not in our stars, but in ourselves
Unrequited love among and around aristocrats has taken over my heart and soul, thanks to Onegin, so thankfully TCM was around to help me steer into the skid by airing Sabrina last night. I’d seen it before, albeit long ago, so it was interesting to rewatch it – especially since I am, at present, adrift in Russian tragedy.
Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) is the shy daughter of the chauffeur to the Larrabee family. For as long as she’s been aware of such things, she’s been in love with David Larrabee (William Holden). He’s a reckless, if terribly charming, playboy, and he hardly notices Sabrina mooning over him. The night before Sabrina is meant to leave for culinary school in Paris, she grows so despondent that she tries to kill herself by turning on all eight of the Larrabees’ cars in the garage over which she and her father live. Linus Larrabee (Humphrey Bogart), David’s older and wiser brother, finds her and saves her. She goes to Paris, befriends an elderly baron in her class (as you do), and blossoms into a chic sophisticate. After two years, she returns home – glamorous in Givenchy gowns and suits – and catches David’s eye at last. He is, inconveniently, engaged to the pretty daughter of a wealthy family with a lot of sugarcane farms. Mother and Father Larrabee aren’t about to allow David to throw away what is essentially a business merger – particularly not for the sake of a servant’s daughter – so Linus works on getting Sabrina to transfer her affections to him. The trouble is that it works, and both brothers are in love (or something) with Sabrina, while she wrestles with her lifelong adoration of David and her newfound respect for Linus. All’s well that ends well, however, and David helps Linus to realize that Sabrina is the right one for him. They sail off to Paris together, and live happily ever after, probably.
I love Billy Wilder. I think he’s one of the best directors ever to have worked in Hollywood, and one of the most incisive (and funny) screenwriters to have worked anywhere. I think Sabrina is a fine, enjoyable film, and even quite touching at times. Nevertheless, I think I’d have to rate it a bit lower than some of Wilder’s others, even if they were slight and silly (like The Seven Year Itch, for instance.) Why is that? Well, I hate to utter such blasphemy, but I just don’t find Audrey Hepburn that interesting to watch. She’s too beautiful. She’s too graceful. She’s too pure. Hepburn the person was, by all accounts, friendly and charming and generous; Hepburn the actress is – in everything I’ve seen, anyway – more of an ideal of a woman than anything else. Make no mistake: Hepburn is about as good as the role allows, often bringing depth and soul to Sabrina’s pain, but the role is sort of a cipher. What does she really want? What does she really like about David, other than his golden-boy good looks and charm? What does she want out of life? What does she think about the elder Larrabees’ contempt for her efforts to secure David, based mostly on the fact that she’s from the wrong class? To bring up The Seven Year Itch again: Marilyn Monroe’s character is simply called The Girl, for god’s sake, and she’s more nuanced and interesting than the titular character here.
The politics of the whole thing, on that note, seems strange to me. Well, maybe not “strange,” but classist and conservative in the extreme. In some sense, sure, it’s a Cinderella story: the servant’s daughter scores the wealthy “prince” of a manufacturing kingdom. But at least in Cinderella’s case, she’s aided by a fairy godmother who simply weaves a magic spell. Cinderella isn’t beholden to her, and is free to follow through on her night as the belle of the ball as she pleases (and as glass slippers allow). In Sabrina’s case, however, she’s never not indebted to a more powerful man. Her father is the one who sends her away to Paris (to learn to cook, because all women should know how to cook). The eccentric baron is the one who teaches her about culture and fashion. Linus is the one who, essentially, manipulates her so much that she falls in love with him; it’s quite a stroke of luck that he happens to fall in love with her as well, because his actions would seem pretty dastardly otherwise. What’s the message here? Stay in your place unless and until a man helps you to advance? Titans of industry are terrific people? I realize I’m viewing this through a pretty unforgiving lens, but I felt so strange about the underlying messages the movie was trying to send.
Still, it was the 1950s. We can’t hold too many things against these people. Wilder was often able to conjure up great female characters and thoroughly subversive themes – but the era was, by and large, hostile to such things. Hepburn’s chemistry with Holden – chemistry that spilled over into real life – is absolutely terrific. Bogart wasn’t happy about being Wilder’s second choice, after Cary Grant, for the role of Linus. Nor did he enjoy working with Hepburn or Holden. Despite all this behind-the-scenes drama, he makes Linus awfully sweet. Who would ever have thought Bogie could play sweet? True, he seems closer in age to his onscreen parents than to Sabrina; but perhaps he called on his memories of courting the then-19-year-old Lauren Bacall a decade earlier, and managed to avoid acting like a creep in his quiet courtship of the elegant Miss Fairchild.
As I continue to reel from the all-too-relatable evocation of unrequited, failed, soul-crushing love in Onegin (this is why I need to watch movies only, and not live performance: it’s too heartbreaking not to be able to rewatch something I love again and again), I was temporarily relieved to see a nice story about a youthful infatuation with a happy ending. We may not all get our golden boys, but sometimes, we get something a bit more solid and secure. It may not always be romantic, but it’s much likelier to lead to lasting happiness.