This is part of goatdog’s Wyler Blogathon
When someone says a “woman’s director”, it’s strange that Wyler’s name doesn’t come up. After all, here is the man who directed Davis, Bainter, Wright, Garson, de Havilland, Hepburn, and Streisand to Oscars for their performances. More than most director’s, somehow he understood women at least as dynamic and interesting characters on the screen. Two of my favourite female characters in his films have to be Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) in Roman Holiday and Catherine Sloper (Olivia De Havilland) in the Heiress. Upon further reflection I realised how very similar these characters are, although on the surface both of them appear to be polar opposites, both are incredibly dynamic characters as through different personal journeys come to almost identical conclusions about love and responsibility. They both have different attitudes, situations and personalities and go about their transformations in their own ways. *I might advise not reading on if you have not seen either films*
In Roman Holiday, Princess Ann is bored by her repetitive and sheltered existence. Every moment of her life is scheduled with ceremonies and formalities, and as a young woman, this is becoming increasingly more frustrating. So, while visiting Rome she escapes the Royal palace to, even for a moment learn what it means to be free. Catherine Sloper is similarly sheltered from the world, but with a much harsher hand than Ann. Her father is overbearing, controlling every aspect of her life and constantly putting her down as an inferior to her mother. Compared to Ann she is meek, and almost transparent. Her escape is a lot more subtle and slow moving than Ann’s. Ann jumps the fence, while she is slowly digging herself out of her prison with a teaspoon.
Relating back to my own personal experiences, I relate very closely to both characters. I look at Roman Holiday wishfully as the greatest adventure anyone could have. Being Indiana Jones wasn’t my ambition, but enjoying the world for what it is, and loving every moment of it. The escape is always temporary, but the effects no doubt will last forever. Ann can’t live there forever, and somehow if she did it wouldn’t be nearly as magical. The adventure though is crucial in her development as a human being, and in the end when she is makes the decision to return to her duties, sacrificing not only her freedom, but love you realise how much she has evolved as a human being. It counteracts what would be a “living happily ever after”, but it somehow feels complete.
Catherine, as I mentioned earlier, has a much slower evolution as she is in the first place far weaker than Ann. When she falls in love for the first time, she begins to glow for the first time… and we get the impression that, like for Ann this relationship will be her gateway to self discovery and happiness. However, this is far from the case as her father is suspicious that all he wants is her money. It all comes down to a crucial moment when Catherine decides to run away from her life, and her father to marry Morris. Only to have him disappear from her life once he learns they will not have her money and that Catherine refuses to ever speak with her father again, ruining all hopes that he may eventually give in.
While this crushes Catherine, in body and spirit it somehow gives her the strength she always needed. From this point on, Catherine’s decisions take on a strange complexity that is not to be found in Roman Holiday. The journey from confined, to free back to selflessness is exhibited in both of their personal journeys, although Catherine’s is a little more difficult to sort through.
She asserts herself, by keeping her promise of not talking or interacting with her father, even as he is dying. It’s an extreme act of selfish pride, that is out of character to the Catherine we knew before, but vital to the new Catherine that has been born out of the cruelty of the real world. Her father was wrong in believing that truth would kill her, because in the end she may be far stronger than he is. The decision has many layers though, of moral consequences as Catherine’s decisions have a far higher price than Ann’s. She’s sacrificing more than position, but family and happiness.
When her father is finally dead though, it’s strange how she is able to truly bloom. We realise the sacrifice she had to make was integral to her survivor in the world around her. Once her oppressor (who she did clearly love) was gone forever, she was for the first time allowed to be happy. Contrast those later scenes as she runs the house to the earlier ones where she scant spoke a word. Of course, this is not the end of it. Morris re-enters the picture nearly ten years after she saw him for the first time. This is the final test, she can sacrifice her hard-earned independence or give in to love.
It’s at this point, that not only De Havilland’s skill as an actress comes into play, but also Wyler’s subtle talents as a director. The scenes are ambiguous, and tainted. Clift, who seemed so genuine and sincere comes across as ridiculous. He seems smaller, and distant than he did before. Catherine seems to tower above him in the frame, calm and collected to his franticness. She’s even aloof. However, there is still a hint that she will take him back. We feel her loneliness and the deliberation in her mind.
As she arranges to meet him at her home late in the night, as she did many years before, she turns the tables on him. She locks the door and as he comes back pounding and begging at the door. She ascends the steps slowly. It’s one of the most iconic scenes and shots in the history of cinema, and even now her motives are ambiguous. Whereas Roman Holiday’s final scene as Princess Ann addresses with confidence the Roman press, and the love of her life we’re filled with a sense of fulfillment, The Heiress leaves the audience at a loss. Again, the “living happily ever after” is reversed to what we least expect. Both films have a strong message about women, and their place within society. A woman can be in control of her actions, and despite what many believe are not always ruled by emotions, as these films seem to show. Catherine in particular is empowered by the fact she doesn’t need to live with a man, especially one that wouldn’t make her happy. She won’t get married just because it is expected by society if it means sacrificing her dignity. Princess Ann is forced to sacrifice true love, which I don’t think makes her decision any more difficult or easier than Catherine’s though. Her sacrifice is selfless in the utmost degree, and I doubt many of us could make it. The beauty of these endings is that they exist beyond the screen. There is a sense that these characters will live with their decisions far beyond what we see.
Wyler’s touch makes both of these films work so well, and he has one of the “clearest” views of women in classic cinema. He treats them with the same respect as his male characters, and in some cases with more. Watching his films, you see why Bette Davis loved to work with him, and why he has so many great actors scrambling to work with him. The Heiress and Roman Holiday rank among my favourite films, and as I mapped out their parallels I’ve come to find a newfound respect for their craft. Bravo Wyler, bravo!