Monday, May 4, 2015

Birthday Take: Audrey Hepburn in "Sabrina" (1954)

Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Audrey Hepburn
Born: May 4, 1929
Died: January 20, 1993 (63 years old)
Nomination: Best Actress - Sabrina (nominated) as Sabrina Fairchild

The Take

When many people think of Audrey Hepburn, they think of the fashionable, perky characters that she played in films like Breakfast at Tiffany's. Many would argue the she has always been a fashion icon. However, this wasn't true. While Roman Holiday made her launch into iconography, she didn't necessarily have an outfit that she wore that became visual lexicon for a generation. Instead, it came from the least likely of sources. Director Billy Wilder was a director whose work can be best described as dramatic comedy, rarely veering away from dark subject matter. He had films like The Lost Weekend and Double Indemnity under his belt and Sunset Blvd. wasn't too far off. However, there was Sabrina in between them, which helped to turn her into an icon.

For starters, the very premise is a little stark. Hepburn starred as the young and precocious Sabrina, who meets her love after almost choking on car fumes. While the film wouldn't get nearly as dark for the rest of the film, it was a very odd way to start off a character that would go from petite and sisterly to breathtaking beauty. Even the film is apparent of this choice, as Sabrina travels overseas for culinary school only to return looking more attractive. Everyone at a dinner party is astounded by this fact and tries to not make a scene of themselves. The romance, including a briefly injured Humphrey Bogart, ensues from there.

Hepburn was at the height of her fashion icon powers. In the aforementioned scene, she wore a backless black dress that would be simple and elegant by later standards she would display. However, it emphasized her growth into a mature woman, even at the age of 25. It made sense why she became sensational despite having a very odd romantic plot with the noticeably older Bogart. In typical Wilder fashion, she remained just as comedic in the face of the dark plot, even once singing "Yes Sir, We Have No Bananas" aboard a boat. The conflict remains taut and while it maintained a cliche standard of older men/younger woman dynamic, it brought about a chance that would two years later in War and Peace show Hepburn's outfits continue to get bigger and more beautiful.

For now, Hepburn managed to fit into Wilder's camp with such ease that it was easy to overlook the darker moments in the film. While she had won an Oscar previously for Roman Holiday, a film which is arguably more revered, she earned her second here and maintained the charisma that she would carry throughout her career. She would even team up again with William Holden for the meta comedy Paris When It Sizzles. While that film wasn't nearly as successful in capturing the chemistry, it did maintain that Hepburn had a sense of humor about herself and was up for doing anything. 

So while many would argue that Sabrina isn't the best Hepburn movie, it is one of importance when discussing her role in pop culture. She went from a young actress to something more intriguing over the course of the film. The dinner party scene alone could be seen as a commentary that would play out following the film's release in which her clothing became a fashion statement. Thankfully, she maintained her charisma along the way and even became more versatile as she became more famous. However, for a performer on the verge of superstar in the decade to follow, this is a film that holds up as more than eye candy. It is just a very strong story from a director known for making lots of them.

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