Old Ass Movies: Celebrate Audrey Hepburn’s Birthday with ‘Sabrina’

By  · Published on May 2nd, 2011

Your weekly fix of great movies made before you were born that you should check out before you die.

Last month we celebrated Bette Davis, and this week, it’s time to celebrate the anniversary of another star’s birthday. Audrey Hepburn needs no introduction, but Sabrina gave her a second one. After Roman Holiday, she became a bona fide star, and her follow-up saw her playing romantically confused with William Holden and Humphrey Bogart. It’s an example of all the wrong pieces coming together to make a sweet, romantic, funny film.

Hepburn wasn’t nearly as prolific as other actors, but she managed to find projects that either worked perfectly or were made perfect by her huge brown eyes and powerful innocence. This movie is no different, and it carries all the romanticism of Roman Holiday without ever having to leave the country.

Sabrina (1954)

Directed By: Billy Wilder

Written By: Billy Wilder, Samuel Taylor and Ernest Lehman

Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Walter Hampton, John Williams, and Martha Hyer

The joy of this movie cannot be contained. Half of its charm comes from Hepburn, the other half from the splendor of the world she lives in, and a statistically impossible third half from the simple love that two people find while not looking for it. It celebrates the American obsession with royalty so plainly and without pretense. It is a royalty without crowns or titles, a royalty with no pomp or circumstance, but a royalty of immense wealth and taste.

Sabrina (Hepburn) watches the fancy parties held at the Larrabee estate from the outside. It’s a perfect representation of her station in life – the chauffeur’s daughter living on the grounds but not a part of the family. She lives so close to wealth, but she can never touch it herself. She also can’t touch David (William Holden), the younger, mercurial brother of the family who whisks his flirtations off to the indoor tennis court with a bottle of champagne and fickle intentions. After being sent off to Paris to learn cooking (in a school which conveniently overlooks the Eiffel Tower), Sabrina returns home a woman, and finds her unrequited love for David finally requited at the worst possible time. Since it’ll disrupt his multi-million-dollar merger, Linus (Humphrey Bogart) gets David out of the way (by suggesting he sit on some champagne glasses) and starts dating her himself in order to get her on a boat back to Paris.

There’s a rare phenomenon in movie-making where all the right elements come together to make a spectacularly bad movie. When it happens, all audiences can do is throw their hands in the air and question how a thing like that could happen. How do you get a visionary director, a cast with an Oscar winner and several rising stars and still end up with The Black Dahlia? It makes no sense.

But even rarer is the opposite: a movie where the wrong elements come together to make something fantastic. Sabrina is that movie.

By all accounts, Billy Wilder may have been the only director to direct this version of Samuel Taylor’s play because Wilder is the only director in history that could have Audrey Hepburn committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning and have it come off as witty and demure. There’s even a cutesy laugh moment when she’s writing her to-the-point suicide note to her father. However, as a romantic comedy, there’s nothing standard about it.

Humphrey Bogart is eyebrow raising-ly miscast here, and not because of his age, but because of his attitude. He walks through the script as if Sabrina were about to get on a plane headed away from a Nazi-controlled hill of beans. He just can’t shake his noir sensibilities, so every line comes out like a punch to the gut (which, arguably, is sometimes necessary when falling in love).

It’s also interesting to see William Holden playing the youthful playboy by way of a mid-life crisis. His character David has been married three times, he doesn’t seem to have a job to speak of, and he is still pulling the same meet-me-in-the-indoor-tennis-courts romance gag on women he meets at parties (even when he’s in an Arthur-esque arranged engagement for the business’s sake). If you think about it a second too long, his character is a pathetic loser with Gob-levels of arrested development, but Holden still manages to be winning somehow (probably in the same way he manages to be sexy two decades later in Network). Science has no answer for any of this.

Then there’s Hepburn. Born on May 4th, 1929, she was forced to become an actor to save her life during the Nazi occupation of Holland where she became Edda van Heemstra in order to hide her British background. Some movie fans seem to focus on her sophisticated upbringing, but spending her formative years trying to dodge Nazi bullets and working with the resistance movement were the foremost defining eras of her early life. When she took that skill to her profession, it was in 1951 as “Hotel Receptionist” in a flick called One Wild Oat. That same year, she had a small, pivotal role in The Lavender Hill Mob. Two years later, she cemented her place as a star in Roman Holiday and followed it up a year later as Sabrina. She was the ideal ingenue. Innocent yet fiesty, strong but fragile. She exuded an effortless vulnerability that made you want to scoop her up, teach her how to speak proper English and take care of her for the rest of her life.

Bogart didn’t think she could act. When asked about working with her, he famously said, “It’s okay, if you don’t mind to make 20 takes.” Somehow they made it through production, although Wilder faced massive script problems, Bogart (who was a last ditch replacement for Cary Grant) could barely stand the people he was working with, and the production at one point hung on Bogart’s willingness to apologize for yelling at screenwriter Ernest Lehman when he didn’t have a rewritten copy to give the actor.

However, the production did cast one element correctly: a celebration of opulence. The manor they shot as the Larrebee estate is the size of a small town (and the first character we’re introduced to), all the clothing is top drawer, all the actors are unbelievably attractive, and Linus Larrabee has every modern gadget that one of the wealthiest men in the world could ask for (he even has a phone in his car!).

It’s this covered base that keeps everything on solid ground. No matter what, the movie features sexy people living a wealthy life, saying witty things, and falling in love. It could have gotten everything else wrong, but Sabrina was always destined to be an escapist dream of a movie.

No one knows why Cary Grant dropped out only a week before shooting, but his involvement conjures fantasy images of how he would have played the dashing, serious, debonaire businessman Linus Larrabee. It would have been a much more enjoyable romance, but it might have meant a far less memorable movie. It’s the contradictions, all those strange puzzle pieces, coming together to make something unexpected that works because the story is about romantic tension to begin with.

Bogart didn’t hide his disdain for Holden on screen, which makes their brotherly relationship strained and dismissive. As for falling in love, Linus makes it clear from the outset that his passion is for business and the creation of new things for people to use. He has no interest for women, which is why all that dry delivery seems natural. The reason it works is because when he finally does say something heart-melting, it packs a far bigger punch than if he’d been fawning the entire time. A love-sick Romeo finding his mate is one thing, but a sarcastic deluxe model with leather exterior opening his eyes to a profound human connection is truly transformative. Our eyes light up at his kindness along with Hepburn (whose eyes manage to get somehow larger).

The reason the movie works is because none of it should work. Billy Wilder was a master of this – never forcing pieces into parts they didn’t fit into, he had a way of molding them or turning them over to create an entirely new picture that slowly came into focus. He has the sweetest actress writing suicide notes, a playboy laughing his way through a butt injury, and a walking puff of cigar smoke finding his heart.

How charming is that?

Next week, we’ll continue the streak of sweet romantic comedies by focusing on John Wayne in Blood Alley.

Celebrate more ancient flicks by reading more Old Ass Movies

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.