The Heiress (1949)

Olivia de Havilland
Olivia de Havilland

'The Heiress' is a spellbinding, drama film made in 1949, directed by William Wyler and starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson. The movie was written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, adapted from their 1947 play also called 'The Heiress', which, in turn, was based on the Henry James's 1880 novel 'Washington Square'.

The movie was critically well received on release although its box-office performance was poor, particularly in comparison to Paramount's other major film of 1949, 'Samson and Delilah', which was an enormous commercial success. However it has since come to be regarded as a classic.

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'The Heiress' received a total of eight Academy Award nominations, winning four, for Best Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, and Original Music Score (Aaron Copland). In 1996, 'The Heiress' was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

The movie's success comes from sharp, meticulous direction by William Wyler with his trademark long takes and masterful lighting and camera techniques, combined with outstanding acting from the principals, particularly Olivia de Havilland. The beautiful actress manages to portray a plain, gauche, girl marked as a spinster despite the considerable fortune she will inherit. When she is jilted by the fortune-hunting wasterel played by Montgomry Clift, she makes a compellingly believable transition to effect a bitter revenge upon Clift in the final scene. Ralph Richardson, who reprises his role in the London stage production, is also excellent as the caustic, heartless, yet ultimately loving father.

The whole production oozes class from start to finish, underlined by Aaron Copland's evocative score.

Main Cast

Olivia de Havilland ... Catherine Sloper
Montgomery Clift ... Morris Townsend
Ralph Richardson ... Dr. Austin Sloper
Miriam Hopkins ... Aunt Lavinia
Mona Freeman ... Marian Almond
Vanessa Brown ... Maria
Betty Linley ... Mrs. Montgomery
Ray Collins ... Jefferson Almond
Selena Royle ... Elizabeth Almond
Paul Lees ... Arthur Townsend
Harry Antrim ... Mr. Abeel
Russ Conway ... Quintus
David Thursby ... Geier


Director ... William Wyler
Producer ... William Wyler
Distribution Company ... Paramount Pictures
Written by ... Ruth and Augustus Goetz, based on Washington Square by Henry James
Music ... Aaron Copland
Cinematography ... Leo Tover
Editing ... William Hornbeck
Release date ... October 6, 1949
Running time ... 115 minutes

Academy Awards

Four Wins:
Best Actress ... Olivia de Havilland
Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Black and White ... John Meehan, Harry Horner, and Emile Kuri
Best Costume Design, Black and White ... Edith Head, Gile Steele
Original Music Score ... Aaron Copland
Four Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Director ... William Wyler
Best Picture ... William Wyler
Best Supporting Actor ... Ralph Richardson
Best Cinematography, Black and White ... Leo Tover