Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Actress Files: Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn, Sabrina
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1954 Best Actress Oscar to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl)

Why I Waited: As regular readers will already know, I wasn't much of a convert to Hepburn's cause until recently, and I'm still suspicious of Wilder. Those biases account for some heel-dragging on Sabrina. But really, once I realized that Garland vs. Kelly would be a perfect way to finish this project, the idea of saving a third nominee from the same high-caliber field was impossible to resist.

The Performance: When I began this final tour through the Ghosts of Best Actresses Past with Betty Compson in April, Audrey Hepburn was the only performer with more than one entry outstanding on the list of 41 nominations I then had left to screen. I am so glad I saw The Nun's Story first, since I was so taken with and surprised by her work as Sister Luke that Sabrina became a real event for me to look forward to, and not just a coattail pre-show for the Garland vs. Kelly rematch that I'm about to investigate. Watching in reverse would not have worked in the same way—I was not nearly so bowled over by Sabrina that it would have magnificently whetted my appetite for The Nun's Story. The performances exist at entirely different planes of ambition and accomplishment. Still, in some ways, it's equally impressive to find that, in a single year, Hepburn passed from being an elegant but rather mute icon of demure femininity in Roman Holiday to being the more plausible woman and the cleverer, more gently risk-taking actress that we find in Sabrina. It's not a performance for the annals but it's a noteworthy step in the right direction, and though I haven't seen any of the four movies Hepburn filmed between this one and The Nun's Story (to include War and Peace, Love in the Afternoon, the suspicious Green Mansions, or the promising Funny Face), the prospect of watching her artistic education transpire across that span of work suddenly acquires a genuine appeal. Even if it turns out to be a comparatively fallow run, I will officially be rooting for her.

Now, rest assured that when I say "more plausible woman," I am speaking in matters of degree only. Sabrina Fairchild has a few more dimensions than Princess Ann of Europia (capital: Poise City, pop. 1), but she is nevertheless a denizen of eager Hollywood fantasy, a chauffeur's daughter who lives with her father above the garage of the fabulously wealthy Larrabee family, pining for the less reputable of its two scions, the golden-haired ladies' man David (William Holden). As a reluctant alternative to suicide, once she has realized that David will never in a million years acknowledge her, Sabrina relocates to Paris where she becomes a singularly bad student of cooking. Then she meets a puckish, Edmund Gwenn-y Baron in her class. This gentleman kindly instructs her that if she wants her soufflé to rise, she'll need to turn on her oven... but he also recognizes her peculiar distractedness as a symptom of unrequited love. What a difference a sentimental, potentially patronizing remark from one slumming member of the landed gentry can make! Before we know it, Sabrina has returned to Long Island, so chicly dressed and coiffed that her own father has nearly as much difficulty recognizing her as does David , who nonetheless rises much, much more quickly in response to Sabrina than her soufflés ever did. If you get my drift. And I'm sure you do.

If the movie had been made in France instead of just taking a sojourn there—c'est à dire, in a culinary academy with a direct view of the Eiffel Tower, and in a student's appartement that gives onto Montmartre and Sacre Coeur—we'd have had a fighting chance that Sabrina's return to the Larrabees' lavish estate would occasion a tart but tasty revenge scenario, in which the most comely woman in the world finally snares the eye of a man who never batted a lash at her in 20 years, only to expose his comically rote seduction routine and leave him with no skirt left to chase. During a long outdoor party sequence just after Sabrina's return, she nods with eager approval at every turn in David's Manual of Flirting, even providing him with a few of his own customary prompts, gleaned from years of watching him lure other girls into the private tennis court for the identical menu of champagne and kisses. It's odd that Sabrina so clearly tips her hand, at least to those of us in the audience, that she knows David's enthusiasm for her is wholly generic. Indeed, she is only too willing to be marched through the pre-set choreography. She harbors no ambitions of exploding his overtures from within, and if anything, she seems all too happy to incur the same responses as all those gigglier, blonder, and wealthier girls have done forever. If anyone is scheming, it's David's older, more responsible brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart), already inheriting the lion's share of the family business from their father, and swiftly cognizant that the Larrabees will never allow a marriage between their scintillating son, even if he is an empty-headed ne'er-do-well, and the daughter of the paid help. After David sidelines himself with an injury that could only arise in a Billy Wilder film (I'll leave you to discover it, and the parade of double entendres that surround it), Linus intercedes to escort Sabrina around the town, around the harbor, to the theater, and atop the corporate headquarters. He means to stultify her with the sexless, prosaic facts of his rich industrialist's life and, by extension, to wean her of her affection for David, who besides being so callow is also already engaged.

If I'm allowing more plot summary than I'd normally want to, it's because Sabrina itself stays so oddly fixated on its plot, even though it's so comically, archetypally predetermined that you've predicted the whole thing within 15 minutes. Wilder's direction affords some charm to the platoon of chauffeurs, butlers, maids, and other staff who track Sabrina's early heartbreak and her sublime self-reinvention, with the eccentric spiritedness of a Preston Sturges chorus. And yet, his direction of Sabrina seems no less cowed than his co-authored script when it comes to really engaging the withering, entrenched snobbism of the Larrabees, a pivotal plot element and core thematic axiom from which Wilder nonetheless keeps diverting our attention. He's also weirdly unsuccessful in coaxing Bogart into the tonalities of light romantic banter, or folding him into the prevailing aesthetic of glossy elegance. Rarely, in fact, have I seen a superstar leading man in an erstwhile romantic comedy look so haggard, and so very tentative about the genre. You can put him in a white tuxedo coat but you can't efface the signs of illness or idiomatic mismatch. I was frankly just as spooked by how shrunken and drawn Wilder allows Bogie to look here as I was by any of Montgomery Clift's post-accident apparitions in films like Raintree County, even if Bogie's dwindling follows more of a natural human cycle. Give or take the ocean of whiskey.

Add all that together, and you can see how Hepburn could get trapped playing another alabaster mannequin, alongside a co-star who's clearly the worse for wear and in a film that keeps pussy-footing around its own thematic thrusts. Sabrina is so god-damned gorgeous, you'd think Hal Pereira and Edith Head invented black & white themselves, amidst some lustrous moment of Olympian inspiration, but this, too, could have backfired against the actress, particularly for any audiences hoping to see her transcend the confines of glassy, desexualied, art-directed splendor. Hepburn's immaculate posture actually does allow the sublime visual scheme to work, since an actress of less refinement might have made the glamor of the film seem overbearing, or nakedly compensatory of other flaws. But the real gifts of the performance, proscribed though they are by an undemandingly written role, center around the frankly unnerving presence she brings to her early scenes as David's stalking admirer and the sophisticated lightness with which she floats the main line of the film, shaped around Sabrina's swannishly revised alter ego. Early signals are actually a bit grim in these regards, since Hepburn narrates the opening voice-over with much more insufferable "polish" than it requires. Her affectedly snooty vowels are a bit much even for a character we know is scheduled for a midfilm reinvention, talking about the groundskeepers who "scraype the buttums" of the Larrabees' boats and about their coddled goldfish named "Joje"—not just a different inflection but a phonetic world away from anything one might pronounce as "George." She's got all these Billy Wilder quips and barbs to read, about how David amounts to little more than a $600 deduction on Linus's taxes, and how Linus himself was voted by his fellow Yalies as "Most Likely to Leave His Alma Mater Fifty Million Dollars," but she sounds worryingly incapable of having any fun with them.

It makes for a fun twist, then, that the way Hepburn brings some spirit into the film after this cheeky but oddly flat introduction is not by letting her hair down or unleashing her charms but by being a bit spooky. She hides in dark copses and lurks outside of windows while spying on David, and that's all down to the scenario and the photography, but Hepburn gives Sabrina a kind of Ninotchka solemnity that works as a very dry joke while also fairly capturing the character's adolescent envy and discontent. You know Wilder, the hard-hearted bastard, just loves his suicide jokes, but when Sabrina writes some parting words to her father ("P.S. Don't have David at the funeral. He probably won't even cry"), Hepburn gets a chuckle out of the flawless lines of Sabrina's body. She moves like a prima ballerina even as she's sporting as dour a mask as her face can manage, and looking very miserable indeed, in the manner of a six-year-old who sits all day on the front stoop with a lunch box, threatening to run away forever. This almost alien level of composure might seem like an impregnable fact of being Audrey Hepburn, but she has strategically robotized her pace and her gait and has settled on the perfect, funny-to-everyone-but-Sabrina expression of teenaged fatalism. We can see, through the subtlest of intimations, that she has settled on this hyperbolic equipoise as her best, ironic tactic for triumphing over a looming scene that only Wilder would throw up as a ghoulish obstacle for one of his own comedies, as Sabrina attempts to gas herself with the exhaust of eight running cars. When comedy works, even very dry and wordless comedy, it works. And this works, right down to Hepburn's Héloise et Abelard way of sliding down the wall curving into some kind of daft communion with the inner wall of the garage.

Try this for two hours, though, and an audience would fairly get tired, so I was as relieved as anyone when Marcel Dalio's Baron finally got Sabrina to crack a smile. This smile serves Hepburn wonderfully for most of the rest of the film. A particularly extravagant version of it greets David's unrecognizing response to her at the Long Island depot, suggesting more clearly than the script does that Sabrina is both delighted to enjoy his long dreamed-of attentions and also having an immediate, inward laugh at his obsequious buffoonishness. Sabrina seems to want to be a comedy, sort of, but the focus or intensity of its comic aims are rendered unclear by the fact that not much that's funny actually happens in it. The script gets its share of scrumptious screwball utterances ("All columnists should be beaten to a pulp and converted back into paper!") and some good situational humor, as when Linus, the decent but totally closed-off capitalist, entertains himself at cocktail parties by demonstrating how his latest line of clear plastic squares don't even scorch when you set them on fire. If you're scratching your head, I admit that even this wouldn't be funny if Wilder didn't fold it casually into the background of an elegant shot; this is just what Linus does, while other people gossip or preen or grab for the hors d'oeuvres. In these and other scenes, though, William Holden is a fine but fairly blank pretty-boy flunky as David, and as I've said, Bogart seems a out-of-sorts with his part, maybe even with the whole script. So among the leads, Hepburn is the only one who seems to find the register of winsome, winking pleasantness that Sabrina can reach more easily than it can grasp more recognizable "comedy." She finds ways of chuckling on a sailing date with Linus and of engaging him in fond conversation, especially after-hours in his office, that give Sabrina as well as Sabrina some spontaneity, lightness, and attractive charge. Without denying the utter artificiality of the scenario, the music, and the visual style, she's the person on screen who seems to breathe like a human, and to believe in what her character believes.

I was pleased that, in so believing, she doesn't move to save Sabrina from what the audience, along with the character's father (wonderfully etched by John Williams), might well see as the moral error of being only too happy to be loved by David so long as she's imposed a veneer of swanky cosmopolitanism over her wage-earning origins. A safer actress would steal some looks, nibble her lip, or insert some awkward pauses to let us know that Sabrina is always troubled by the way she's letting herself become the latest in David's line of sexy flings. But Hepburn shows us a woman who's blithely willing to be just that—in full awareness, too, of that fiancée of David's waiting in the wings, and sometimes right in center stage. By the same token, having come deceptively close to Scarlet Woman status, this impossibly lean gamine is not in the ideal position to be shocked or appalled when she eventually finds out that the Larrabees, even the one who seems to love her most, are ready to ship her off, quite literally, so as to avoid the stain of the non-aristocracy. Hepburn has the grace not to seize a flagrant moral authority that isn't really Sabrina's to seize, even though she very smoothly, tacitly, and affectingly shows us how the air gets sucked out of Sabrina's lungs when confronted with a truth that hasn't, frankly, been all that hard to guess.

It's odd to me that I'm expending as many words on Hepburn's classy, sensible, but still slightly green approach to the modest requirements of Sabrina as I did on her grave, shaken, breathtakingly mature work in The Nun's Story. However much they are qualified by the short-cuts in the script, her own simplicities as an actress, and her second-billing in some respects to the fabulousness of what she wears, her successes as Sabrina are not the kind that deepen or improve the movie so much as they allow it to work. Would, though, that all actors had the strong, clear, spring-water gifts that allow a star vehicle to work, gifts that do require some effort and some intelligent parsing, not just beauty and charisma. A film like Sabrina can easily go adrift, implying perpetually that it's meant to orbit some nexus of charm that no one in the audience can actually detect (see: The Moon Is Blue). So, when this sort of movie holds up, even while flirting with nuances and darker sides that it disappointingly refuses to plumb, it's worth poking around to see whose hands have kept it steady and seaworthy. The designers are aces, but the world they create could be swiftly sunk without any intriguing people to inhabit it. Wilder and his co-writers supply most of what's best in Sabrina but are also responsible for that which is most evasive, distasteful, or inadequate. Hepburn betrays little sense of genius or creative autonomy by 1954, especially compared to an undeniable talent like Wilder, but she's a savvy student and vessel for her irascible director, and may even have better intuitions than he does about what the audience wants and what the material needs in a case like this. She isn't yet a fully realized thespian, but she's convincingly cast as someone special, and without chickening away from Wilder's morbid impulses, she warms this cool film considerably. She, more than anyone, turns an uneven, ambivalent lark into a modest but real pleasure.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 2 to Go

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13 Comments:

Blogger Fritz said...

Lovely movie and lovely performance.

Can't wait to hear your thoughts on Kelly and Garland (at the moment, I support Kelly because I never liked Judy Garland and remember not being very impressed with her when I watched the movie first. But this was YEARS ago so maybe my opnion has changed).

3:15 AM, June 08, 2010  
Blogger Guy said...

I actively love Sabrina, and I'd never have have come up with quite such an imposing word count for it. You nail what seems alternately fresh and naïve about the film today -- without once needing to resort to potshots at that hopelessly twee 1995 remake (have you seen it?) -- though I must disagree with you about Bogart.

For me, his slight discomfort with the rhythms of the material -- manifesting itself even in his uncharacteristically sketchy physical presence on screen -- is actually a boon to the performance, making Linus more accessible than he might have been. I find it so easy to imagine, say, Cary Grant fussily faking his awkwardness, not believing it for a second, had the film been made a decade later, that I'm glad Wilder cast the role so sadistically.

Meanwhile, I'm glad you're coming round -- albeit with understandable reservations -- to Audrey. I'm interested that you single out her comedy-resisting earnestness here, since I think that's the precise quality that works in those performances of hers you dislike ... even when she's doing "kooky" as Holly Golightly, I never lose the sense that she (the actress, yes, but Holly too) is working quite hard to play kooky, and I find that rather moving.

I'm thrilled that you still have Funny Face ahead, as I recently discovered it for myself and found it capital-G Gorgeous -- no breakthrough for the actress, but more exquisitely designed and imaginatively visualized than any equivalent musical I've seen of the 1950s. And dare I say you might find yourself surprised by Love in the Afternoon, which I remember finding more wistful and woozy than the Wilder we know and (only some of us) love.

Sorry for the long comment, but I'm just following your lead!

5:27 AM, June 08, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

Like Guy, I also like Bogie in this. It's one of my favorite of his performances (though that isn't a huge statement since I am not really a Bogie person)

and though I don't share all of your reservations about Hepburn, you describe them exquisitely well.

I'm curious about your obvious anti-Wilder stance though since he has so many great films. I loved the way he approached the background visual gag(s?) here... but it's been a long while since i've seen it.

meanwhile in AUDREY land... I am desperate to see GREEN MANSIONS no matter how bad it is (i'm waiting for a good opportunity at film forum or something) because when i was a kid i just adored the book.

7:39 AM, June 08, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i should also say that I'm really looking forward to the Garland writeup... not really because I love the film & performance (which i do) but because I'm curious how someone who doesn't have a personal attachment to the movie musical genre like yourself, parses a very musical performance.

7:42 AM, June 08, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

I recently watched Sabrina mostly because I hate almost always not having seen the performance you comment on.

I liked the movie and I liked Hepburn in it. I would probably give her 3.5 stars. I thought she was impressively precise and a joy to watch (not only for the obvious reasons).

Although I know what you are referring to when you say "After David sidelines himself", I honestly don't get the "that could only arise in a Billy Wilder film (I'll leave you to discover it, and the parade of double entendres that surround it)" comment.
If the explanation requires the absence of children, I will get them out of the room :p

9:43 AM, June 08, 2010  
Blogger The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

Dang Guy and Nathaniel for saying in so many words that I hoped to have written what I have summarized now in so few.

I've been a Bogart fan for over a decade and this was such a treat. So what if he doesn't turn into Cary Grant in romantic dramedies? He's not that kind of actor. Have you seen him (Bogart) kiss a girl onscreen? He totally takes over as if he built up the passion for that pivotal show of emotion before reverting back to a gruff and silent mumble. He was that kind of actor, he was that kind of man.

I am so happy that Sabrina happened.

12:21 PM, June 08, 2010  
Blogger Dan Callahan said...

I actively loathe "Sabrina" and "Love in the Afternoon," which have been in my life for as long as I can remember and get worse and nastier and more sour every time I see them. Bogart is so awful in this; he hated Wilder, even hated Audrey, and turned in such charmless, "I'm only here to get paid" work.

I'm an Audrey fan, but I'm sort of surprised you were so nice to her in this. She's exceptional, I think, in "War and Peace," and at her very best in "Funny Face," even if its anti-intellectual plotline gives me a pain.

2:19 PM, June 08, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Guy: The Bogart fans really came out! I'm all for casting the role against a kind of Cary Grant expectation; it shouldn't at all feel as though a dashing prince is hiding just underneath Linus's uncomfortable exterior. But I think Wilder photographs Bogie so harshly that he falsely equates work-mindedness and a lack of romantic passions with a kind of rough, careworn, nearly spiritless presence that puts a lot of needless pressure on the romantic resolution. I'm guilty of wanting James Mason or Fredric March cast in everything, and I am sure there are fresher alternatives, but I'd have preferred a Linus who could express some slyness or spryness, some energy that Sabrina might glean from being with him, while still seeming awkwardly detached from others, even from oneself. I don't think Bogie's performance makes as bad an impression as his alarming appearance, but for me he still seems wrong.

@Nathaniel: Wilder has a kind of Tarantino effect on me: he seems to have thought so carefully and worked so brilliantly on some aspects of his movies, and then treated others so carelessly. But where Tarantino's infatuation with his own characters can lead him to indulge them much too much, Wilder's coldness toward many of his characters can make the films seem ungenerous, and capable of a gratuitous nastiness. He also seems attracted to ambiguity and complexity, which I appreciate, but (for me) has a recurring habit of dodging the implications of those nuances with cheap jokes, harsh jibes, or borrowed visual ideas. I often say he's made more movies I love than any other director I don't really like, but there you are. We'll have more occasion to explore this in BPFTOI!

@James: I just mean that this glass-in-your-ass scenario is funny and unusual, and the actors seem to enjoy playing it (all characteristic of Wilder), but his scripts do often strike me as yearning for these kinds of humiliations and sinister injuries to inflict on the characters. Another writer-director might simply have sidelined David by involving him in his wedding plans, or having him leave the scene for some necessary reason, but Wilder likes to really stick it to him and keep him in pain, albeit comically. (There's a moment right after the injury, in the plastic hammock scene, where David is trying to think of a word that rhymes with "glass" and he and Bogie look lost in thought for a few beats, while the audience—given what's just happened, and the absurd prop of the hammock—is obviously supposed to be thinking "ass." Lots more jokes and puns like that are threaded through these scenes.)

2:51 PM, June 08, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@JAR: Again, I don't fault Humphrey Bogart for not being Cary Grant. I actually like Bogart quite a lot, and I have no problem seeing him as charismatic, compelling, even sexy in other performances. But here, his energy seems low, his sense of playfulness with lines that clearly want to be played with is heavily muffled, and he just looks adrift or cranky or aged so much of the time. It's part of why I'm reserved about how Sabrina just keeps motoring ahead with a fairly simple and predictable plot, without giving me any reason to want Sabrina to end up with the man she ends up with. And it's the actress who I see doing the work to sell the attraction and the possibility of a relationship, even though it's the male character, lazily or hesitantly acted, who already at the level of the script poses most of the problematic impediments. Let's call this the As Good As It Gets problem, though at least Linus isn't an asshole. Let's go highbrow and more morally neutral, then, and call it a Middlemarch problem: I have the same melancholy seeing Sabrina sent off with crusty, morose, and tired-looking Linus Larrabee that I do when Dorothea thinks Casaubon is her life's calling. Eliot knows this is a problem, Sabrina maybe less so. Anyway, from my seat in the audience, Bogart does nothing to ease my discomfort or advocate for the character.

@Dan: So, we're closer to agreeing on Bogie. But what do you loathe so much about Sabrina, or about Audrey in it? You're surprised I was so nice to her but I'm not sure why I shouldn't be, or why you aren't. Pipe up!

2:58 PM, June 08, 2010  
Blogger Tim said...

I think it's worth pointing out that the role of Linus was, in point of fact, written for Cary Grant, who declined.

Bogie entered the picture when Wilder, in a fit of either puckishness or peevishness, decided to see what would happen when he cast the closest thing to Cary Grant's polar opposite in the same role. Personally, I gravitate towards agreeing with Nick, but for different reasons: I simply don't think that Bogart ever shows even the slightest hint of erotic attraction towards Hepburn. Which, from where I'm standing, is quite a feat.

But it's not nearly enough to ruin one of my favorite Wilder screenplays of the '50s (which is to say, one of my favorite screenplays of the '50s in general).

7:41 PM, June 08, 2010  
Blogger Dan Callahan said...

I think you've mentioned a lot of the things I dislike about "Sabrina," but I'm especially irked by the opening attempted suicide, which has that familiar Wilder bad taste x 10, plus Bogart's disdainful, cranky presence, plus Holden's misjudged work (he's photographed as harshly as Bogie).

And Audrey; she does seem green here. She kept blowing her lines on set, which made Bogart furious, and I think some of that comes across in their interactions---she seems very oblivious and in her own charm world in a lot of this, but I can't blame her too much.

"Love in the Afternoon" is also sour and crabby---and it's 130 minutes. Gary Cooper is kept in shadows throughout because he's so old-looking next to Hepburn, and he has the same anti-chemistry with her that she had with Bogart. Hepburn kept praising Wilder in later years, but from my vantage point he tried to ruin her career with these two charmless, heavy-handed pictures!

And they're always on TV. Especially "Sabrina." I've developed an allergic reaction to it, and I'll be the first to say that it might not be too rational at this point. But I'll stand by my distaste of both.

8:40 PM, June 08, 2010  
Anonymous edward said...

Audrey Hepburn is one of my favorite actresses from yesterday. She is good in Breakfast at Tiffany. Is she related to Katrine Hepburn?

4:01 AM, July 09, 2010  
Anonymous edward said...

Audrey Hepburn is one of my favorite actresses from yesterday. She is good in Breakfast at Tiffany. Is she related to Katrine Hepburn?

4:01 AM, July 09, 2010  

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