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Washington, DC

Stereograph of the north side of Washington Square, New York City, October 1909 from Library of Congress collection

In 1948, fresh from her Oscar-nominated role in The Snake Pit, Olivia de Havilland was encouraged to attend a Broadway production of The Heiress, a stage adaptation of Henry James's novel Washington Square. As she recalled in an interview with the NEA, "At the end of the second act I knew I wanted to play Catherine Sloper. I wanted with all my heart to play that lovely character." Her portrayal of Catherine Sloper earned de Havilland the 1950 Academy Award for Best Acress in a Leading Role. (The Heiress ultimately received eight nominations and four wins, including nominations for Best Picture and Best Director for William Wyler.) In the excerpt below, de Havilland recounts what drew her to James's heroine and why James is in some ways  an actor's novelist.

 I loved the character.  Here she was, such a good person, so modest, so good, so loving, so eager to please, so trusting. Then, of course, she discovers that the two men who mean the most to her in all her life, her father and the young man who courts her, Morris Townsend, she discovers that neither of them love her. And worse than that, they do not respect her.  They do not even like her. I cannot imagine in a woman's life greater tragedies than those or a greater tragedy than that, to discover that the persons you love the most have no regard for you. And that was her discovery.  Now the marvelous thing about this, this simple, loving creature, through this experience, she becomes strong and intelligent.  That's the marvelous thing about her character development.

I have just read Henry James's Washington Square yet again, and . . .what a good read it is. It's marvelously constructed---the short chapters with intense exchanges between the characters. He has a great feeling for dialogue; an awful lot of authors don't. They like a lot of prose and description and then use very sparse dialogue. That's not true with James, and you can understand why he toyed with the idea of becoming a playwright because he does see the novel in intense separate scenes, and they're wonderfully done. It was a thrilling experience to re-read Washington Square.  Absolutely marvelous. I may even read it again. It could be addictive.

Don't forget to visit The Big Read calendar to find out how you can get involved with a Big Read near you. And visit the NEA website to hear more from Olivia de Havilland who received the National Medal of Arts---the nation's highest award in the arts--in 2008. 

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