Oscar: Best Actress–De Havilland, Olivia in The Heiress (1949)

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The spinster, or the old maid, has been another distinctive and enduring female stereotype, most evident in the roles allotted to women in the 1930s and 1940s. Olivia de Havilland won her second Best Actress Oscar for “The Heiress,” William Wyler’s powerful adaptation based on Henry James’ 1881 novel, “Washington Square.”

De Havilland’s first Best Actress Oscar was in 1946 for the melodrama “To Each His Own.”  In 1949, she competed with Jeanne Crain in “Pinky,” Susan Hayward in “My Foolish Heart,” Deborah Kerr in “Edward, My Son,” and Loretta Young in “Come to the Stable.”

De Havilland plays Catherine Sloper, the timid ugly duckling daughter of a strong, domineering father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), who is deceived and bitterly disappointed when she finds out that her young and handsome admirer, (Montgomery Clift) is a scoundrel interested in her wealth.

Dramatically compelling and meticulously acted, “The Heiress” is an example of a novel and then a Broadway stage play (by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz) that was successfully translated to the big screen.

The movie is replete with strong scenes between Richardson as the merciless widowed doctor who tells his plain-looking daughter that she bears no resemblance to her mother. A tyrant, Dr. Sloper rules the house, dictating every movie of his shy and timid daughter, whose conversations and manners are awkward and embarrassing to him.

Production values are very impressive, particularly Leo Tover’s dark and shadowy cinematography and the ominous dramatic score by Aaron Copeland, who had excelled as a composer for other melodramas of the era, such as “Of Mice and Men” and “Our Town.”

End Note

Stay away from Agnieszka Holland’s 1997 remake, which uses James’ title “Washington Square,” but is marred by many faults, including the miscasting of Jennifer Jason Leigh in the title role.


Catherine Sloper (Olivia De Havilland) Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) Lavinia Pwnniman (Miriam Hopkins) Maria (Vanessa Brown) Marian Almond (Mona Freeman) Jefferson Almond (Ray Collins) Mrs. Montgomery (Betty Linley) Elizabeth Almond (Selena Royle) Arthur Townsend (Paul Lees)

Oscar Nominations: 7

Picture, produced by William Wyler Director: William Wyler Actress: Olivia De Havilland Supporting Actor: Ralph Richardson Cinematography (b/w): Leo Tover Art Direction-Set Decoration (B/w): John Meehan and Harry Horner Costume Design (b/w): Edith Head and Gile Steele Scoring: Aaron Copland

Oscar Awards: 4

Actress Art Direction Costume Design Scoring

Oscar Context

In 1949, “The Heiress” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with “All the King’s Men,” which won, the marriage satire “A Letter to Three Wives,” and two WWII films, “Battleground” and “Twelve O’Clock High.”

This was Olivia De Havilland’s second Best Actress Oscar, after winning for “To Each His Own,” in 1946. Ralph Richardson lost the Supporting Actor Oscar to Dean Jagger in “Twelve O’Clock High.”