Cold Readings

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Another thing about THE HEIRESS — Montgomery Clift’s first lines, spoken before we see him, are delivered in a shockingly blue-collar fifties New York tone. Very mookish. particularly the words, “How ya do, Miss Sloper?” I wondered why. It could be that director William Wyler, being of Alsatian origins (in the sense of being from Alsace, not a son-of-a-bitch) wasn’t sensitive enough to nuances of accent and let the line slip by. But it may be that he thought, Clift is obviously going to stick out next to Olivia and Ralph and Miriam, better let the audience get over their discomfort as soon as possible — shock them into accepting it. Let’s make sure they notice it on Line 1, so they’re not wondering all through the scene, Is there something funny about his delivery? And his hair?

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(Incidentally, this is the first time I saw the film and read Monty’s character as a fortune-hunter from the off, which he clearly is. On previous viewings, partly because I like Monty and partly because I’m dumb as Olivia, I always found him quite sincere — that uncertain smile! [Which really signals: Do you believe me so far?] Of course, I knew after the first time that he was after her loot, but I never could read it that way. This time at last I came to my senses, the scales fell from my eyes — he feeds her a line about always feeling he could say the right thing when he’s alone in his room, but in public the words desert him — which they clearly DON’T. It’s a classic fake psychic’s cold reading, a line that everyone can relate to and say is true of them, and it’s not even that cold because he’s had a chance to observe her and see how tongue-tied she is. Also, though, I do think Monty likes her a little, or at any rate doesn’t find her as unbearable as the guy who’s forced to dance with her earlier, whose eyes roll clean up into his head as if pumped full of helium after a few minutes of her conversation.)

The other great ludicrous first speech is Mark Hammill’s famous “But I was going into Tosche station to pick up some power converters,” in STAR WARS. Knowing the importance of setting up your “Hero With a Thousand Faces” right away, George Lucas worked hard to establish Luke Skywalker as a hysterical, adenoidal homosexual caricature with his very first line. The dialogue itself was not sufficiently evocative of these qualities, but dialogue was never Lucas’s strong suit. Finally, the correct effect was achieved by getting Hammill to loop the line while jumping blindfolded off a high diving board, his arms making little circular flailing movements as he plummeted helplessly towards the unheated water below. After the third take, it was perfect.

The Heiress [DVD]
The Heiress (Universal Cinema Classics)

7 Responses to “Cold Readings”

  1. “a hysterical, adenoidal homosexual caricature “? Why “homosexual”? And especially coming after a discussion of Monty who, unlike Mark, WAS gay.

  2. “I do think Monty likes her a little”

    That’s why it is genuinely moving: it’s obvious Catherine would be better off with Morris Townsend, whatever his motives for wanting to marry her, than with her father.

  3. Roger — YES.

    David — because Hammill sounds like a straight guy giving a bad impression of a gay guy in this line reading. I was careful to say “homosexual caricature” and not suggest in any way that he “sounds like all gay people sound” which would be wrong/meaningless/offensive.

  4. Hmm. Well that certainly wasn’t Mark’s intention, ad don’t believe Lucas thinks about sexuality of ANY kind. I think he was just going for “whiny annoying adolescent” — the last person you would imagine becoming an intergalactic hero.

  5. I don’t think any of them were really going for the way it turned out, I think Hammill overplayed the whine and the withdrawn, stressed-out Lucas simply didn’t notice. So I made a joke about it.

  6. As a matter of curiosity, did Gilliam see this film before he cast Richardson as the Supreme Being in Time Bandits?

  7. What a charming question, as Monty (Clift, not Python) might say. I have no idea — I don’t think The Heiress is among the select group of movies Gilliam has cited as influences (The Decameron, The Trial, Les Enfants du Paradis etc). But if you were casting for supreme beings in Britain, the theatrical knights would naturally spring to mind, and Ralph was by some way the most eccentric.

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