Sabrina (1954)

Paramount

“Sabrina,” Billy Wilder’s reworking of the familiar Cinderella story, is extremely charming due to the winning performances of the three central actors: Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, and especially Audrey Hepburn, in her only second starring role.

It just happened that all three actors have been recent Oscar winners: Bogart in 1951 for “The African Queen,” William Holden for “Stalag 17” (also by Wilder), and Audrey Hepburn for “Roman Holiday.”

Bogart and Holden might have been too old to play the competing siblings, Linus and David Larrabee, but they both give authoritative performances, especially Bogart as the older brother, in an atypical comedy role that showed a different facet of his multi-talents.

The script is an adaptation of Samuel Taylor’s popular stage play, “Sabrina Fair,” which had starred the incomparable Margaret Sullavan in the Hepburn role.  Wilder and co-scribe Ernest Lehman (who later did great work for Hitchcock) focus on the dialogue and characterizations of the triangle rather than on plot, which is rather thin.

Holden and Bogart are the wealthy sons of Hampden and Walker. A playboy, Holden’s David lives for fast cars and women; Bogart’s Linus is a hard-headed businessman. Also living on the estate are John Williams, the chauffeur, and his young, naive daughter, Sabrina (Hepburn).

At first, Sabrina is smitten with the suave Holden, though he scarcely notices that she even exists.  Sabrina attempts suicide, when she realizes he’s only toying with her. Daddy Williams then sends Sabrina to Paris, where she is transformed into a sophisticated lady.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Bogart seeks to enhance the family’s wealth by marrying Holden off to heiress Elizabeth Tyson (cold fish Martha Hyer).  Sabrina returns to Long Island, and once Holden gets a look her new personality, he falls for her.

Sabrina is determined to win him, but Bogart is determined to prevent the match. To take her mind off Holden, old bachelor Bogart pretends to be courting her.  The rest is an enchanting Hollywood fairy tale.

A commercial hit at the box office, “Sabrina” was also well received by the critics and Academy voters (see below).

Edith Head received yet another Oscar for costume design for Sabrina,” but it was designer Hubert de Givenchy who deserved the credit for Audrey’s infamous black dress. 

The cocktail number with the boat-neck cut is undoubtedly the most influential dress for style. This film established Hepburn’s popular gamine look.  “Sabrina” marked the first of a lifelong collaboration between Givenchy and Hepburn, a coupling that later worker magic in “Funny Face,” Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Two for the Road,” among others.

Oscar Nominations: 6

Director: Billy Wilder

Actress: Audrey Hepburn

Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Samuel Taylor, and Ernest Lehman

Cinematography (b/w): Charles Lang, Jr.

Art Direction-Set Decoration (b/w): Hal Pereira and Walter Tyler; Sam Comer and Ray Moyer

Costume Design: Edith Head

Oscar Awards: 1

Costume Design

Oscar Context:

This was the fifth of Edith Head’s eight Oscars, though Hubert de Givenchy, Hepburn’s favorite designer, should get credit too.

In 1954, Grace Kelly won the Best Actress for “The Country Girl,” which also won the Screenplay Oscar for director George Seaton.  “On the Waterfront” won Best Director, Cinematography for Boris Kaufman, and Art Director for Richard Day.

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