The Heiress: De Havilland for the Gold


The Heiress (1949)

Directed by William Wyler

Paramount, 115 minutes, Not Rated.





When I rewatched The Heiress, I initially gave it four stars. It stuck with me and I upgraded to a five. Reconsideration is par for the course for this William Wyler film. It got a tepid reception when it first came out and lost money. Numerous critics, however, heaped praise upon it and at Oscar time it got more nominations than any other film. Olivia de Havilland took away the hardware for Best Actress and it is now considered one of the best films of Hollywood’s classic era.


The film version was based on a 1947 play–a favorite undertaking of Wyler’s who did this a dozen times–but both play and movie are based on the Henry James novel Washington Square. That might have had something to do with box office hesitation, as conventional wisdom held that James’ novels were unfilmable. Wyler noted, though, that “the emotional conflict between two people in a drawing room can be as exciting as a gun battle….” Wyler stuck to his guns, as it were.


The Heiress is about a woman, Catharine Sloper (de Havilland), who learns to stand up for herself and become the mistress of her destiny, her toxic family notwithstanding. She is the only child of the widowed Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), who bullies and belittles Catharine. As she enters womanhood, she looks mousy, is painfully shy, and accepts her father’s assessment that she is ugly, dull, and unintellectual. Her aunt, Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins), sometimes takes her side, but she’s more

meddlesome than effective, an unwitting contagonist in Catharine’s desire to break her father’s iron will.


That desire comes in the form of Morris Townshend (Montgomery Clift), a dashing but poor man who pays attention to Catharine and tells her she’s none of the things her father claims she is. Catharine falls deeply in love with him and he proposes. Dr. Sloper refuses to give his consent; in his mind, Townshend is just a gold digger trying to get his hands on Catharine’s eventual inheritance. Is he right? Was it the right thing to do to convince Catharine to put off her plans, go to Europe to learn about culture and gain sophistication?


The Heiress is often as barbed and insidious as the (not-so) good doctor. At one point Catharine is accused of being uncharitable. She replies, “Yes, I can be cruel. I’ve been taught by masters.” Don’t bet on anything resolving the way paint-by-the-numbers drama romances do. This is a film of betrayal, comeuppances, insults, denied forgiveness, and lots of psychological tension. It ends with a score-evening moment that is at once apropos, mercenary, and revenge served cool and cold.


Cinematographer Leo Tolver worked closely with Wyler to make the Slopers’ Washington Square posh home alluring in a covetous way, yet also a claustrophobic prison. They did so with adroit mixes of short and long shots that suggest that the lens is a personified voyeur. The two also manipulate black and white tones in ways suggestive of a film noir crime flick. Though no one literally dies in The Heiress, psychological slayings occur.


Each of the three principal actors is brilliant. De Havilland is chameleonic in her three transformations (naïve, dawning wisdom, caustic). Her Oscar harks back to the days in which they were doled out for truly outstanding performance, not popularity and name recognition. Apparently she and Clift couldn’t stand each other on the set, but they mesh on the screen. His performance so deftly walked the balance between sincerely and conmanship that in the end there is room for doubt over whether he was indeed a grifter or a man overcome by circumstance. Richardson is easy to hate, though the deeper you dig, the more you come to see that he is damaged goods. That, however, could be the tagline for just about anyone in this film.


The Heiress is thus neither a poor little rich girl film, a take-that revenge fantasy, or a triumph of right over wrong. When your grandparents say they don’t films like this anymore, this is the sort of thing they mean!


Rob Weir




Music for February 2024 Smoking Bambino, Sully Bright, Galeet Dardashti, Bouzouki Classics, Jason Carter



Smoking Bambino
is the stage handle for Catalan singer/songwriter Esteve Saguer Costa, whose newest record Lampigots Bufarandes is an intimate album churned out during three intense days in the studio. The first word means lightning but don’t rush to your Catalan dictionary for the second one; Costa made it up. “Nit” (Night) suggests the vibe at which he is aiming. His baritone voice has hints of gravel, but his tones are as understated as the shadows of a backlit video with a cigarette burning through. We can make out a wine glass, a woman’s laughter, and dancing but the rest is left to your imagination. “Animal de bosc” (Animal of the Forest) is café-like with its quiet keys and gentle melody/vocals. The keys and voice in “He escrit et teu nom” (I Wrote Your Name) feel as if Costa wandered into an empty room and sat down at an old upright. His voice goes to a smoky rasp that again invites us to write our own story. Even if you have not a word of Catalan, you might be able to surmise that Bukawsky and Keroauc are among his literary heroes and that Costa has spent time singing in small late-night New York City venues. This recording proves once again that there is poignancy is keeping things intimate and raw.


Sully Bright
hails from the Blue Ridge of North Carolina and, as songs such as “Appalachia” and his faded Ektachrome slide-like videos reveal, he retains a bibbed overalls nostalgia for those days. Darling Wake Up is a bluegrass-influenced acoustic album. He accompanies his light tenor with banjo, piano, guitar, and mouth harp. According to his bio, he struggled emotionally for a time. “Dark” has hints of anxiety, but song such as “It’ll Be Alright” and the away-from home love song “Oh Honey” bring back the light. The record could use more energy and diversity, but is also exudes a sense of honesty in its bare feet.



To say Galeet Dardashti has musical cred is an understatement. She comes from a musical family, has fronted the band Divahn, holds a Ph.D. in anthropology, teaches at NYU, and is the granddaughter of famed Persian Jewish singer Younes Dardashti. That’s his image on the cover of Galeet’s new album Monajat and we hear his recorded voice on the album. That’s appropriate because Monajat is an album of Selichat prayers Galeet learned from him. Selichat are candlelight services for forgiveness sung the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah. “Adon Haselichot” (Master of Pardons)  is an amazing track featuring layered instrumentation of doumbek (drum), ney (flute), oud, fiddle, bass, and hammer dulcimer that creates a mix that’s almost psychedelic. Listen as Dardashti keens, ululates, implores, and powers her way through. “The Awakening” uses the ney to invoke a Middle Eastern call to prayer before oud and other instruments set the pace for demanding vocal tonal shifts. “El Norah Alilah” (God of Awe) is both hypnotic and energetic with background singers following Dardashti’s lead in response fashion. This is an impressive record no matter what your faith or lack thereof. If all that’s not enough, Dardashti also likes to weave multimedia art into her music. Poke around on YouTube and you’ll find examples.



In the Monty Python cheese shop sketch, a  bouzouki player inexplicably plays by the door. At one point a frustrated John Cleese screams to shut up the “bloody bouzouki player.” I doubt you’d feel that way about the playing of Dimitris Papageorgiou whose Greek Bouzouki Classics is far from an archival rendering of old songs. He is known in the U.S. for his TV and film scores and he brings that sensibility to old tunes that he updates. “Sundance” has the strong cadences that inspire people to dance, but it also moves crispy and has a modern flair. “Minore of Greece” has a quirky frame but Papageorgiou’s runs and precise picking incorporate classic elements and bouzouki virtuosity that would induce envy among the finest mandolin players. “Te Lemonadika” also pulls a switcheroo, its plinky almost childlike opening notes sliding easily into a sunny swaying tune that suggests an ouzo is in order rather than lemonade. Another tune is titled “Play in Athens” and that’s exactly what you’ll wish to do upon hearing it. Stay away from the cheese shop and snack on this album instead.



I had mixed feelings about Seeking the Divine,  a solo guitar project from Jason Carter. Like Peter Blanchette, Carter plays an arch guitar. As you can tell from “Guten Morgen Mein Engel,” Carter is very talented. Like this one, though, I found my attention drifting in segments that put me in mind of New Age music. I much preferred more lively tunes such as “So Small” with its stronger bass and melody lines. It both enthralled me and made me understand some of the potential of his instrument. I grant that six-minute explorations like “Letting Go” are introspective and mysterious, but I much prefer the pieces like “The Colour of Silence” that evoke images over the contemplation. By the way, “The Colour of Silence” was recorded  in Finland; Finnish is one of four non-English languages the British Carter speaks. And I’ll cut him a break, as part of the record was filmed in Sri Lanka where he played for the children at a tsunami-damaged orphanage.


Rob Weir


Good Hoffman, Bad Hoffman


The Invisible Hours (2023)

By Alice Hoffman

Atria Books, 252 pages.



Few authors delve into the mysterious as often as Alice Hoffman. At her best, she’s so spellbinding she makes us suspend disbelief. Occasionally, though, she writes a headscratcher like The Invisible Hours.


It starts with great promise. Ivy Jacobs is 16, pregnant to an irresponsible Harvard jerk, and is castoff by her Beacon Hill family. An erstwhile friend takes her to the western part of the Commonwealth, where she falls under the spell of and marries Joel Davis, the leader of an intentional community. There she gives birth to red-haired Mia, but “The Community” is more of a cult than a commune. Numerous reviewers have made comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale and/or Puritan Salem, but those who know Western Massachusetts will find great similarity to the Renaissance Community that thrived in the Gill/Turners Falls area in the 1960s into the 1970s, before founder Michael Metelica succumbed to megalomania akin to what you read in Hoffman’s novel.


Davis lays down strict rules, among them repressive gender roles that confine women to nurturing tasks, limit their educational opportunities, arrange their marriages, demand their children pay obedience Davis, and limit contact with the outside world. The high-spirited Mia chafes under such conditions, especially when she discovers literature in the village library–especially Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Mia is punished periodically, as is Ivy for birthing such an obstreperous child. Mia’s attempts to runaway only lead to more trouble–she even wears letters commensurate to her misbehavior–and considers suicide. Instead, Mia outsmarts Davis and finds a rescuer in the form of Sarah, the town librarian, who spirits her away to Concord and the care of her friend Constance with whom Sarah is in a classic “Boston marriage.” Mia grows up and thrives.


Alas, the novel disintegrates in absurdity. Davis, who spirals deeper into obsession and  mental instability, searches for Mia to bring her back to The Community. Most are foiled because–ready?– Mia is often missing in time. Her studies of The Scarlet Letter make her so sympathetic that a visit to Hawthorne’s grave opens a portal between past and present. Hawthorne's melancholy leaves him unable to write. For reasons too contrived to mention, Mia must “save” Hawthorne so he actually pens The Scarlet Letter. Mia eventually befriends his sister Elizabeth and eventually becomes close to Nathaniel. Can she stay? Would that alter history? The less said about Mia’s own daughter, the better. Isn’t the idea of Mia saving Hawthorne’s mental health and career far-fetched enough?


Hoffman had plenty of material with which to work if she simply rewrote more of the sad saga of Michael Metelica. Sometimes what actually happened is so weird that attempts at “improvement” cheapen it.




The Drowning Season (1979)

Plume/Penguin, 212 pages.



I needed to read a good Alice Hoffman and plucked The Drowning Season from a neighborhood giveaway box. It’s not a great book, but this, her second novel, suggests that sometimes small doses of fanciful storytelling are better than a whole lot.


It follows an unorthodox family that skirts incest were it not for a toss-away plot that its matriarch, Esther the White–her hair color–was adopted. It begins in Russia where Ester and her two brothers, Mischa and Max, a dwarf, live with such horrible parents they conspire to run away. Their journey involves pilfered jewelry, a lusty tattooed man, selling Max to a circus–yes, that sort of thing actually happened–moving to England, and settling along New York’s Long Island Sound.


Mischa and Esther marry and raise a son (of uncertain fatherhood) named Phillip. They own a complex called The Compound but they, and eventually his alcoholic wife Rose, must keep a close watch on Phillip. Each summer, he falls into a sort of stupor and would drown himself were he not locked up. Esther is also furious with Phillip because he named his daughter Esther, a major no-no among Ashkenazi Jews. Esther the White is acidic towards Esther the Black.


It's an intriguing tale that also involves a Russian caretaker who protects Esther the White and pines for her, a determined fishing community, a developer, Max’s return, Esther the Black’s moody defiance, a punk rocker, and reconciliation. It has a splash of magical realism and is a ghost story (of sorts).  Some readers wanted more, but it felt welcomingly spartan to me.


Rob Weir


My Favorite Super Bowl



 Allegedly, some 200 million people will watch the Super Bowl today. I suspect millions will be girls and young women hoping for glances of Taylor Swift, but still…. I will not be watching; I find gridiron football boring. It’s too slow, too hyped, and non-strategic for my tastes.


I do, however, have a tale about my favorite Super Bowl. I was a Fulbright scholar posted in Wellington, New Zealand, when George W. Bush was about to take office in the United States. Back in New Zealand, Dubya’s team was throwing its weight around and trying to erase the presence of outgoing U.S. Ambassador Carol Braun Mosley. She was enormously popular among New Zealanders, so the Bushwhackers were anxious to show some good ‘ole Texas hospitality. Let’s just say they started off on the wrong boot.   


The New Zealand staff was—key word—ordered to attend a Super Bowl party at the United States Embassy. So too were all American Fulbright recipients in the country, both senior scholars such as me, and those undergrads and graduate students designated as junior Fulbrighters. By gum, everyone was going to be treated to hot dogs, beer, potato chips, hamburgers, and all the fixins. All flown in from the US of A.


Among New Zealanders, football is soccer and they didn’t know gridiron from a waffle iron. In January, a summer month Down Under, attentions are focused on Union Rugby and the fate of its national team, the All Blacks–named for their uniforms. Jonah Lomu was the big star there and, at 6’4” 265 pounds, he was literally a big one. Nor is a group of academics and wannabes exactly your average red-meat gridiron crowd. The Bush advance team was ensconced in a side room watching the game on what was then  a rare big screen TV. They were screaming their heads off, while the rest of us awkwardly milled about by the food and wine table.


I decided to break the ice by walking into a crowd of New Zealanders and introducing myself. I was charmed when one senior liaison asked me, “Whom do you prefer in the gridiron match?” I replied that I didn’t care for U.S. football, didn’t know who was playing, and had come to learn about and from New Zealanders. The ice melted. Soon, other Americans joined in and a lovely transnational conversation broke put. We were having so much fun that we strategically decided that we would pair up and take turns entering the TV room to make our presence known. This would mask the “jolly good chinwag” we were having at the expense of the clueless Yanks engrossed in the game.


One of the topics of hilarity was the food. Hot dogs are not a thing in New Zealand and, as it transpired, the rolls didn’t arrive in time so the embassy ordered what they hoped would be an approximation from a Wellington bakery. Epic fail! They were about two inches too long on each end, had about a five-inch diameter, and an overbaked biscuit-like texture. My new friends declared that the “sausages” were “interesting,” but wondered if Americans always placed them in “buns.” That was their polite way of saying they were terrible. We explained the miscalculation and had another good laugh.


I had no idea who won that day, though I was surprised that the team from Baltimore was called the Ravens, not the Colts. My highlight was meeting New Zealanders, hearing about Jonah Lomu, and discussing politics and lifestyles. Later, a gentleman I met there took me to a rugby match to see Lomu in action. He was everything he was cracked up to be, as dominant in rugby as Secretariat was in horse racing. Outside of the America, many have called him the greatest athlete in sports history and I surely not dispute it. (Lomu tragically died of kidney disease at age 40.)  


Let the record show that the Ravens won that Super Bowl, a fact I looked up on the Internet as I didn’t see a score in the Wellington Post. No matter, no one at the National Library where I posted said a word about the “match.” Actually, I’ve not seen a  football game since the early 1970s. Nevertheless, every Super Bowl day I smile and think of my trip to the U.S. Embassy in Wellington, where I learned the magic that comes from making cultural connections rather than presuming an Americentric world. Go All Blacks!


Rob Weir


Here’s a highlight video of Lomu in action.     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OsXTa7UCGlk&t=2s


The haka, which is performed before each All Blacks match. I’d be quaking. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yiKFYTFJ_kw