On the ending of The Heiress (1948, William Wyler)

teresa on IMDb thanked me for the links I compiled on The Heiress (one of her favorite films) by alerting me to a discussion on the film that took place a couple months ago, with much debate on the much-celebrated ending of the film. Spoilers abound, obviously. Is DeHavilland's character a victor or victim? My interest is less in answering that question as to understanding Wyler's directorial ability to take us to that point of questioning and shape our responses. I'm still not sure what I think myself -- as much as I admire the craft behind it, there's something kind of cold and pat and impersonal about it - the acting of deHavilland and Clift is what brings the emotion into the scene, but I just don't "feel" Wyler in it, what he thinks about it other than that he's purely concerned with realizing the exact dramatic pitch of the moment, no more no less. Beyond that he says and thinks nothing. Maybe I'm just being blinkered by my auteurist biases. Too bad as it keeps me from jumping into fun discussions like this one:

Re: The Heiress, Olivia de Havilland
by TheManInOil (Tue Apr 10 2007 22:43:01 )

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I LOVED this movie. I'll be buying a copy asap (I believe it is available now)?One question for you, because I posted on this subject before and I'm interested in what a first-time viewer thinks:SPOILERS

Do you think this movie has a 'happy' ending in that Catherine 'gets her revenge', or do you think it's a tragic ending where she succumbs to the influences of her father and immures herself away behind a wall of bitterness?

I realise my own view is probably obvious given the phrasing here, but I'm seriously interested in what you think. Last time, I found very little agreement among the people on this board, and that shocked me. It seemed very clear to me that Catherine met with a tragic, lonely end; her life demolished when she fell between the conflicting interests of the men around her. I suspected that the notion that she's now 'self sufficient' and not her father's creature was so widespread because people already familiar with the film had a very ensconsed view of it. Perhaps they choose to see it that way because: a) they find that way of looking at it more palatable, and b) their attitudes are colored by notions of liberated womanhood that exist in their minds, but perhaps not so in the minds of the creators who brought this story to life.

My theory is that a first-time viewer might be less inclined to see it one way or the other. So please, your thoughts?

"Don't touch me, or I'll kill you! Do you like talk like that?"

Moral Balance
by telegonus (Tue Apr 10 2007 23:06:02 )

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I see the ending as giving the story a moral balance, which is to say Catherine asserts herself, gets the last word, makes her choice and moves on (well, upstairs anyway). It's certainly not a happy ending but there is something triumphant about Catherine that one can't help admire. At last, she made it, got her way. She's still alone and unloved, but now in control, aware of her fate, accepting it. Once senses that she'll never again be victimized by a man, which may lead to spinsterhood for the rest of her life, but better spinsterhood than abuse, neglect, lies, betrayal and the pitying gaze of others. At last Catherine has pride, which, ironically, for me, made her more attractive, more interesting than before, but alas, probably too bitter and angry for a healthy relationship. One can always hope, though. I was sort of happy for her in a sense in that she at last "found her tongue" (as her father put it), and will never again be pushed around by anyone.

Re: Moral Balance
by TheManInOil (Wed Apr 11 2007 04:15:05 )

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Yeah, I can kind of see that, but I don't agree ultimately. I think she IS still being victimized, forever. She finally adopts the stance her father always promoted - to keep and protect his property (including herself) out of the clutches of other men. In the end she voluntarily imprisons herself in his home among his possessions, of which she is one. Notice that she sheds all outside influences (refusing to join relatives on vacation) and also her own things (like the needlework). If I remember correctly, doesn't she also close curtains over the window on the world she always employed as a metaphor for the hope of freedom and exploration?I see the story very much as that of two men in a contest of wills - Dr. Sloper who's efforts have granted him a great wealth of possessions, and Morris, who wants to abscond with those possessions. Principal among these, in both men's views, is Catherine. Her pain and ultimate resignation to a life alone is a product of their conflict. Neither man really cares about her, as a human being. Both see the winning/keeping of her as a matter of honor, reflecting on their manhood (notice the use of phallic cigars to emphasize this point - it is in smoking Dr. Sloper's cigars that Morris gains the most pleasure, and that Dr. Sloper is most offended by; because they represent Sloper's manhood, his control over his own empire within the home). While Dr. Sloper is constantly reminding us that Catherine is a poor substitute for her mother, she is nevertheless all he's got of her mother, and all the substitute he has to lose. He's more upset at the idea of Morris getting her because it represents a personal loss of property to Dr. Sloper than because it will hurt Catherine (whom he probably believes is naive enough to go blissfully with Morris whether Morris's feelings are genuine or not).So when, in the end, she rejects Morris for once and all, and recedes into her place among her father's possessions, I don't see her as in control of anything. She's rather finally been reduced to what her father and Morris always saw her as being - a piece of property. Because of their destructive conflict, that property is now of value to no one. They have killed in her everything that made her endearing to us in the first place, and left only shadows of themselves in the form of bitter cruelty and loneliness.

I know it's a bleak picture, but the message taken my way is virtually the opposite if taken your way. It's a tragedy, I say, which illustrates for us the damage that can be done when we carelessly make others a victim to our egos (in particular of women as affected by men). Taken your way, I'd say the message is more that Catherine has become strengthened somehow by the destructive things that were done to her. While your interpretation is fine, and probably in keeping with feminist notions, I'm not sure it's what was intended. I seem to recall several visual clues and story points that supported my viewpoint, but it's been a while since I've seen the movie.

Ultimately, what's of interest to me at this point is that it CAN be viewed in very differing perspectives.

"Don't touch me, or I'll kill you! Do you like talk like that?"

Re: Moral Balance
by Doylenf (Wed Apr 11 2007 06:09:41 )

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Olivia's own take on the character: "Spinsterhood is far preferable to life with an inferior man," which seems to bear out what telegonus said about her being more aware in the future of the duplicity of men's nature--more able to protect herself in future situations (if they arise). It could also mean that she never intended to seek the companionship or love of a man.I personally never saw the ending as bleak as TheManInOil does. It's Catherine's triumph of sorts, having had the last word on her father and Morris Townsend. I take the fact that she'll do no more embroidery a sign that she won't be merely a passive woman in the house. She won't make it "her life's work" as her father said but takes satisfaction in having turned the tables on Morris and her father. See the contented look as she ascends the stairs with the lamp and her face gradually brightens. Revenge is her triumph and it seems sweet, not bitter.When she snipped that last cord on the embroidery with the scissors and the door was bolted, she knew she was entering another phase of her life as a more self-assured person who would be more guarded in future relationships and would never let a man make a fool of her again. As she said, she had been taught "by masters". I see it as a lesson well learned with at least some hope in the future.

Re: Moral Balance
by TheManInOil (Wed Apr 11 2007 21:16:29 )

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What she was tought 'by masters' was 'cruelty'. Your argument is compelling but I'm still not seeing how she has had the last word on her father. After all, her final state in the film is EXACTLY what he always wanted for her."Don't touch me, or I'll kill you! Do you like talk like that?"

Tomorrow Is Another Day
by telegonus (Wed Apr 11 2007 08:56:26 )

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Since I haven't seen the film in ages I'm drawing my insights on distant memories of it. The Henry James novella actually struck me as more bleak than the movie, but to quote a character's final line in another film in which Miss de Havilland appeared, "tomorrow is another day". I agree that The Heiress ends on an unhappy note. Catherine's "empowerment", which consists as much of pushing the world away as of taking control of her destiny, is at least a gesture on her part, possibly a new beginning in her life. We'll never know what really will happen to her in the long run but at the story's conclusion Catherine does seem at least safer than she was at its start, or during any time in-between, which to me is a good thing under the circumstances, which were grim at the outset anyway. She was making the best of a bad situation. Catherine could have run off with Morris or at least had a (gasp!) affair with them, then dumped him when he proved to be (assuming that he was) the fortune hunter he apparently was. That she chose not to have anything more to do with him symbolized, for me anyway, a closing of a chapter in her life, not necessarily indicative of her future in the long run. As the story is set in Victorian times, and given Catherine's class and retiring disposition, a "fling" with Morris wasn't a realistic option for her,--though it must have been tempting. She wasn't ready for this yet, but this doesn't preclude something good happening down the line, so to speak. The odds don't seem to favor personal happiness for Catherine, but one shouldn't rule this out, either. At the story's conclusion she's at least made her mind up about something, probably wisely, and while this is the end of the story we see it isn't the end of Catherine. At least we can hope it isn't.

Re: Tomorrow Is Another Day
by billyed (Wed Apr 11 2007 17:33:49 )

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telegonus...I have to agree with you. Catherine's ascent up the stairs after she spurns Morris indicates to me that she is finally her own woman. That embroidery she did was her last and her life was going to change for the better.Yes, she turned down vacations with her aunt and cousin...BEFORE Morris came back.I just had the feeling, watching that film, that Catherine was about to discover what life was really all about. She may remain a spinster the rest of her life, but she will make that life worthwhile now, because she won't be under the influence of her domineering and critical father. Her Aunt Lavinia may even return to Poughkeepsie and return to her social whirl there.

Who knows, Catherine may become the belle of the ball! But I don't envision her locked away in that big house all alone with no friends..I think she gets out and about when she is free of her restrictions.

"If you can make a girl laugh, you can make her do anything!"....

Re: Tomorrow Is Another Day
by TheManInOil (Wed Apr 11 2007 21:18:05 )

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UPDATED Wed Apr 11 2007 21:19:26

Heh heh - well I think we've actually all been through this before, which is why I'm curious about how someone finds it upon first viewing. Clearly none of us has changed our minds. I'll also be interested to see if I think the same after a second viewing."Don't touch me, or I'll kill you! Do you like talk like that?"

Re: Tomorrow Is Another Day
by TheManInOil (Wed Apr 11 2007 21:14:14 )

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I tend to think that if we were meant to get a sense of hope for her future, she would have ended by leaving her father's house, rather than retiring to its attic.I think you're seeing what you'd prefer to see, which is fine. But I also think my interpretation is at least legitimate and quite possibly what was intended."Don't touch me, or I'll kill you! Do you like talk like that?"

Such A Pessimist!
by telegonus (Wed Apr 11 2007 21:41:56 )

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You're such a pessimist, MIO! Yes, Catherine ended up with exactly the life her father wanted for her: alone, unloved and unloveable. She'll probably either kill herself or die young from cancer.I think that the movie is, like most movies, a Rorschach for the viewer. We do see what we prefer to see, and most of us prefer what's bearable, more optimistic than most tragic and awful.As to Mr. Henry James, author of the book of the play the movie was based on (whatever), he does end his tale on a sad note, and there seems to be no hope for Catherine at the end. That is the story. James had no illusions about personal happiness. He knew a lot about "hidden wounds" and bad luck, having had his fair share of both. My sense is that he wrote Washington Square to (in a sense) explain how "old maids" get that way. He was giving us the backstory, so to speak, of the little old lady who lives down the street who never married, has no friends and only leaves her house once a week to shop for groceries or to take a walk in the park. "How did she get that way?", the neighbors whisper. "What's the matter with her?", people ask. I think that James' intent was to say, in effect, this is how she got that way, this is what's the matter with her. He was offering the sensitive, morally curious reader a glimpse into the life of a solitary person, giving an empathetic (and realistic) "take" on her. So we do empathize with her and we don't want her life to end badly, though it probably will. Wishful thinking, I suppose.

Re: Such A Pessimist!
by TheManInOil (Wed Apr 11 2007 23:31:46 )

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Well, I only see what is presented - I'm not wanting it to be that way especially - it's just what I see (and it's not like I'm just making it up - there is evidence in the story and presentation to suggest what I've interpreted). What Dr. Sloper wanted for her was to gain 'poise' and remain his. It seems that she does. Any speculation that 'later' she'll turn things around and be happy is purely outside the story. I'll try to watch next time with as little preconception as is possible. We'll see.It's also possible I was influenced by the speaker they had intro the show. He talked about how characters in this story are reduced by the ending to being 'mere props', so if you think MY take is bleak...It's also interesting that actors and directors and writers can often all see the same material they are working on differently (I've heard commentary tracks in which directors say shocking things in terms of having apparently no understanding of the story). It's natural that DeHavilland should want to believe her character triumphant, but is the joke on her? I have no doubt that Catherine sees it approximately that way too, that she has taken control of her life. I just think she's deluded.

I've noticed in other movies, for example Blue Velvet and Strangers On A Train, sometimes when I view them I see the protagonist as essentially a scoundrel. Other times I see more of a positive side. It may depend on my mood - OR it may depend on the sharpness of my observation.

For the record, I don't think Catherine is likely to kill herself or die young. I'm not imagining what happens afterwards at all. I see a story as a thing complete in itself.

"Don't touch me, or I'll kill you! Do you like talk like that?"

Re: Such A Pessimist!
by billyed (Thu Apr 12 2007 08:55:40 )

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Well, I only see what is presented - I'm not wanting it to be that way especially - it's just what I see (and it's not like I'm just making it up - there is evidence in the story and presentation to suggest what I've interpreted). What Dr. Sloper wanted for her was to gain 'poise' and remain his. It seems that she does. Any speculation that 'later' she'll turn things around and be happy is purely outside the story. I'll try to watch next time with as little preconception as is possible. We'll see.

Dr. Sloper confided to his sister (Selena Royle) that he feared that Catherine would not be able to find a husband of 'means' to love her and take care of her..he had sent her to the best charm schools, music lessons, dancing lessons and she just didn't have 'it'; therefore, she couldn't attract a nice man with his own money to love her and marry her. The Dr. certainly didn't want her to remain 'his'..what would be the sense of all the lessons and charm schools if her father intended her to be 'his' alone? Why gain any poise when it wasn't necessary to him? He was looking out for her future when he was gone.

He spotted Morris right away for what he was..a fortune hunter. The men at the engagement party shunned her for they knew her shortcomings..her aunt persuaded a man to dance with her and he left her to dance with another girl. That's when Morris "came to the rescue" and Dr. Sloper knew exactly what he was after. Her money. (of the Dr's money until he died).

Catherine was always shy, especially when Morris' sister came to call..she could hold no conversation with her and was fidgeting, waiting for Morris to arrive and speak to her father. "He finds me pleasing", she tells the Dr.

No, IMO, Catherine "grew up" during that terrible experience she went thru. After her father's death, she became her own woman and "found her tongue after all". I think she went on to lead a good life.

So, ManInOil, you have your opinion and I have mine...if you read the book, you'll certainly know the ending is entirely different than the film.

Henry James isn't my favorite author by any means, but in Wyler's hands, the story was brilliant.

"If you can make a girl laugh, you can make her do anything!"....

Re: Such A Pessimist!
by TheManInOil (Thu Apr 12 2007 10:08:13 )

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Yes, I've read the book too."Don't touch me, or I'll kill you! Do you like talk like that?"

Re: The Heiress, Olivia de Havilland
by CalifDude (Thu Apr 12 2007 00:18:57 )

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The ending is neither happy or sad it is a portrayal of realities of human life. The story and the movie are so strong because they don't warp around to a melodramatic ending or an ending that is pushed upon the characters...the ending is true to the characters. If you want to say that Catherine's life was sad, that is your subjective judgment. In Hamlet's terms, Catherine chose to be. She goes on to the life of a wealthy unmarried woman. Whether she is contented and happy with that, or whether she yearns for what might have been and is sad is up to her...and a story that remains untold.


My favorite opera is Die Valkure. I've always loved horses.