"Wuthering Heights"

A DVD interview reveals Sir Laurence Olivier's acting advice for this wrenching classic: "The virgin presents the pelvis."

By Michael Sragow

Published December 14, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

"Wuthering Heights"
Directed by William Wyler
Starring Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, Geraldine Fitzgerald, David Niven
HBO Home Video; full screen (standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio)
Theatrical trailer, interview with Geraldine Fitzgerald, soundtrack remastered in stereo

William Wyler's 1939 film of Emily Brontë's "Wuthering Heights," No. 73 on the American Film Institute's Top 100 movies list, tugs the audience immediately into a romantic, haunted vision of the Yorkshire moors. Its melancholy pull isn't a matter of special effects; until the end the ghosts remain off-screen. The picture's greatness arises from its aching beauty and the astounding piece of acting at its core: Laurence Olivier's performance as Heathcliff, the stableboy locked in destructive thrall with a country squire's daughter. Wyler ignites the 32-year-old Olivier's gift for irony, his feral potency and his unique dynamic sullenness. With a Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur script that extracts the central relationship from Brontë's novel, the director and a crew of Hollywood's finest -- cinematographer Gregg Toland, art director James Basevi and editor Daniel Mandell -- create a mood of thwarted yearning and sustain it for 100 minutes.

Olivier overshadows Merle Oberon, who plays the capricious, moody Cathy. She lacks originality and spark. Still, moment by moment, she displays enough conviction and sensitivity to make Wyler's stylized conceptions work. The close-ups of Oberon's febrile eyes -- when she dreams she's seeing Heathcliff and then realizes that she is seeing him -- bring the movie to fever pitch. Alfred Newman never scored a movie with more suppleness and eloquence: His plaintive theme for Cathy whistles on the wind. The screenplay doesn't try to encompass Brontë's violent extremes. But Wyler and Olivier succeed in imbuing Brontë's blasphemy -- Heathcliff's renunciation of any power that denies his love -- with both a turbulent, demonic undertow and the ennobling feelings of heroic tragedy.

Geraldine Fitzgerald is note-perfect as the silly yet determined Isabella, Cathy's sister-in-law and Heathcliff's wife. On the DVD she contributes a frank and funny interview, depicting Wyler as the exhausting taskmaster of a turbulent set and Olivier as the "only actor I knew who was completely unafraid" -- both to convey the unvarnished truth of his character and to give controversial advice. She was occasionally furious at him, but now appreciates his honesty and instinct. Counseling Fitzgerald on how Isabella should approach Heathcliff as a prospective lover, Olivier said, "The virgin presents the pelvis, and the mother the womb." In sum, Fitzgerald says, "Wuthering Heights" was "the kind of picture you just get through -- and then it turns out afterwards it was something very special."

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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