It's usually news, and cause for extra acclaim, when actors gain weight, undergo extensive makeup work, or otherwise transform themselves for their roles. But generally, the transformations that take place onscreen prove more astonishing. By 1949, Olivia de Havilland was a familiar face to moviegoers, a warm beauty best known for her roles opposite Errol Flynn and as Scarlett O'Hara's wholesome romantic rival in Gone With The Wind. While it doubtless took time and effort to dowdy her up for The Heiress, William Wyler's film version of a stage play based on Henry James' Washington Square, it isn't the dulling of her beauty that carries her performance, but the intensity of her work as an awkward young woman remade by love and heartbreak.
An only child with no discernible social graces, de Havilland lives in a luxurious Manhattan home with her father (Ralph Richardson) and aunt (Miriam Hopkins). Her guardians speak endlessly of the spouses they've lost, idealizing their marriages and prodding de Havilland toward her own while privately concluding that—even playing by the mid-19th-century rules of courtship that steer everyone with a little money and some social connections toward a match—her marital chances appear dim. When a suitor does appear, in the charming form of Montgomery Clift, Richardson concludes he must be after the family fortune. Who, after all, could love such a plain, shy girl for herself?
The brightness on de Havilland's face whenever Clift is onscreen suggests a cleverness and depth of feeling that's never been stirred before. Wyler lets the focus fall on the power struggles between father and daughter, watching as de Havilland summons her newfound strength in an attempt to escape from the cruel logic that passes for a father's love. But while it may be a sorry substitute for real affection, it's tough logic to beat.
With typical understatement, Wyler finds the most telling angles with which to observe his characters as they get lost in kindness that hides cruelty and abuse with unimpeachable intentions. But the story beneath it all is written on de Havilland's face, which by the film's end, looks like it belongs to another woman, shaped not by prosthetics, but by the knowledge that sometimes hate and disappointment let us come into our own.
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Key features: Left out of the will, apart from a trailer and a Turner Classic Movies introduction.