A Richly Rewarding Heiress
I made it into the June 18th showing of The Heiress featuring a personal appearance by Olivia de Havilland, and it proved to be a memorable experience well worth the time and money it took to attend the screening. I stood in the Standby line for over two hours but it paid off, as I received a ticket at 7:59 p.m., one minute before showtime. Here’s my rundown of the evening (warning: Heiress spoilers forthcoming- I’m assuming everyone has seen the film):
Ms. de Havilland spoke for about a half-hour, then the film was shown. Although I ended up in a seat three rows from the back of the packed house it hardly mattered, as the legendary star still possesses phenomenal enunciation and a rich, deep voice (I could hear every utterance). She also had grace, class, humor, elegance, and the audience in the palm of her hand.
The star spent the majority of the interview discussing specifics involving the filming of The Heiress, although early in the conversation she talked about James Cagney, and how working with him helped her hone her acting skills. She mentioned Cagney would often add a little extra to his scenes; for instance, he would say “Goodbye,” walk out a door, then pop his head back in the room for a second to "punctuate" the scene, even though this action was unscripted. Also, she once asked Cagney about acting, and he told Olivia he wasn’t sure exactly how he did it, but he made sure he always meant 'it' (everything he did and said onscreen). Ms. de Havilland had kind words for Mitchell Leisen, her director of Hold Back the Dawn and To Each His Own, then she talked about the making of The Heiress.
Olivia recollected that sometime in late 1948, shortly after scoring a great critical and box-office success with The Snake Pit, she ran into director Lewis Milestone at a party, and he suggested she get on a train, go to New York, and see the play The Heiress, as the show could provide her with a worthy screen followup to Pit; she then good-humoredly stated, “so I got on a train, I went to New York, and I saw the play.” She stated she loved Wendy Hiller's performance, but it was stylized and appropriate for the theater, while Olivia felt she possessed the experience and skills to create the role of Catherine Sloper on film. Ms. De Havilland then claimed she lobbied to get William Wyler to direct the film as, even though she hadn’t worked with him previously, she felt Wyler was the director who could fully bring the story to life onscreen. She also discussed how, as per her contract, she was allowed to pick the costume designer for the movie, and she chose Edith Head, with whom Olivia had a warm working relationship, mentioning how Ms. Head went on to win an Oscar for the film (oddly, or modestly, enough, I don’t believe Ms. de Havilland ever mentioned her own Academy Awards or nominations during the discussion).
Concerning the actual filming, Ms. de Havilland told us how hard she worked with Wyler, specifically mentioning the famous scene wherein Catherine, suitcases in hand, climbs the long staircase the morning after Morris Townsend deserts her. Stating Wyler rehearsed her extensively, making her climb the stairs again and again, Olivia claimed he also weighed down the suitcases (she suspected he used bricks) to ensure Catherine would look appropriately worn out as she moved up the stairs, thereby offering the crowd an interesting 'behind the scenes' look at Wyler’s technique.
She stated they (she and Wyler) had a little trouble at first with Montgomery Clift, as early on in shooting Ms. De Havilland felt the actor, as Morris Townsend, was not focusing his attentions on her as Catherine during their scenes together, and instead was constantly looking for input from his acting coach, who was sitting on the sidelines. However, after Wyler asserted himself as the master of the set by working in close collaboration with his stars, Clift fell in line to give one of the best performances of his career as Catherine’s charismatic-yet-ultimately-heartbreaking suitor.
In conclusion, the living legend stated she missed the Los Angeles premiere of The Heiress in 1949 because she had just given birth to her son; however, as she rocked her newborn child in his cradle, through a picture window she could see the searchlights for the premiere in the distance. The interviewer then offered Ms. de Havilland a portrait of the premiere, wherein those same searchlights were prominently featured, then the star, waving to the crowd, left the stage in the same manner in which she’d been greeted, with a standing ovation.
Shortly thereafter the houselights dimmed, and the main titles appeared onscreen. It was great to see the movie with an audience of 700-800 fans, and the print looked very good overall. The movie definitely transfixed the crowd, and I never realized how much humor the film contains, especially in its first half. Gasps were heard as the drama intensified and lines like “you embroider neatly” started popping up, and when Catherine snipped her scissors for the last time in the final reel. I’ve always thought Clift and Wyler worked to add some shadings in bringing Morris Townsend to life, making one unsure of his true motives, and of his guilt or innocence in betraying Catherine; I guess I’m in the minority, as it was clear the audience certainly thought Morris turns out to be a real stinker. Ms. de Havilland, of course, is remarkable as Catherine, evolving from the sweet, awkward girl of the early scenes into a hard, bitter women (I think it’s her best dramatic work, period). Loud applause followed the film’s most famous line (“I can be very cruel- I have been taught by masters”) and cheers and bravos were heard throughout the theater shortly thereafter, as the final fadeout found a rejected and bereft Townsend helplessly pounding on the front door, while a satisfied Catherine climbs the stairs to face her future of loneliness.
With a great appearance by Ms. de Havilland and a wonderful audience of appreciative fans to watch one of my favorite movies of all time with, the evening turned out to be the once-in-a-lifetime event I was hoping for. I know there were several professional photographers down front during the conversation with Ms. de Havilland, and I think the event might have been filmed, so hopefully something will show up on a DVD (the star also conversed at a tribute for her a few nights earlier, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater).