Tag Archives: Miriam Hopkins

‘The Heiress’

Original poster.

Original poster. A truly pretty good motion picture and an awful poster.

When Jane Greer was cast as the femme fatale in “Out of the Past,” director Jacques Tourneur explained what he wanted from her: “First half of film, good girl; second half of film, bad girl. No big eyes!”  In “The Heiress” (Paramount, 1949), Olivia de Havilland pulls essentially the same trick, though she uses big eyes from first to last.  For two thirds of the picture, she plays Catherine Sloper as a ninny, almost a mental defective; she pitches her voice up high and speaks her dialogue like a child reciting “The boy stood on the burning deck.”  Then she gets her heart broken good and hard, whereupon her voice drops an octave and she is instantaneously transformed into a shrewd, cynical, hard-bitten spinster with steel in her spine and ice water in her veins.  She won the Academy Award for her performance.  Taken as a whole, what she does is little more than a parlor trick, but there are individual scenes that she plays beautifully.

Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift

Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift

Catherine is an unattractive, painfully shy young woman who lives at 16 Washington Square with her imposing father, Dr Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) and his recently widowed sister Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins).  Catherine’s late mother was a great beauty; Dr Sloper cannot conceal his shame and irritation that their child has grown up to be so untalented, awkward and brainless.

When Catherine falls in love with a handsome young man named Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), Dr Sloper very quickly concludes that her suitor is a fortune hunter.  Lavinia, a sentimentalist and busybody, believes otherwise.

Catherine has an annual inheritance of $10,000 from her late mother, and stands to inherit an additional $20,000 annuity upon her father’s death.  Dr Sloper threatens to leave his entire estate to his clinic if she marries young Townsend.  But when the girl proves obdurate, Dr Sloper loses all patience; the savagery of his scorn is overwhelming.  Richardson played the role in the West End; Basil Rathbone played it on Broadway.  Rathbone must have been excellent, but I doubt anyone could have played, or will ever play, this scene better than Sir Ralph.

You can hear how her voice descends on “Oh, what a terrible thing to say to me . . . ”  There’s more heartbreak on the way for Catherine, but from that line till the end of the picture, her voice stays down at the bottom of her range.

de Havilland as Catherine Sloper:  The harassed heiress.

de Havilland as Catherine Sloper: The harassed heiress.

Ruth and Augustus Goetz, who wrote the play and the screen adaptation of Henry James’ novella, “Washington Square,” greatly altered the story by giving Catherine the sort of second act that she doesn’t get in the book.  The same terrible things happen to her, but she responds differently.  For instance, near the end of the Goetzes’ adaptation, her Aunt Lavinia asks, “Can you be so cruel?” and Catherine replies, “Yes, I can be very cruel.  I have been taught by masters.”  It’s a great line, perhaps the best in the play and movie . . . but it’s not in the book; more importantly, Henry James’ Catherine couldn’t have said such a thing:  she doesn’t have that sort of sophistication.

Miriam Hopkins is surprisingly wonderful as Aunt Lavinia; it may well be the only good performance she ever gave.  Richardson is superb as Dr Sloper; he is reason enough to see the picture. Betty Linley reprises her Broadway role (Mrs Montgomery, Townsend’s sister).  Her scene with Richardson is exquisitely acted.  “The Heiress” is the only picture she ever made.  Montgomery Clift, alas, is less good. He was never more handsome (even though some of his costumes make him look like Jiminy Cricket), but his posture and casual speech make him seem to exist in a different century from the rest of the cast.

de Havilland, Clift:  Promises in the rain.

de Havilland, Clift: Promises in the rain.

It’s a great shame that William Wyler hated Aaron Copland’s sparse score.  He had much of it reorchestrated and reconceived by Hugo Friedhofer, who did the Oscar-winning “important” score for Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives.”  Those bars of Copland’s score that remain unaltered offer sad testimony of how great the score must have been before Wyler insisted on a grander, more traditional Hollywood sound.

Two Styles of Acting in ‘Old Acquaintance’


Old Acquaintance:  The sublime and the ridiculous.

Old Acquaintance: The sublime and the ridiculous.

“Old Acquaintance” (Warner Bros., 1943) is an uneven picture that stars Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. Half of it is civilized, well-bred comedy; half of it is a combination of kitsch, trash and camp. Davis is the civilized half; Hopkins is the other. At no point does Bette Davis lower herself for a cheap laugh; at no point does Hopkins rise to play an honest emotion.

The action of the play takes place in November and December of 1940; for the movie version of John Van Druten’s hit play, director Vincent Sherman ordered new scenes (Van Druten did the screenplay with Lenore Coffee) to show how the two starring characters’ friendship played out over the course of some twenty years. From the looks of it, the picture must have been shot more or less in chronological order: in the early scenes (i.e., those cooked up for the picture), the staging is imaginative and there’s a lot of action. But halfway through, when the original material takes over, Sherman seems to lose interest. He stages entire scenes as alternating close-ups.  Compare similar confrontations between Davis and de Havilland in John Huston’s “In This Our Life”: he contrives to have both stars in the same shot as often as possible, but Vincent Sherman alternates close-ups with the precision of a blackjack dealer shuffling a deck of cards. It’s a shame, because the antagonism of the two acting styles — the histrionic pantomime of Hopkins against the heightened realism of Davis — makes for really interesting chemistry when the two ladies are in the same room at the same time. In all those close-up shots, one can’t tell if Davis is responding to the lousy performance of her co-star, or simply making the best of the cues fed to her by an off-camera stand-in. Davis and Hopkins were not friends, and the rivalry between them in their professional lives closely resembled what we see in the picture. That adds to the camp element of the picture — it’s the sort of thing that Charles Busch sends up so knowingly — but there’s something really nice that gets lost in the camp: it’s Bette Davis’ performance, which is amazing in its virtuosity. She steals the picture by being the sensible one. It’s telling that the director, Vincent Sherman, went to his grave believing that Hopkins stole the picture.

Oh, for Christ's sake, shut up!  Miriam Hopkins as Millie Drake

Oh, for Christ’s sake, shut up! Miriam Hopkins keeps it false as Millie Drake.

Hopkins’ performance looks ludicrous today. What Davis does in the picture still looks great.

Davis as Kit Marlowe in the first scene. Confident and good natured, but not glamorous.

Davis as Kit Marlowe in the first scene. Confident and good natured, but not glamorous.

Take a look at the clip below, in which Davis tries to persuade Hopkins’ husband (John Loder) to give the marriage another shot.  But he’s in love with Davis and tries to persuade her to marry him after the divorce is final. He’s not bad, but she’s terrific.

She’s not entirely real — that’s not her purpose. She’s giving one of her Great Lady performances: refined, noble, dignified and heightened. It’s an idealized portrait of how a nice woman behaves. Davis does this throughout the picture, and she alters her behavior according to the age of the character. Earlier in the picture, she’s pragmatic and honest but without glamour or gravitas; as her character ages, she becomes more elegant and gains poise and authority. She really seems to age twenty years. Miriam Hopkins stays the same throughout.

Davis in a later scene. More glamour and authority, but the same woman.

Davis in a later scene. More glamour and authority, but the same woman.

The clip below offers a perfect example of the difference between Davis’ style of acting (and it is a style; that is, it is purposefully artificial in a theatrical way, while remaining credible: you believe her as a human being, albeit a stylized version of one) and the utterly phony histrionics that Miriam Hopkins goes through. She doesn’t mean a word she says and you can tell she doesn’t. She’s not playing a selfish, high-strung woman: she’s merely a grotesque, with no recognizably human qualities. It’s odd enough that Vincent Sherman let her behave so foolishly, but nearly fantastic that he believes she steals the picture by carrying on so idiotically. It’s true that she pulls focus, but that doesn’t mean she’s interesting.

Finally, here’s a scene where the two styles come into a head-on collision. It’s camp, all right, but only because Hopkins is such a drag queen cartoon. Franz Waxman’s musical punctuation adds to the vulgarity. Davis’ restraint and timing are remarkable.

In the context of the picture, the scene is more than camp: it offers catharsis. Miriam Hopkins’ frenetic antics are exasperating; her self-love is sickening. When Bette Davis gives her a good shaking, you realize it’s what you’ve wanted to do to Hopkins since the beginning of the picture.