Sabrina (Billy Wilder, 1954)

In 1954, Audrey Hepburn was at the start of a run that saw some of her most popular roles, having been nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Funny Face the year before and also winning a Tony Award for her title role in the stage production of Ondine in 1954. Sabrina’s release saw her cement her position as a global star, providing an Academy Award nomination for her role, a win for the costume design for Edith Head [1] and garnering critical and commercial success worldwide. 

[SPOILER ALERT] 

The following paragraph summarises the synopsis, but potentially has spoilers for the first fifty minutes of the film. I’ve not seen the trailer, but I imagine it reveals more. Also, the film was released 61 years ago, so it’s hard to complain about spoilers. Skip it if you’re concerned. 

Audrey Hepburn stars as title character Sabrina Fairchild, the young daughter of the chauffer to the Larrabee family. Sabrina has been in love with the playboy David Larrabee (William Holden) all her life, despite the fact he barely notices her. Sabrina begrudgingly agrees to go to Paris to attend a culinary school, but on her return two years later she is a completely changed woman, full of style, charm and sophistication. Inevitably, David immediately takes notice, and his attraction to Sabrina jeopardises a pre-arranged marriage that has been organised to benefit the family business, much to the dismay of workaholic older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart), who formulates a plan to get the deal back on track.

[SPOILERS DONE]

It marked the first time Hepburn had worked with Billy Wilder, who was one of the most prominent film directors at the time. By this point he’d already notched up Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace In The Hole (1951) and Stalag 17 (1953), amongst others. His films had by this time won 8 Academy Awards and been nominated an additional 28 times. Ultimately, Sabrina would prove to be equally popular, adding an additional win and three further nominations to his belt.

The successes were completely justified. Wilder may be on comfortable territory with a fairly standard love triangle, but few director-screenwriters could inject so much life into the script. If you want to see Wilder capturing Hepburn at her most playfully charming, there are few finer examples than her journey back from the airport with Holden’s David. It’s perfectly written and delivered and is one of the film’s many highlights.

Much has been made of Bogart’s awkwardness on set. He was one of the most established actors in Hollywood and at the time was still one of the biggest box office draws. He frequently had disagreements with Wilder and Holden, and later publicly denounced Audrey Hepburn’s acting ability. The friction doesn’t really transfer to the screen, with all the actors apparently on top of their game. 

The only thing that stands out is the age of the actors in the love triangle. William Holden was 36, Hepburn 24 and Bogart 54. I agree to the much-discussed theory that Holden would have been better as the older brother Linus, with a younger actor appearing as David. Holden had proved to Wilder his depth as an actor in both Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17 and by comparison the character of David seems a little shallow. He handles it well, but age-wise having Sabrina fall in love with a man 30 years her senior seems unusual.

Sabrina has been remembered as one of Audrey Hepburn’s finest moments. It’s a quintessential part of her filmography: she was in the process of becoming a star, was able to show off her acting ability, had one of the greatest directors of all time directing her and was wearing de Givenchy’s costumes for the first time. If you’ve seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady, then this is your next stop.

Sabrina can be purchased as part of the Hepburn Collection Blu-Ray boxset.

[1] The costumes that Audrey Hepburn wears are absolutely beautiful, much like the actress herself. Edith Head was credited with the Academy Award for Best Costumes, but there is an ongoing suggestion that they were mainly created by Hubert de Givenchy. Both were adamant that they were responsible for the costume design until their deaths, though the fact that de Givenchy became Hepburn’s go-to costume designer for much of her career suggests it is more than likely that Head had little involvement with her clothing. Whilst there were many other characters to dress, the Oscar was clearly given as a merit to Hepburn’s memorable costumes.

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