Friday, September 7, 2012

Watch This: The Heiress (Washington Square)

Since I'm not back to reading for fun yet, my latest media conquest is The Heiress, the Oscar-winning 1949 film starring Olivia de Havilland and my dead boyfriend Montgomery Clift. (You know the story: The Thin Red Line triggers my "love American literature" reflex, I read-then-watch From Here to Eternity, Prew looks incredibly hot and tragic = obsessed.) The original source material for the story is Henry James' novel Washington Square.

I didn't read it; the Henry James novel (novella, really) I read in 11th grade was Daisy Miller. Daisy travels to Europe, goes out without a chaperone as a young European lady would have, gets bitten by a mosquito and dies of a subtropical fever - her punishment for not conforming to European social mores.

Olivia de Havilland stars as Catherine Sloper, a woman who lives with her aging father, who is a doctor, and her father's widowed sister. You may remember de Havilland as Melanie in Gone With the Wind.
She's really a strikingly beautiful woman, so the costuming and makeup in The Heiress have to downplay her looks, since Catherine is supposed to be rather plain and unexceptional. And yes, she is still alive - she turned 96 in July.

Catherine, the heiress, is courted by a genteel-but-penniless-but-incredibly-attractive suitor, Morris Townsend. Unable to win her father's support, Morris abandons Catherine when she offers to give up her fortune to be with him. After this heartbreaking experience, Catherine becomes wiser and stronger; when Morris comes back, she agrees to marry him, then leaves him bolted outside the door of her Washington Square home.

Said gorgeous young gold digger is played by Montgomery Clift.

His smile - I die. Catherine has so much more restraint than I do - I would've been out of my corset faster than Morris could say, "Catherine, will you marry me?" Yeah, I would've made a lousy Victorian. (Technically, although the book was published in the 1880s - the Victorian era - the setting was in the 1840s.) If I were a Henry James heroine, James would've given me a horrible subtropical disease and killed me.

I wonder if the Slopers are the ancestors of the New York society girl who gave Robert E. Lee Prewitt gonorrhea, the "personal reason" for which he can't get promoted at Arlington National Cemetery and must transfer to Hawaii. (She didn't do it on purpose.)

A more modern film version of Washington Square, named after the book, came out in 1997 and starred Jennifer Jason Leigh as Catherine and Ben Chaplin as Morris. The English actor Ben Chaplin played John Bell in The Thin Red Line in 1998.

When I think of Washington Square, the place, I think of the Joan Baez song "Diamonds and Rust," which at one time I was able to play on my guitar. Some of the lyrics are:

"Now I see you standing with brown leaves falling all around and snow in your hair
Now you're smiling out the window of that crummy hotel over Washington Square
Our breath comes out in white clouds, mingles and hangs in the air
Speaking strictly for me, we both could have died then and there."

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