Saturday, December 26, 2020

Film discussion: Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress, The Snake Pit

"I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters.”

For the next online film-club discussion, a little tribute to Olivia de Havilland (who died earlier this year aged 104) — and also a continuation of the “Henry James on film” theme. The film is The Heiress (1949), for which de Havilland received her second best actress Oscar. Based on James’s novel Washington Square and set in the 1850s, this is the story of a shy young woman caught between her cold-hearted father and a charming suitor who might be a gold-digger. 
To me, this is an exemplar of the conversation-driven film that appears mannered and restrained and generally old-world-ish, but has a strong electric charge running beneath the surface. (As its director William Wyler said, “The emotion and conflict between two people in a drawing room can be more exciting than a gun battle.”) With a wonderful supporting cast including Ralph Richardson, the young Montgomery Clift (one of the first major “Method” actors in American film), and Miriam Hopkins (a magnificently impish performer who had lit the screen up in many 1930s films) as the protagonist’s aunt.
I also have a very good print of the 1948 film The Snake Pit, which was one of de Havilland's most acclaimed performances -- she plays a woman who has been committed to a lunatic asylum (as such places were politely called in the old days), with large gaps in her memory and sense of what has been going on in her life. 
Anyone interested in these films and/or the discussion, mail me ( and I’ll share the prints.

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