Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Montgomery Clift Provides a Huge Asset to The Heiress

I meant to come up with an entry sooner for Nathaniel’s current “Montgomery Clift” blogathon. Funny how, even with a couple months’ heads up, time managed to swiftly pass without me even typing one word in Clift’s favor. Although the date is late, I still feel compelled to attempt to put down a few coherent thoughts concerning one of the gifted actor’s peaks as a performer, and therefore one of my favorite performances ever.

Although I’m a sucker for Clift in just about any role (Oscars for The Search and From Here to Eternity would have been appropriate), I hold one portrayal in particular regard. Working in perfect collaboration with director William Wyler, Clift offers one of his most dexterous, intelligent performances in Wyler’ masterwork, 1949’s The Heiress. Aided by Wyler’s adroit direction, Clift’s skillful interpretation of Morris Townsend has left me in mystified admiration each time I view the film. Is it possible Morris is not just a villain seeking his fortune, but truly in love with the title character, Catherine Sloper (beautifully played by Oscar-winner Olivia de Havilland)? Due to Clift’s magnificently subtle playing, my sense of wonder surrounding his Heiress work has never abated, even though I’ve viewed the film many times. In Clift’s deft hands, Morris Townsend becomes one of the movies’ most complex, intriguing and impenetrable characters.

One expertly acted and directed moment illustrates the paradoxical nature Clift and Wyler were able to invest the character of Morris with. At the end of Morris’ first encounter with Catherine at a social gathering, Wyler moves the camera in for a close-up of Clift/Morris as he stands perfectly still in a doorway watching Catherine leave the party off camera, while the romantic strains of Aaron Copland’s score play on the soundtrack. This fade to black is shot and played in a manner that allows a viewer to interpret any number of emotions on Morris’s face: cunning, longing, compassion, greed, and love are all there for the taking, thanks to Clift and Wyler’s shrewd technique. The scene serves as a nice bookend with one of Morris' final moments, which also highlights the ambiguity that plays a central role in the character's psychological makeup. After Townsend has come back to Catherine and believes they are to be reunited, there's a moment wherein an unobserved Morris stands in the Sloper home and takes in his opulent surroundings. The calm smile of satisfaction on Clift's face as he glances around the room, hands in pockets, can be viewed both as an underhanded cheat's smirk of victory, or as an earnest look of happiness from a lover who's relieved he's finally returned to the place and person he loves most. Again, Wyler and Clift wisely leave it up to the viewer to decide what the character's motives are.

The true nature of Townsend’s character may lie somewhere between villain and lover. Mulling the performance over anew just before setting down to write this hosanna to Clift, a scene from a very different film came to mind. At the end of 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) offers this sage defense (directed at her wealthy intended’s disapproving father) after allegations she’s simply a gold-digger are directed at her: “Don’t you know a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You might not marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?” Twisting Lorelei’s argument around to fit the dynamics of The Heiress (“. . . A girl being rich is like a man being pretty . . . ”) casts some interesting light on both Morris and Catherine’s mindsets. Could Morris be pleased Catherine is immensely rich, yet also love her for the warmth, sensitivity and complete lack of guile Catherine displays towards him (at one point Morris states to Catherine, “That’s what I like about you- you’re so honest”)? Those tormented gasps of "Catherine!" as Morris desperately bangs on that locked door at the film’s astounding conclusion indicate a soulful attachment to Catherine does exist. Conversely, although Morris’ kindness to Catherine at the dance sets the tone for his relationship with her, she’s obviously also drawn in by her suitor’s charm, class, and Greek-God physical attributes. In the Heiress sequel of my dreams, Morris returns the following day to find an open door, and he and Catherine patch things up, both admitting their attraction to the other is based on several characteristics, which includes wealth on one side and beauty on the other.

In June of 2006, I attended what probably will turn out to be the highlight of my moving-going years. The LA Museum of Art featured a special showing of The Heiress, which included an appearance by Olivia de Havilland, who offered some wonderful insights concerning the making of the film (read more about that here). Just as enjoyable as the conversation with de Havilland was the opportunity to finally view the film with a large audience fully cognizant of the film’s status as a Hollywood classic. However, I was surprised by the audience’s reaction to Clift’s portrayal of Morris Townsend. Judging by the tsk-tsk’s and near-hisses that were directed at the character after Morris returns to Catherine late in the film, the audience clearly wasn’t buying into Morris’ rational concerning his abrupt departure from his fiancée’s life earlier in the film. Townsend explains he left Catherine because he didn’t want to be responsible for her losing her large fortune due to her father’s disowning her if she married Morris.

The dispassionate Mr. Sloper certainly makes clear his belief that no one could love Catherine except for her money, but must we buy into this harsh opinion of his daughter's merit? Witness the rain-soaked scene wherein Catherine makes it clear she must marry Morris without her father’s consent. As de Havilland delivers two key lines (“We must never ask him for anything or depend upon him for anything. We must be very happy, and expect nothing from him- ever”) Wyler shoots Clift’s costar in the foreground while she embraces him, thereby shielding Clift’s face from view. We only see Morris pull back slightly from Catherine after she finishes talking, while he utters a barely audible “No” (or is it “I know”?). Clift also keeps his face in a mask-like state after Catherine’s profession, and although actions like this may serve the viewpoint that Morris is a young man desirous of Catherine’s money, his (possibly) mortified reaction to her revelation also can be used to support Morris’ later claim he didn’t want to be the cause of Catherine losing her father’s inheritance.

If one accepts Morris only as an opportunistic cad, the character would have to be as good an actor as Clift while offering extremely heartfelt proclamations such as “Oh Catherine, you make me very happy . . . I’ll cherish you forever” after she accepts his proposal of marriage. Although Morris is revealed as a scoundrel in Henry James’ “Washington Square,” Clift and Wyler work hard to add shadings to Morris’ personality, and they succeed in giving many dimensions to the role that probably never existed in the character before Clift put his considerable stamp on the part. The young actor’s excellent work in The Heiress serves as a harbinger of the perceptive characterizations that would mark the majority of Clift’s role during his impressive heyday as a star during the 1950’s.

Although The Heiress is considered among the actor’s best films, when assessing Clift’s finest performances, Morris Townsend has been undervalued, and is normally not mentioned alongside his work as Matthew Garth, George Eastman and Robert Prewitt. However, in terms of both temperament and appearance it’s hard to image another actor fitting the part as well, and providing the same vulnerability and finesse Clift brings to the role. His Morris Townsend provides enduring evidence of Clift’s phenomenal talents, and illustrates why Clift was regarded as a Hollywood heavyweight during the first decade of his film career.

Thank you for running this blogathon, Nathaniel. Nice to have someone provide a means for some deserved exposure to Montgomery Clift, one of Hollywood’s most gifted, if tragic, figures.


At 5:18 PM, Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

No thank you! such a good piece. I've only seen The Heiress once but I was floored by the ending and it is a fascinatingly impenetrable star turn... which is something of an oddity for Clift, right, since his face can be so expressive in his earlier work.

At 1:05 PM, Blogger GorgeousMonty said...

This is absolutely brilliant! I just found this post and had to share my enthusiasm over it. I completely agree - this is one of Monty's greatest performances, so subtle and so nuanced in an unobtrusive way. I love the shadings of his characterization of Morris -- who is Morris Townsend truly? Does he love her or does he not love her? And I have always thought that the idea of loving someone for their physical beauty vs. their financial wealth is always an important topic to discuss when analyzing The Heiress. What is so different, really, about loving someone for their money rather than their looks?

And yes, in a perfect world, or an alternate universe, there would most definitely be a sequel to the film, where the next morning, Morris returns and doesn't leave until being let into the house

Thank you for a wonderful post on one of my all-time favorite films.

At 10:48 AM, Blogger Pablo said...

Assuming "mankind" to be a part of the natural world, it might be interesting to observe that it is the female of "any" species the will bestow her favors upon the male who is the best provider. That may be why we instinctively dislike Morris Townsend. He turns nature on its head.

At 10:35 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

weird i never studied marilyn monroe but today i asked in the spirit vision too marilynto give names of those surrounding her death or also give names and Morriss townsend who had no idea who this was after typing online the names connected too marilyn given through spirit came up here wow amazing all the names thus far have been connected to marilyn in some ways thiyught Id let ya know amazing


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