When Olivia de Havilland received the second Best Actress Oscar of her career in 1950, the Academy could already look back at a history of 22 years. These years had seen favorites, dark horses, upsets and write-in candidates, likely or expected winners and open races – but Olivia de Havilland’s work in The Heiress had been the first overwhelming frontrunner, the first real ‘lock’ in this category to actually win the award. Of course, others before her had been considered overwhelming frontrunners, too – but their expected wins ultimately turned into some of the biggest upset losses this category had ever seen. Greta Garbo was already a living legend by the time she gave her most lauded performance as a dying courtesan in Camille and was the kind of undeniable star and praised actress that would usually be eagerly embraced by Academy members but they ultimately denied her the award and instead honored Luise Rainer who received her second Best Actress award in a row for her work as a Chinese peasant who has to face famine, revolution and infidelity in The Good Earth. And legend has it that in 1948, Rosalind Russell was already raising from her seat seconds before Frederic March announced the Best Actress winner to collect an award that had been so expected that one newspaper already announced her victory in the headline of their printed edition for the next day – only to learn that Academy members did not feel in the mood for her dramatic performance in the moody tragedy Mourning Becomes Electra and gave their votes to Loretta Young for her charming and light performance in The Farmer’s Daughter instead. Both Rosalind Russell and Greta Garbo were certainly the strongest frontrunners that this category had seen in its existence so far but they both went home empty-handed in the end, learning that frontrunners and favorites are never immune to underdogs. And the other Best Actress winners so far? Was there really not a lock like Olivia de Havilland among them? Cleary the lack of numerous pre-Oscar awards (or any pre-Oscar awards at all), the absence of campaigns and detailed analyses of the races made ‘locks’ highly unlikely in those times anyway but there still haven been favorites and unexpected winners over the years. The first Academy Awards saw Janet Gaynor as the winner who was announced weeks before the actual ceremony – without official nominations it’s hard to say if this decision could be called surprising or expected but her combination of three celebrated performances in popular and critically acclaimed movies certainly gave her a strong edge over the other female contenders that year. Mary Pickford was a likely winner the next year, being one the Academy’s founding members, one of America’s biggest stars and having invited the voting committee to tea and cake but the different circumstances of the voting procedures again make it impossible to call her a lock or a favorite. The same is true for Norma Shearer, Marie Dressler and Helen Hayes the following years who were all likely or obvious winners but still faced a rather open competition. Katharine Hepburn received all four of her Oscars in what could be considered ‘upset wins’ – she wasn’t very popular among the Hollywood community when she won her first award in 1933 and faced strong competition from the leading star of the eventual Best Picture winner Cavalcade and an established veteran in the likeable role of a dedicated mother but her breakthrough year and promising career perspectives still convinced members to give her the award for her aspiring young actress in Morning Glory. The following winner Claudette Colbert could be considered both – an upset and a favorite. She starred not only in the Best Picture winner It happened one Night but in two more Best Picture nominees and was therefore the most noticeable female star of the year, a position which should have made her a likely winner but Bette Davis’s omission for Of Human Bondage and the visible campaign made on her behalf gave her a strong possibility to win based on write-in votes alone. In the end, Bette Davis won the Oscar one year later – sentiment on her side and the uniqueness of her acting style surely turned her into the favorite on Oscar night but it would be overstated to call her a ‘lock’, mostly because Oscar races in those days were still a completely autarkic process that could not be predicted in the same way as they could be in later years. With a New York Film Critics Award and the most talked-about acting scene of the year on her side, Luise Rainer was the favorite to win for The Great Ziegfeld but she was still an outsider and among her competition was Hollywood royalty like Carole Lombard and Norma Shearer. Her second win the next year was, as already mentioned, the biggest upset the category had seen so far, but the second win for Bette Davis the year after was more expected even if her co-nominees like Margaret Sullavan and Wendy Hiller could also count on various passionate supporters. Vivien Leigh’s win as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind must appear like one of the easiest choices ever in the history of the Academy from a modern perspective but the category in 1939 was actually extremely close, with many commentators predicting a third win for Bette Davis for what was considered the finest achievements of her career so far as a dying young woman in Dark Victory. The following year, the Academy introduced the famous envelopes and began to keep the winners a secret until their names were announced during the ceremony, making the different races more open than ever. Ginger Rogers was a popular winner for her change of image in Kitty Foyle but certainly part of very wide race that included strong competition from Joan Fontaine in the Best Picture winner Rebecca, Katharine Hepburn in her comeback role in The Philadelphia Story and Bette Davis who continued to dominate this category with her performance as murderess Leslie Crosbie in The Letter. The winners during the following years were all likely and expected choices and the Academy Awards began more and more to turn into the race they would be known for from those moments on – but even if Joan Fontaine, Greer Garson, Jennifer Jones and Ingrid Bergman were the predicted winners, none of their wins could be called a ‘lock’, mostly because all those years offered other nominees that could easily have triumphed over those predicted winners and probably nobody would have called it any kind of upset or surprise. In the following years, Joan Crawford and Ingrid Bergman were both considered part of a very close neck-and-neck race that could easily have ended either way and Olivia de Havilland’s first win at the Oscars came over a very even competition Rosalind Russell emerging as her biggest threat during the awards season for her dramatic turn in Sister Kenny. One year later, Loretta Young followed the upset win of Luise Rainer one decade earlier with her own upset win and Jane Wyman won her Oscar in a close race against over-due contenders like Irene Dunne and Barbara Stanwyck and the critically hailed Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit. So, most of those races had likely winners that appear like obvious choices but except for two nominees that ended up losing, none of them had the same momentum and dominated her competition like Olivia de Havilland who was not just the only nominee starring in a movie that was also nominated for Best Picture but she also won the most important pre-Oscar awards and most importantly had collected by far the most favorable reviews of the year while her co-nominees were unable to gain the same kind of acknowledgement and excitement – the fact that Olivia de Havilland had established herself as one of the most critically lauded thespians of her generations and was already a strong contender for the win during the previous season for her work as a mentally unstable woman in The Snake Pit was therefore only the final factor that turned her win into a truly foregone conclusion on Oscar night. So everything clearly came together ideally for Olivia de Havilland – but was her win ultimately a result of the favorable surrounding circumstances or was her performance strong enough to also win against a more competitive field that maybe would have included sentimental favorites or other leading ladies who carried a Best Picture nominee?
Throughout her career, Olivia de Havilland constantly showed a strong willingness to not only develop but also challenge herself as an actress, especially during the peak of her career in the second half of the 1940s – but even before that she already knew how to establish her position as a popular star and use this position to display her distinctive talents and versatility as an actress, too. From her debut role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to her collaborations with Errol Flynn in popular movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood to her first ‘prestige’ pictures like Anthony Adverse, she carefully constructed an undeniable résumé and later showed that her willingness to challenge herself was not only reduced to her roles but also her determination to get them when she personally pleaded to Jack Warner’s wife to be released from her contract to play the most famous role of her career in Gone with the Wind. Later she used her success in the part of Melanie Hamilton to demand stronger and more satisfying roles, taking her position as a star to expand her strength as a character actress. And when her studio would not be willing to let her go at the end of her contract, demanding an additional six months of work for her periods of suspension, she followed the footsteps of Bette Davis and defied the studio system, forever changing the way studios could dominate their contract players in the end. It was a deciding moment not only for Hollywood but also for Olivia de Havilland who gained greater control over her career path and was finally able to demonstrate her abilities as an actress and entered her most fulfilling phase as an actress, winning an Oscar for her work in To Each his Own and stunning audiences and critics with her roles in The Dark Mirror, The Snake Pit and ultimately The Heiress. It’s a transformation that almost resembles her willingness to transform herself on the screen, playing characters from their youth to their days as middle-aged women or shy and repressed girls who turn into bitter avengers and like her Catherine Sloper, Olivia de Havilland discovered the limitations and the trap of her own characteristics and formed a new life for herself, even if for Olivia de Havilland, this transformation was desired and the result of her own efforts. But even if Olivia de Havilland found a chance to develop her own personality on the screen, she constantly used the experience she had gained in the previous years as the solid foundation of her later characteristics – for most of her career, Olivia de Havilland used her own screen presence to emphasize the charm and the ‘niceness’ of her characters, crafting damsels in distress or women who stood as a symbol of goodness against the darker, more brooding characters of the story. She achieved the epitome of these qualities in Gone with the Wind where it was her task to craft Melanie with an almost saint-like personality that would never give in to any darker feelings as the years of war and austerity went on – and Olivia de Havilland fulfilled this almost impossible task without crafting Melanie as a symbol of naivety or denial, instead portraying her as a woman who maybe understands more than anyone around her and is always aware of the actions and intentions of the others but who remains true to her own philosophy of life. With this part, Olivia de Havilland showed that she understood how constant goodness can be a means to an end, how it can be used to achieve a certain goal or even simply shield a broader truth away from one’s own personality – it’s the exploration of an apparently simple character for the sake of a greater truth. Her own screen presence combined with her thoughtful approach to her roles helped her to craft those intriguing human studies without dishonesty or deceitfulness – it’s not hard to imagine Olivia de Havilland in the role of co-nominee Loretta Young in Come to the Stable since Sister Margaret was another woman who used her own modesty and kindness with clear determination but by this point in her career, Olivia de Havilland had already left this concept behind her, clearly proving that her search for more serious and demanding parts was not a hoax. And she used this chance to accept parts that not only asked of her to fill this goodness with an inner life but actually go beyond it and craft various contradicting emotions – her experience that she gained in the early years of her career clearly benefited her later characteristics but the goodness in those roles was not the ultimate goal anymore and instead only the foundation of a deeper and more complex development. This goodness was the basis of a woman whose inability to connect to her own child influenced her whole life, of a woman who appears to have forgotten about this goodness inside her and became mentally unstable and a woman who was destroyed by her own character and finally left this kindness behind her, finding her own voice in a strikingly different manner. It seems an almost logical step that Olivia de Havilland, after having played these kind, polite and gracious characters without too many shades or edges, finally began to explore their darker and deeper sides, often surprising the viewer with her direct approach that contained both mystery and honesty and she used her own talents to combine the technical aspects of her acting with the demanded emotions of her characters to constantly display their inner thoughts, feelings, ideas, fears and hopes. And this combination of technique and emotion also allowed her to craft the development and change of Catherine Sloper with stunning precision and cogency.
It appears that the on-screen chemistry between the three main actors in The Heiress was strongly influenced by their relationships behind the camera – Montgomery Clift apparently kept mostly to himself during the shooting while Ralph Richardson did his best to take attention away from all other actors and neither of the two men apparently thought too highly of Olivia de Havilland’s acting talents. But it all resulted in a captivating triangle in which no character ever seems to truly touch the other – even the relationship between Catherine and Morris is more defined by what is left unspoken rather than by what is said and done and Olivia de Havilland masterfully maneuvers Catherine through this unknown territory, letting her get caught between the two men in her life. There is something completely irresistible about her innocence during her scenes with Montgomery Clift, again letting it appear completely possible for just one moment that he might actually be interested in her or at least as much interested in her as in her money – when Catherine says the words ‘I love you’, Olivia de Havilland beautifully lets Catherine be overwhelmed by her own actions just as much as she is by those of Morris, hiding her face on his shoulder, enjoying the closeness in this moment that has escaped her all her life. It’s a quiet desperation for love that she later reprises when she says goodbye to Morris before going to Europe with her father and a moment that further underlines Catherine’s craving for emotional contacts – Catherine’s aunt later says that even if Morris might only be interested in her money he might still make her very happy nonetheless and Olivia de Havilland shows that maybe Catherine is even thinking of this herself, that she might be not entirely sure of Morris’s intentions either but is willing to accept them simply because the feeling of love and support is too overwhelming for her to ignore or reject. Olivia de Havilland is not afraid to appear desperate or pleading for love even if she seems to believe Morris’s intention. She let her be shivering with insecurity and wide-eyed surprise in one moment and smile brightly in the next – during the run of The Heiress, not only Catherine’s inner character changed but also her way of expressing herself and her face which used to be an open window into her soul turned into an enigmatic mask and that bright, slightly exaggerated smile that so often lightened up her face has gone forever. Furthermore, Olivia de Havilland did not turn Catherine into a woman who suddenly blossomed once Morris entered her life and instead kept that childlike innocence and showed that the only alteration in her character happened towards her father. Olivia de Havilland’s control over her characters is always most visible in such small nuances that slightly change her role with great consequences – the scene in which Catharine openly stands by Morris’s side against her father’s will is a grand decision that Olivia de Havilland portrays with subtle determination. But even then she makes it clear how much Catherine is still trying to please her father, that her marriage to Morris is not something she sees as an escape but rather hopes that the love she thinks both men feel for her will lead them to also accept each other’s presence – until her father finally decides to take one last step to prevent this marriage and openly tells his daughter that there is nothing about her that a man could love except her money. It’s a deciding moment for both The Heiress and its title character and Olivia de Havilland uses the foundations that she laid in her performance so far, especially the fact that all of her insecurities are based on her desperate attempts to please her father, to let her performance turn around completely. It is true that The Heiress doesn’t do its leading lady any favors by demanding this complete turn-around of her character in just a few scenes as Catherine becomes an almost completely different woman after she recognized Morris’s true intentions – it’s a change of character that would easily overstrain most actresses and there is also a high risk of losing the ‘old’ Catherine or letting the ‘new’ Catherine appear like an unbelievable extension of her character. But Olivia de Havilland carefully mastered this task by showing that the realization that her father actually despises her and that there is nothing she can do to ever please him is like a clearance for her character, a catalyst that causes a first discovery of her unforgiveness, of her ability to reject people once she recognized her true intentions – it’s a development that is completed by Morris’s betrayal that same night when Catherine suddenly learns that the two men she trusted absolutely never cared for her, that all the negative words of her father about her were apparently true and that all her years of trying and suffering had been a wasted life. Yes, the transformation might come sudden but Olivia de Havilland gave enough reasons to make it appear entirely believable which is maybe the most important aspect of her entire performance. When she tells Morris that even if her father would change his mind, she would not, Olivia de Havilland already gives a first hint at her new, deeper and unforgiving voice that will dominate the final part of her performance, casting a dark foreshadow on the further development of Catherine and slowly uncovering how the actions of her father and Morris will influence her own behavior from now on – in the acting of Olivia de Havilland, Catherine’s transformation does not appear like something that was put upon her from outside but rather like something that was waiting to happen and she gave logic to an almost illogical development.
Olivia de Havilland’s ability to balance the emotional and technical aspects of her work helps her immensely to keep constant control over her part while letting the pathos and tragedy of the character influence her own decision just as much. She beautifully shows Catherine caught between her sudden and newfound rejection of her father and her desperate attempt to fill this gap with the newfound love for Morris when she meets him outside in the rain, pleading him to marry her as quickly as possible while also carefully informing him of her disengagement from her father and his money. Olivia de Havilland plays this scene with a swift and urgent rhythm that she interrupts herself with a slower tempo, pledging her own love and affection while convincing him to do the same. His assurance that he will pick her up later that night is enough for her to be convinced of his love and loyalty even when she will be disinherited or maybe she convinces herself even more, later telling her aunt that Morris ‘must come’ and take her away, must love her for all those who didn’t. In this scene when Catherine waits for Morris at night only to learn that he will never pick her up, Olivia de Havilland again constantly shows Catherine as a woman who faces one self-realization after another, realizing that her aunt, just like her father, also thinks that Morris is only interested in her money, and she bounces back and forth between the naivety and wide-eyed smile and the resentful, bitter and silent infuriation that shapes her future self. It’s a slow breakdown that not only leads to a single realization but instead leads Catherine to reconsider her whole existence and Olivia de Havilland shows with stunning precision how the pressure of those passing hours slowly destroys the goodness that has dominated her so far. And in her concussive scene when Catherine walks up the stairs to her room, having realized that she has been deserted this night, Olivia de Havilland brilliantly evokes an overwhelming feeling of forlornness as Catherine has not only lost her love but also her only opportunity to leave this house and now has to face her father again – even if she will chose a new roll allocation for their next meeting. For the rest of The Heiress, Olivia de Havilland excels in a technical and controlled display of Catherine who completely changed herself after the humiliations she experienced – Olivia de Havilland plays Catherine with a new voice, a new face and new body language that leave the old, shy and helpless creature behind and gave her a new self-assurance based on her hate and rejection. Again, it would have been easy to disconnect these two parts of Catherine but Olivia de Havilland made this transformation plausible and believable, explaining it with her own acting choices and fulfilling it with her ability to present two polar opposite of the same person. It’s a chilling and breathtaking metamorphosis – Olivia de Havilland’s cold and empty voice, her revengeful but also calculating line delivery are combined with a certain maturity that show that her Catherine has not only experienced humiliation but also learned from it. ‘She has such dignity now’, is how Morris later describes her new personality, a statement that might be more accurate than he thinks. Olivia de Havilland lets Catherine’s newfound rejection towards her father result in a fast eruption of accusations and anger, forever breaking the bond with him and her old life – and those moments are a true masterpiece of coldness and Olivia de Havilland uses every chance the screenplay gives her to distance Catherine further and further away from her former self. But she also finds some remaining traces of that gentle and kind woman she used to be – when Catherine hears Morris’s voice again, Olivia de Havilland’s face suddenly softens and almost completely transforms her own appearance before it hardens again, reminding the viewer and herself that her days of believing and loving Morris are gone forever. And Olivia de Havilland also masterfully builds Catherine’s final revenge, teasing, manipulating, offending, rejecting and accepting Morris during their conversation, playing with him with strong self-assurance before she tells her aunt that she can be very cruel since he had been taught by masters – it’s a moment that Olivia de Havilland doesn’t play with bitterness or emptiness but actually a slight smile that seems to indicate that in this one moment Catherine is actually resembling her own father and his determination, proving that The Heiress does not only refer to her inheritance of her father’s fortune but also his character and personality, getting much closer to him despite having rejected him so strongly. But she then made the startling choice to let Catherine’s final walk up the stairs not be a lonely moment of triumph but instead shows that she might actually fear this moment, questioning her own decisions, recognizing that this chapter of her life has now been closed forever, wondering if anything in her life will ever replace this emptiness. Olivia de Havilland plays her moments of revenge with just as much self-doubt as pleasure and she keeps her future just as open as her whole relationship with Morris had been an unsolved secret.
The role of Catherine Sloper is certainly a thankful one that gives an actress many possibilities to run a vast amount of different emotions until the complete transformation at the end. But all those possibilities also provide many traps, even for the most experienced actresses, but Olivia de Havilland not only avoided any failure in this part, she actively exceeded her accomplishments by exploring the different aspects and motivations of Catherine Sloper and filling them with logic and reason. It’s a performance that combines emotional honesty with technical perfection and Olivia de Havilland is in constant control of every situation the script finds Catherine in – she can crumble emotionally when her father indirectly insults her looks in a new dress, she can give in to Morris’s affection in the early scenes just as easily as she can reject them later and she constantly sets the tone and atmosphere of the film itself. After The Heiress, Olivia de Havilland did not deliver any more performances that gained her recognition from the Academy and the quality of her future roles did also not reflect her dominance over the second half of the 1940s anymore – so maybe The Heiress was not only a peak but also the final peak for her career. But it is a performance that deserves to be called the highlight of Olivia de Havilland’s résumé – her Melanie might have immortalized her personality but her Catherine Sloper immortalized her talents. Yes, the stars all aligned perfectly for her win but her performance did not benefit from this since it is an achievement that could just as easily have won over a stronger competition. In the end, it’s an outstanding portrayal of desperation, hope, regret, hate and fear that stands among the finest this category has ever seen.