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"Once upon a time, on the North Shore of Long Island...there lived a small girl on a very large estate." So begins Sabrina (1954), an enchanting fairy tale about a chauffeur's daughter in love with the younger son of the master of the estate. Sabrina goes to Paris and comes back a polished princess, but her fairy tale has some romantic complications on its way to an unexpected, but happy ending. However, the complications during the creation of this romantic fantasy were sometimes more nightmare than fairy tale.
British ingenue Audrey Hepburn had become a worldwide sensation in her first American film, Roman Holiday (1953). Sabrina, based on Samuel Taylor's Broadway hit, Sabrina Fair, would be the follow-up, and Paramount assigned it to Billy Wilder, one of their top directors. Wilder wanted Cary Grant to play the stuffy older brother Linus, who woos Sabrina in order to distract her from the unsuitable romance with his irresponsible brother David. Grant was unavailable, and Humphrey Bogart, who had just signed a three-picture deal with Paramount, was chosen to play Linus. To play David, Wilder selected William Holden, who had won an Oscar for his performance in Wilder's Stalag 17 (1953). Location shooting would take place on the Long Island estate of Paramount chairman Barney Balaban.
Bogart and Wilder were both used to having their own way, and they clashed immediately. Bogart came into the film already resentful, because he knew he was second choice. He disliked Wilder's autocratic style of directing, and resented the director's closeness to the younger, handsomer Holden, and Wilder's obvious affection for the charming Hepburn. Bogart's resentment boiled over when the trio began having cocktails in Holden's trailer. Wilder later said that there was no slight intended; he just forgot to invite Bogart. On the set, Bogart mocked Wilder's Viennese accent, calling him a "Nazi son of a bitch," and a "kraut bastard." Wilder, a Jew, was deeply offended, and retaliated with some insults of his own. The atmosphere was acrimonious all during production. After Sabrina wrapped, Wilder and Bogart patched up their differences. When Bogart was dying of cancer a few years later, Wilder paid him a final visit, and Bogart apologized. Although he had called Bogart "evil, a bore, a coward," Wilder would later admit, "he was very good, better than he thought he was. He liked to play the hero, and in the end, he was."
Wilder had his own problems during the making of Sabrina. He was in pain from a back problem, and he and writer Ernest Lehman were barely keeping up with rewrites during production. On at least one occasion, when he didn't have enough new pages for that day's work, he asked Hepburn to feign illness so the rest of the day's shooting would be cancelled, giving him time to do more rewrites. Hepburn did as she was told, even though it made her appear difficult or unprofessional.
Meanwhile, Hepburn and Holden were also playing out a personal drama. The long-married Holden routinely had affairs with his co-stars, and he was immediately attracted to Hepburn, becoming protective of her when Bogart disparaged her. Soon, they embarked on a passionate romance, and Hepburn hoped to marry Holden and have children with him. However, Holden had had a vasectomy after his two sons were born, and he knew his wife would not give him a divorce. The affair ended as soon as shooting was completed.
Hepburn began another relationship during the making of Sabrina, however, that would last a lifetime. Paramount costume designer Edith Head, who had designed her costumes for Roman Holiday, would only provide Hepburn's everyday wardrobe in Sabrina. Wilder wanted Sabrina to return from France with an elegant wardrobe, and sent Hepburn to see the hottest young designer in Paris, Hubert de Givenchy. When Hepburn arrived, Givenchy's assistant told him "Miss Hepburn" was waiting to see him. The designer assumed it was Katharine Hepburn, whom he admired, and his disappointment was obvious. However, the disappointment didn't last long. He told Hepburn to choose what she wanted from his latest collection, and was impressed by her fashion sense. She asked him to modify one evening dress to hide her prominent collarbone, which he did. The style became so popular that it came to be known as the "Sabrina neckline." They became close friends, and Givenchy would provide Hepburn's personal wardrobe for the rest of her life as well as design clothes for most of her films.
None of the difficulties during production showed in the finished product, a film as frothy and delicate as the souffles Sabrina learns to make. The New York Times called Sabrina "the most delightful comedy-romance in years." The film was a worldwide hit, and retains its freshness, wit and elegance after more than 50 years. Hepburn, who won the Oscar® for Roman Holiday, would be nominated again for Sabrina, one of six nominations the film received. It won only one, for costume design. Although Edith Head won the Oscar® based on Givenchy's costumes, he was not credited, and she accepted the award without mentioning him. Hepburn was devastated, and called Givenchy to apologize. She promised the designer that it would never happen again. According to Givenchy, she kept that promise.
Producer/Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Samuel Taylor, Ernest Lehman, based on the play Sabrina Fair by Samuel Taylor
Cinematography: Charles Lang, Jr.
Editor: Arthur Schmidt
Costume Design: Edith Head, Hubert de Givenchy (uncredited)
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler
Music: Frederick Hollander
Principal Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Linus Larrabee), Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina Fairchild), William Holden (David Larrabee), Walter Hampden (Oliver Larrabee), John Williams (Thomas Fairchild), Martha Hyer (Elizabeth Tyson), Marcel Dalio (Baron), Marcel Hillaire (the Professor), Nella Walker (Maude Larrabee).
BW-114m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri