#214. The Heiress (1949)

It’s weird after The Snake Pit to see Olivia de Havilland – and I don’t mean this in a bad way – revert to a simpler, more conventional, nuanced role in a period romance that, like almost every other period romance on the List (with the tenuous exception of William Wyler’s Jezebel), isn’t for me, not in terms of story or style or mood; but, like Jezebel, it does arouse some interest on the basis of some tangential element that rings my bell. Here, it’s the idea of how a parent reconciles herself to the reality of a troubling child — which I think has always interested me because, without explicitly saying so, it’s one of those topics that I don’t think anyone feels they’re allowed to address.

            Olivia de Havilland plays the plain-Jane heiress to a surgeon’s wealth (the surgeon is her father, played by Ralph Richardson). She has no hobbies save embroidery, and she has no real friends save her aunt, nor does she seem to sport anything like an opinion about anything going on around her. Her father and aunt, who raised “the heiress” after her mother died in child birth, strain at the question of whether she’ll ever be married. She’s so uninteresting, they say. So plain.

            Then one night, at a dance, she meets and falls in love with Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who’s infernally handsome, cordial, boyish. As he begins to court her, her father gets skeptical. Says that Clift is only after her fortune. De Havilland fights this, insists that Townsend loves her sincerely, as she loves him. Finally her father snaps, flustered, and says that Townsend is – as we know – gorgeous, that he’s probably already slept with droves of women, and points out that no man so vibrant, smart, charming and attractive as he would ever want to marry a woman so dull, dumb, and boring as she.

            Catherine confronts him about it shortly thereafter, and tells her dad that she knows he’s always resented her for not being half as wonderful as her mother.

            This hit me. Part of it is personal, in that I definitely feel like there are ways in which I don’t meet my own folks’ expectations (the ongoing financial dependency is a thorn in everyone’s paw), but also I feel like the reality of a parent’s disappointment in their child – or, worse yet, a hatred – is more rampant than acceptable public conversation will allow us to acknowledge. It’s part of what freaks me out about having children of my own. What if he or she grows up to be a murderer? A drug addict, a thief, etc. I don’t wanna say that such people don’t deserve to exist, or that they’ll have no other redeeming values in light of that. But I’ve seen the heartbreak of families who’ve bent and twisted and exhausted all of their resources to try rescuing a child in the grip of addiction, a grip to which they so often lose their lives, and I’ve sometimes wondered — in looking at the ruinous aftermath of the addict’s presence — is there not some feeling in the parent’s mind like they were robbed of something. Not just of their child but of their life.

This is tough to discuss.

            In the interest of total candor I’ll admit that a big part of what scares me so much about having kids is the likelihood of their being felled by some illness that makes them even more challenging to raise than a healthy child. There’s a thread on reddit asking parents of severely disabled children if they regret the decision to carry the pregnancy to term, or if they resent the child. Under the guise of “throwaway” accounts, which a redditor will sometimes create for the sole purpose of saying something embarrassing or incriminating or controversial, several parents came forward to divest themselves of the usual façade, the idea that their disabled child is “a challenge, but a blessing.” They spoke of their autistic child’s ceaseless shrieking, the crushing and ongoing dependency of their middle-aged child with severe Down syndrome, the opportunities they’ve had to surrender, the feeling of estrangement from themselves (a result of living a life that revolves entirely around the child’s needs). This doesn’t even touch upon the more common plights of having a suicidally depressed child, or a child with an addiction. What if your child becomes a school shooter, or rapes somebody, gets drunk and drives into a crowd?

De Havilland’s bae there on the left, her pa on the right.

            I’m apprehensive about voicing these things because there’s always a risk of suggesting that the lives of these parents aren’t enriched, that they’re wasted or depressing or hopeless. I definitely don’t mean that. What it makes them, I think, is vulnerable. Barrack Obama said that having a kid is like having your heart outside of your body. You can only take so many measures to protect them. As a character tells our narrator’s father in Indignation, a short novel by Philip Roth: “The world is waiting to eat your boy.” What haunts me, from stuff I’ve read and from attending two funerals now of peers who died at 16, is the idea of investing the entirety of oneself into the care of a sick and/or crippled child only to wake up one morning and find, inexplicably, that they’ve died in their sleep at age 23 (happened to a relative). The hopeless burning planet around which your entire life once revolved is now, suddenly, gone.

            The story of the relative to whom this happened: I was a kid, so I didn’t know the details, but I remember the boy was sweet, and confined to a wheelchair, with blue eyes and blonde hair. His mouth was never closed and his shirt was streaked with drool and two seatbelts held him upright in the chair. His limbs were all skeletal, knobby. His mom and dad were forever at his immediate side (to the evident (forgivable?) neglect of able-bodied siblings). The boy never spoke, only wailed. Moaned and smiled at funny things and caresses. With no signs of illness he died suddenly in his sleep at 18 or 19 or 20. I’d hear stories of the mother making a concerted effort to avoid alcohol because, though really only a casual drinker, it gave way, on a couple of occasions, to sobbing public confessions about wanting him to die.

            I look at the responsibilities inherent to raising such a child and have to take stock of how irresponsible I currently am, how self-absorbed in all my projects. But, from what I hear, parenting is an improvisational job. Nobody’s really equipped for it from the start. You learn it as you go. You have a child and the child comes as she is and you, the parent, either rise to the occasion or you don’t. Gore Vidal said that all parents are disappointed, at least for a while, because they won’t admit that what they were really expecting with their child was a re-birth of themselves. Maybe that’s true.

           Anyway. It’s something I’m ill-equipped to talk about but it really interests me. Probably cuz it’s so taboo.

As for the movie — it’s pretty good! Montgomery Clift, who I thought was charming enough in Red River, here plays somebody who’s just that charming on the surface, with a slightly annoying touch of nerves, to then becoming somebody kinda monstrous. And it’s neat to see. Dude’s got chops.

As for De Havilland, the movie’s ending shows that the role isn’t so tepid as it might seem. Her character goes through an arc of development that, though cultivated through no kind of battle or chaos, is one of the most visceral and heartbreaking of any I’ve seen on the List so far.

Solid a movie as it is, and exceptional from my position in that it warmed me to a period romance, I have a feeling that, if you ask me about it near the end of the Project, I’ll have virtually no recollection. It just feels so slight.



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