When my wife and I watch films in the 1001 movies to watch before you die list, we try to do so with no clue about the movie. Sometimes, like in Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, this is impossible. These movies are so beloved, so well-known and so talked about that, in the unlikely event that you haven’t already seen the film, you will certainly have an impression of the movie in your head.
But the great majority of films never went on to become beloved classics, so we can watch those without any preconceptions. Many of them are a complete surprise.
The Heiress (1949), starring Olivia de Havilland (who is alive, so hello, Olivia, if you happen to be reading!), is one of those forgotten films that was considered immortal in its time, but hasn’t been a staple of afternoon TV since… which means that it has fallen out of favor with regular audiences.
Before I tell you about the film itself, I want to take a second and give you our reaction to it. My wife said: “Why is this one even on the list?” and I replied “It probably won the Oscar for Best Picture.”
So when doing the research for this post after watching the film I verified that, yes, this unsatisfying sludge did win four Oscars, albeit not Best Picture, and was nominated for another bunch (including Best Picture and Best Director). I have no real issue with the Oscars it won–Olivia de Havilland was both unattractive and boring in this picture, intentionally so, which makes her a brilliant actress, as she is usually magnetic on film. She deservedly won Best Actress. But a Best Picture nomination? Ugh.
Why ugh? The film was professionally produced, with a cast of excellent actors, but the story behind it is… I guess we’ll just have to go with “unfulfilling”. Basically, an heiress is courted for her money. Everyone knows he’s after her money except for her. Her father tells her about it–while dealing with his own grief–and she never speaks to him again, even when he’s on his death bed. Then she says no to the suitor, the film ends and we’re supposed to applaud.
Obviously, the Academy at the time felt it was worthy of several nominations and exuberant praise… which isn’t surprising to anyone who followed the modern Oscars, especially seeing how they ignored better films from this year’s Best-Picture-winning director and then gave it to one that is deficient for what looks like political reasons but might just be cluelessness.
In 1949, I don’t think it was politics (it might have been cluelessness), but more likely it was navel-gazing. This is a film that seems deep while being perfectly shallow. It follows the tendency for making art that evokes nothing but reality. That’s fine, I guess, but don’t expect your film to become a classic.
The one argument I can find is that it perfectly reflects how a lot of people are–a disillusion will turn them into inflexible, bitter shrews (of whatever gender)–so this film represents a good chunk of humanity.
That’s true, but those people are boring. Keeping them away from literature and film is for the best.
In the meantime, TCM will continue to give much more air time to Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Films with emotions people actually want to feel.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death is a study of emotions people actually want to read about. No boring, bitter people here (well at least not among the protagonists). You can buy it here.