Sabrina (1954)



I’m afraid your opinion of Billy Wilder’s 1954 romantic comedy classic Sabrina depends on your opinion of Audrey Hepburn. And even if you find her enchanting, a delicate flower, you may have a tough road to hoe.

Hepburn plays the title character, a shy girl who’s desperately in love with David Larrabee (William Holden), a rakish Long Island playboy whose too busy chasing skirts and getting married to notice the wispy chauffeur’s daughter. Nearly suicidal over David’s lack of attention, she reluctantly goes to cooking school in Paris for a couple of years. It’s time well spent. She meets a wealthy baron, gets a great new wardrobe, and secures some self-confidence. ‘I’ve learned how to live of the world and in the world,’ she writes her father before leaving Paris.

Back in the U.S., Sabrina’s arrival is a major distraction. Blown away by her new haircut and fancy duds, David falls hard for Sabrina, which is a major problem. First, he’s marrying a plastics tycoon’s daughter (Martha Hyer). Second, David’s brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart), the brains behind the family’s business empire, is depending on that marriage for a $20 million deal. Linus tells David to go ahead and fall in love with Sabrina, then goes about sabotaging the budding romance and getting her out of everyone’s lives. When Linus essentially becomes Sabrina’s chaperone, feelings begin changing all around.

Let’s return to the Hepburn issue. It’s not that she is a bad actress, but I can’t comprehend her being the object of affection between two guys’ guys like Holden and Bogart. She seems too affected and too girly to be busy with such nonsense. Her fragile beauty is so lovingly filmed by Wilder that you’re amazed anyone can touch her, never mind kiss her. She might snap like a twig. It’s hard to stay enchanted when such thoughts storm through your head, or when Bogart refuses to have his heart melt.

And where is the movie’s snap? Wilder helped pen some of the sharpest scripts of all time -Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard – so it’s odd that his script lacks a sharpness to balance all the love that’s in the air. The supporting cast (led by John Williams as Sabrina’s stoic dad) is sharp, and making last-call guys Holden and Bogart romantic leads is ingenious. But it does little good if all they do is make googly eyes at Hepburn for 112 minutes.

Perhaps Sabrina is a relic of its time more than anything else. We’ve seen this story before (and since), and we’re a little more sophisticated these days. It’s fair to expect more from a movie than pretty girls and rugged guys wearing nice clothes and exchanging loving remarks. You can understand why the late Sydney Pollack did a remake some 40 years later — though it also fell flat — and why contemporary movies that haven’t improved on 1954′s model are likely to be considered with disdain.

The new Centennial Collection DVD includes a second disc with several making-of featurettes and retrospectives about the film and, especially, Audrey Hepburn.

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