Actress Files: Audrey Hepburn
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(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 wayI 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 therec'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 Coeurwe'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 thatin 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