When someone thinks of Olivia de Havilland, then they probably think of her as the beautiful foil to Errol Flynn in Robin Hood or the sweet moral young foil to Scarlett O’Hara’s more brash attitude. In fact by the late forties she was type cast as this soft moral young woman on whom men and women can take advantage of. She was bored. She wanted a challenge. Then she saw the play that The Heiress is based upon. She saw it as a chance to play someone who looked and sounded a lot like those previous roles, but had more depth and growth then is usually allowed. She wanted to be in control of her career and this performance would give her a chance to major studios that she can do more than play the mousey role. She chose the perfect director for this role of a lifetime: William Wyler. Wyler worked on many “women’s” films and knew how to highlight the performance so she stands out from her compatriots without being obvious. For The Little Foxes, he lit her so she glowed and positioned her in the frame so that the eye is instantly drawn to her. This is a hard thing to pull off and still maintain the integrity of the story, but Wyler was a master at it. However for this film he had several aesthetic challenges and actor challenges that made him become even more ingenious with his approaches.
At the center of the Heiress is Olivia’s wonderful performance. She plays a young naive woman who is constantly compared to her dead mother and found wanting by her father. She is extremely shy and on the surface dull, but you can see the earnestness and the light in her eye struggling to get out. As the title suggests she is an heiress with a considerable sum attached to her. This however brings little attention from the male population in Manhattan, because she is so dull. Every man ignores her or thinks she is the most odious except for one man. This man is forward, lively, exciting, and full of all the best qualities in a man except for money. The father objects to the eventual engagement and knows that he is only after her money. Everything these two men subsequently inflict upon Olivia’s character forces her to grow up and become more hard edge. Her transition is the real gem of the film. She grows subtly more beautiful, her eyes become set and her attitude is warm but distant. Her anger and resentment change her permanently.
There is one scene in particular that I want to highlight. She and her father have just come from a vacation in Europe. He is violently angry, because she refuses to give up this man. He then learns that while he was away with her daughter, the young man came by all of the time and kept the aunt company. In fact he had been there right before they came home. He had been treating this house as a private club (where men used to go to socialize, drink alcohol, order sub-par food, gamble and smoke cigars away from their wives). The aunt leaves the room and the father is about to boil over. She prods him and he tells her the most vicious thing that he could ever say: that she isn’t very desirable as a match. She isn’t pretty, she isn’t lively, and she isn’t interesting. Therefore the only thing that would make her desirable to a man who is all of these things is her money. After this speech, she is pushed into a chair by the weight of the comments. Everything he implied over the years were now made plain to her. This is where she starts to change. She has no fear of losing the regard her father had for her now that she learned there never was any. But there is no words that express this change. As an audience member you feel her change. It is the high angle camera shooting squarely on her face. She doesn’t even need to “make a face,” everything is expressed in her eyes. You feel so sorry for what you as an audience member know is coming.