow in that house competing with the ghost of her dead mother for her father's affection.

This is one of those Olivia de Havilland movies that I've seen numerous times -- like Gone With The Wind, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Snake Pit and My Cousin Rachel.  She fascinates me in this move.  She and Wyler were at a creative peak here.

Notice how she holds herself as Catherine in the first half of the film.  There's the tension of awkwardness in her shoulders and in her eyes.  She's not an "ugly duckling."  She just needs some love, support and a makeover.  Tweeze those eyebrows and ditch that spinster hairdo.  Catherine speaks in an upper register, a vocal tone right for a female character who lacks self-confidence and is seeking approval.  Her cold father dominates her in scenes.  He towers over her or he seems bigger.

That will change.

Even though the movie's action is set around 1850 in downtown Manhattan's Washington Square (now the home of NYU), the skeptical Dr. Sloper character is very relevant today.  There are parents who will declare "I'm  a good parent!  I've never hit my child!" yet they are emotionally abusive.  They humiliate, shame or criticize with their remarks.  Their damage to a child's spirit can be more lasting, more hurting than the pain of a single slap.  Dr. Sloper is one of those emotionally abusive parents who will learn that karma can be a bitch.

Notice Catherine's body language in her father's presence.  The pitch of her voice.  The needy and almost comically confused look in her eyes.  There is humor in this performance of de Havilland's.  That's a Wyler touch I love in this.  Watch her at the dance in the open of the movie.  When she jokes with her chatty, silly Aunt Lavinia, we see that Catherine is not without spark and wit.  She just doesn't fit into her father's or society's mode of what a woman should be and how she should behave. To put her in today's terms, it's as if society gives the impression that  woman's worth is based on a Red Carpet moment.  Looks and what she's wearing count more than talent and character.  Catherine is not the type to use feminine wiles to get a man.  She's too direct for that.  She lacks pretense.  She's not without talent and discipline.  She embroiders.  It may seem simple but it's a detailed, complicated craft that she has mastered.  In that engagement party scene, we also see her vulnerability.  When a father addresses the guests and declares his love and pride for his daughter, we see a shot of Catherine.  Notice the tears in her eyes.  Her father never declares such warmth of feeling for her.
It's at this same party where she meets Morris, the handsome charmer who loves to live and dress well without working.  He courts Catherine -- or rather, he courts her money.  Dr. Sloper is immediately hip to Morris.  Catherine, however, is so hungry for love that she's blind to Morris' selfishness.  That hunger comes through in her eyes when she looks at Morris.  At first, she's as timid with him as she is with her father.  He advances.  She pulls back.

Dr. Sloper convinces Catherine to travel to Europe with him for a few months.  He hopes that'll get Morris out of her system.  Look at the boat scene when they're departing.  Catherine has given Morris expensive cufflinks studded with rubies.  As a farewell gift, he gives her a little metal handwarmer that holds a lump of coal.  But she has to supply the coal.  That gift is so telling of Morris' character.  Dear, love-starved Catherine reacts as if he's given her ruby earrings.

The person Morris is really courting is Dr. Sloper so he can live in that house.  Montgomery Clift gives an excellent performance as Morris Townsend.
Wyler makes the staircase in the Sloper townhouse practically a supporting character in itself.  After the ultimate cutting remark from her father and being jilted by Morris, Catherine climbs those stairs again.  Morris never came for her so they could elope.  She'll have to climb those stairs, lonely and alone, carrying her heavy physical and emotional baggage.
Morris is gone.  Dr. Sloper is sick.  Catherine has changed.  She has found a new voice.  It's lower.  Centered.  Not in the upper register.  The awkward tension in the shoulders is gone.  The look in de Havilland's eyes is now defiant and serious.  She can treat the doctor the same way he treated her.  And she does.  He no longer dominates her in a scene.  The daughter has found her power.

In Wyler films, there's usually a key scene in which there's no dialogue.  Think of Bette Davis in Jezebel as the headstrong Southern belle at the ball dancing in a red dress.  Think of the opening of The Letter as we see Asian plantation slaves a few yards away from colonial privilege and then, suddenly, shots ring out as Bette Davis' character pumps six bullets into her lover point blank.  Think of Dana Andrews as the unemployed WW2 vet in the fighter plane junkyard in The Best Years of Our Lives.  Think of the chariot race in Ben-Hur and the Gregory Peck vs Charlton Heston fist fight in The Big Country.  And the open of Funny Girl with the melancholy walk before we hear "Hello, Gorgeous."  In The Heiress, we had that staircase scene after Catherine was jilted.

When the jilted daughter verbally cuts down her father, he's so stricken that he must leave the room and go upstairs.

Catherine's angry, defiant gaze is fixed on him.  The way Wyler shoots Dr. Sloper's exit, her gaze seems to dwarf her father as he leaves the room.  It's a terrific cinematic moment thanks to cinematography by Leo Tover.  Look at Catherine's body language in that frame.  She doesn't shrink back as she did early in the film.  Gone is the awkward tension in the shoulders.  She is defiant.  Strong.  Square-shouldered.

Then Morris comes back.  He's had hard times.  Has he forgotten that he's caused hard times?  Catherine is now an heiress.  She's got a different hairdo, sophisticated new clothing and a new attitude.  She's independent, secure, direct.  And she embroiders.  Again, notice de Havilland's physicality and the pitch of her voice.  The balance of power in the Sloper house has shifted.

I saw The Heiress at a revival screening once in Manhattan.  There were a lot of other black and Latino folks in the audience.  When Catherine says to the maid "Bolt the door, Mariah," the audience broke out into cheers and applause as if the Yankees scored a home run to win a game in The World Series.
Olivia de Havilland and director William Wyler shared a July 1st birthday.  And a cake.  Here's a photo of them cutting the cake on the set of The Heiress with co-star Miriam Hopkins.
I often wonder if de Havilland was fully appreciated at Warner Brothers.  She was under contract to that studio for years, starting in the 1930s.  But none of her Oscar nominations came for work in a Warner Brothers film.  And she did fine work at Warners.  I wonder if that studio ever campaigned to get her Oscar consideration.  Her two Oscar victories were for lead performances in Paramount releases.

Olivia de Havilland's first Oscar win was for To Each His Own.  To repeat, I feel this William Wyler film is a masterpiece.  For young people who seek acting careers but can't afford acting classes for whatever reason, they should study classic films and learn from performances like Olivia de Havilland as The Heiress.  It's outstanding.  If you are taking classes, make the viewing of classic films such as this part of your homework.                                                                                                                         

If you've ever been stood up on dates or were passed over because you weren't considered attractive enough, put The Heiress on your list of must-see feel-good  DVD rentals -- along with Stephen King's Carrie starring Sissy Spacek.  You'll feel better after watching it.  Trust me.  I did.  Several times.

1 comment:

  1. I have this movie and it is one of my favorites! I also have the 1901 edition of the book by Henry James.



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