Two Takes on Sabrina

Remakes get the shaft, man. They face the fiercest competition of all in the film world: the original. The sacred, untouchable original starring the legendary, flawless actors with the letter-perfect script and astute director. So don’t touch it, film world! But they do. And sometimes it works out okay. And sometimes it doesn’t. But there are always comparisons to the original. And while there is almost always criticism of any film, the criticism of a remake is frequently rooted in its failure to meet the standards set by that untouchable original. “The original is always better,” is often the resounding sentiment when it comes to remakes.

Sabrina tells the story of Sabrina Fairchild, the awkward daughter of a chauffeur of the wealthy Larrabee family. She’s hopelessly in love with the Larrabee’s younger son, David, a handsome, carefree playboy who barely acknowledges her existence. She goes to Paris to try to forget him, returns as a beautiful woman, and David subsequently falls in love with her. David, however, is supposed to soon be marrying the daughter of another business tycoon, and older brother Linus, the shrewd businessman, hopes the marriage will secure a merger between the two companies. To keep the marriage and merger intact, Linus intervenes and romances Sabrina–and ends up falling in love with her himself (even though he doesn’t realize it). And poor Sabrina doesn’t know which Larrabee she’s in love with anymore. It is nothing short of a modern fairy tale.

Sabrina, derived from the stage play Sabrina Fair, was twice made into a major film, in 1954 by Billy Wilder and again in 1995 by Sydney Pollack. But which take was better?

Take #1: Billy Wilder, 1954 sabrina1954

Humphrey Bogart. Audrey Hepburn. William Holden. (Even the extras in this film turned out to be Hollywood legends, you know.) This film should ooze screen presence. Does it?

As lauded as this film was, Bogart was often cited as being “too old” for the part. (Cary Grant was Wilder’s first choice to play the part. Grant rejected the part, as he was temporarily retired at the time.) I don’t agree with that criticism; Bogart’s performance is probably my favorite in the film.

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“Look at me–Joe College with a touch of arthritis.” Love this guy.

Bogart does a great job of portraying Linus’s businesslike approach to “dealing with” Sabrina. When he is first sent to handle the situation, you know he is doing it for business reasons, but then he kisses Sabrina so forcefully as only Bogart can that you begin to wonder. But then he complains the next day to his father about having to set aside work to take Sabrina on a date for the day, and you’re again unsure of his intentions. And so Bogart keeps you questioning Linus’s motives throughout the whole movie: Is this just business? Or has he already fallen in love with her? And you can’t be 100% sure until the film’s final minute.

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Bogart, though, reportedly had nothing but disdain for his costars. He nicknamed William Holden “Smiling Jim” and when asked how he liked working with Audrey Hepburn, he replied, “It’s OK, if you don’t mind to make 20 takes.” Ouch!

This disdain doesn’t translate to the screen, however. Admittedly, there is little chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart–but just enough, just enough to make the relationship believable, just enough to keep you hoping that Sabrina will choose Linus over David.

Oh, David. How could anyone choose David?

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Okay, if Bogart was considered “too old,” then what exactly was Holden? His age (Holden was 36 when the film was released–and he looks it) is more noticeable, distracting even, than Bogart’s. Linus is supposed to be older, wiser, more responsible. David is supposed to be young, dashing, carefree. Holden doesn’t exactly embody the debonair, handsome playboy as well as another actor might have, making it somewhat difficult to understand Sabrina’s obsession with him, but he does a fair job. (Maybe I’m just not a fan of Holden. I’ve never been blown away by his performances.)

The central role of the film, though, is of course Sabrina.

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When we first meet Sabrina, she’s hidden in a tree, spying wistfully on the Larrabee family hosting one of their spectacular parties. She is awkward and so obsessed with David that she even attempts suicide. She’s also supposed to be an “ugly duckling,” but I doubt all the makeup and wardrobe experts in the world could ever successfully transform Audrey Hepburn into an ugly duckling.

Through her trip to Paris (in this version, she attends a cooking school–hello, 1950s!), Sabrina matures and gains confidence. The audience is shown little of her time in Paris–we see her disastrous first cooking experience and the beginnings of a friendship with a sweet old man, but that’s it. Instead of being shown how she grows and changes, we are simply told via Sabrina’s letters home to her father. So when she returns home as a sophisticated woman, it’s difficult to swallow. It is a classic example of telling and not showing.

In this version, Sabrina comes very close to crossing the line from naive to flat-out annoying. Her obsession with David is not only sickening but bemusing. What is so great about David? He has…Actually, I can’t think of any redeeming quality that David may possess. He certainly is not worth locking yourself in the garage and turning on all twelve cars the Larrabee family owns. Get a grip, girl. Perhaps Bogart had a point when he criticized Hepburn’s acting–she certainly isn’t as endearing as I used to think she was.

Overall, though, this is a good film. The actors play their parts well, some more effectively than others, and even if aspects of it are painfully dated, it is still a sweet story and a very enjoyable film.

Take #2: Sydney Pollack, 1995

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Sydney Pollack’s update of Billy Wilder’s classic is superbly acted, well-written, and enchanting. Even though it may seem impossible for another generation of actors to compete with the legendary stars of the original who inhabited their roles so iconically, this group of actors does it very well–in fact, I would even argue they do it better.

Let’s start with Sabrina. Julia Ormond arguably had the most difficult job of trying to recreate a role so indelibly linked with an actress as beloved as Audrey Hepburn. But she does it so well. Part of the power of Sabrina in Pollack’s version is she is given more depth, more strength.

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She is just as awkward and googly-eyed about David as Hepburn’s Sabrina. But Ormond conveys this lack of grace and social skills so much more effectively. You really feel embarrassed for Sabrina as she confesses her love to David before leaving for Paris–and it turns out Linus is the one in David’s closet instead. (This is such a better way of allowing the audience see Linus and Sabrina interact for the first time than Linus’s discovery of Sabrina’s suicide attempt in the garage in the original.) You feel so, so, so, so bad for her as she struggles in Paris as a somewhat incompetent, inexperienced photographer’s assistant. Man, do you feel bad for her.

But then the photographer takes an interest in her, and you see her begin to change. She becomes more comfortable with herself, more confident, and she even discovers a passion: photography. She really does “find herself”–and the audience gets to see it, not just hear about it in a letter home.

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Yeah, Sabrina and this photographer go dancing in some club. It’s sooooooooo ’90s. Unwanted ’90s flashbacks aside, the transformation of Sabrina is so much more expansive and believable–and as a result, the character of Sabrina is more fully formed.

Now, in the original, I had a little trouble believing Sabrina could be so obsessed with David. There must be a deleted scene with Holden holding a voodoo doll or something. (Maybe I’ve watched Dark Shadows for too long.) But in this version, David Larrabee did a Gap Ad. Oh yeah. Take that, Holden.

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(And of course Sabrina had it on her wall in Paris.)

Greg Kinnear, only in his second feature film, embodies the character of David so much better than Holden. He actually is charming and handsome, sweeping girls off their feet, whereas Holden’s David just acted like he was all those things. Kinnear is the real deal, man.

The chemistry between Ormond and Kinnear is also superior to that of Hepburn and Holden–and the chemistry between Ormond and Harrison Ford is if not superior then definitely more palpable than that between Bogart and Hepburn.

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Have these people ever had their picture taken before?

Harrison Ford gives a great performance as the cold-hearted businessman, Linus Larrabee. The character of Linus is given more room to breathe in this version, as the father character is eliminated. The head of the Larrabee family was always breathing down Bogart’s neck and sticking his nose up at anyone who didn’t have a trust fund in Wilder’s version. Pollack instead has Linus as the successor to his father as the head of the family and the family business. With his father’s absence, you are given a better understanding of why Linus is the way he is–why he is so consumed by the family business and money and why he is so fixed in his day-to-day routine.

As well as Bogart did at showing the two sides of Linus’s personality–the cunning businessman and the softer, vulnerable side–Ford may just give a stronger performance. You see how far Linus is willing to go to seal a business deal, yet at the same time you have to convince yourself that he’s not in love with Sabrina and is romancing her only for the sake of a business deal.

Not only are the principal characters given more development and depth in Pollack’s film, the minor characters are stronger, too. David’s fiance is given a personality, a career, and you are able to see what initially drew him to her (and what ultimately draws him back). The dialogue is also stronger, wittier. “We were up to our elbows in your underwear drawer. It was like touching the Shroud of Turin.”

What really convinced me that Pollack’s version was superior to Wilder’s wasn’t so much the strength of the story or the development of the characters, however. It was actually the fact that THIS ONE GUY is in it:

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What’s up, Paul Giamatti?

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He basically does two things in this movie: eats and smokes. But it’s still awesome. And in this case, it seals the deal that the remake is indeed superior to the original.

Best Actor: 1951

A few weeks ago, Daniel Day-Lewis made Oscar history when he became the first male actor to earn three Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role. (Katharine Hepburn still holds the record for any performer–four Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role. That be my girl.) We all woo-hoo’d and hallejuah’d ’round here–not only because every superlative in existence could be applied to his performance as President Abraham Lincoln (or just one superlative: P-E-R-F-E-C-T) but also because no other actor in recent memory could be deemed more deserving of such an honor than Daniel Day-Lewis. This is, after all, the man who played Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, the movie I watched countless times and the character I proudly told anybody I had the courage to speak to as a four-year-old I would someday marry. Yes, I had a normal childhood.

Inspired by Day-Lewis’ historic win and a few other things (but mostly Daniel Day-Lewis), I decided to examine and rank previous Best Actor Oscar winners and nominations. Who won? Who should have won? I decided to first take a look at 1951, mainly because I was very familiar with three of the five nominated performances but also because it was an interesting year for acting with the arrival of Method Acting, perfectly executed by two its nominees. But before I delve into those actors and their performances, let’s establish some criteria that will direct my evaluations and rankings:

  • Is this a believable performance? Or, rather, is the actor utterly captivating, pulling me into their performance for the entire duration of the film? Do I forget that this actor is…well, acting
  • Does the actor and his performance make (…or break) the film?
  • Would I watch this film again? Would I recommend it to other people? 
  • The complexity/depth of the performance. Let me clarify this through an example: In 1973, Robert Redford was given his only (!!) Oscar nomination for acting for his performance in The Sting. Now, ya’ll know how I feel about Robert Redford. And if you don’t, I will tell you right now: I love Robert Redford. A lot. And The Sting is one of my favorite movies. And he is great in it. But I’m not sure that he really deserved the nomination for this role. More deserving that year was his performance as Hubbell Gardner in The Way We Were. But let’s not talk about The Way We Were because I’m starting to dissolve into a puddle of tears just thinking about it. Your girl is lovely, Hubbell! Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just rocking back and forth in my desk chair here, quietly sobbing. And not just because Hubbell belonged with Katie but because I’m thinking of Barbra Streisand brushing Robert Redford’s hair across his forehead…and I’m just really envious. I’m continuing that whole “normal childhood” thing into my adulthood.

Without further ado (or gushing about Robert Redford and his immaculate hair), here are my rankings of the Best Actor in a Leading Role nominees of 1951:

5. Fredric March in Death of a Salesman **/*****

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This was Fredric March’s fifth and final Oscar nomination. He did not win. He previously won in 1931 for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (tied with Wallace Beery for The Champ) and in 1946 for The Best Years of Our Lives.

In this production of Arthur Miller’s play, Willy Loman (Fredric March) is portrayed as a complete lunatic, something which disgusted the playwright. I spent much of the film wondering if I was supposed to feel something for this character or see some depth in him beyond the fact that he is insane? Because I didn’t feel it, and I didn’t see it. The film also inserts the flashbacks sloppily. I suppose that these flashbacks were supposed to demonstrate Willy’s descent into insanity, but they were integrated (or, rather, not integrated) into the story in such a way that they were frustrating. Regardless, this performance is lifeless and, quite frankly, boring.

Ultimately, I felt nothing watching this film, save boredom, and I would not watch it again. If I were in a high school English class reading Death of a Salesman and the teacher showed us this film, I would probably throw darts at a picture of that English teacher.

Just for fun, of course.

4. Arthur Kennedy in Bright Victory ***/*****

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This was Arthur Kennedy’s first and only Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. He did not win. He received four Oscar nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role throughout his career but never won.

I had never heard of Bright Victory, which tells the story of Sergeant Larry Nevens, who is blinded by a German Sniper during World War II. Kennedy gives a fine performance as Nevens, who, when we first meet him, is cocky and unlikable. As Nevens comes to grips with his injury, however, Kennedy creates a character whom you feel sympathetic toward and whose fate you care about. Kennedy is especially effective in the first half of the film, before Nevens becomes too comfortable with himself as a blind man, particularly in the scene in which he tries to commit suicide after first learning of his permanent blindness and a later scene when he calls his parents and finally tells them the seriousness of his injury. Less effective, however, is the film’s subplot dealing with racism. While traveling to Valley Forge Hospital with other wounded soldiers, Nevens converses with another black soldier. When he realizes the soldier is black, he asks the nurse to sit by him instead. Nevens’ racism arises again when he befriends another blind soldier (who happens to be black) in the hospital and uses a racial slur casually one day, not knowing the race of his friend. There is silence, and instead of further conversation or exploration of his offense, the scene ends with the two parting ways. While this is later resolved, the entire subplot seems half-formed and leaves you wanting a more meaningful exploration of the issue.

Overall, however, this was a good performance in a good film. Good–not great, but by no means poor.

3. Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen ****/*****

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Humphrey Bogart received his second Oscar nomination for The African Queen. This was his only Oscar win. He was nominated two additional times, previously in 1943 for Casablanca and again in 1954 for The Caine Mutiny.

Some detractors may claim that Bogart’s win for The African Queen was the Academy’s attempt to mask a “Best Actor” award as a “Lifetime Achievement” award, thereby remedying its mistake of not awarding him the award for Casablanca. And while I obviously think there were at least two actors more deserving of this award in 1951, I do not think that by any means was this award undeserved. Bogart is very, very endearing and effective in this film. I mean, look at him up there imitating the hippos and monkeys.

Now, let’s get one thing straight here: I initially watched The African Queen for Katharine Hepburn. I was never drawn to Bogart and thus never felt compelled to watch any of his films (although I had watched Sabrina). He was just kind of this old, gruff actor to me. So The African Queen was a pleasant surprise.

Of course, a major draw of this film and Bogart’s performance (for me, at least) is his chemistry with Katharine Hepburn. I love how at the start of the film the two characters have absolutely nothing in common but slowly build a relationship as the film progresses. Amidst World War I, Charlie Allnut (Bogart) and Rose Sayer (Hepburn) are aboard The African Queen, a boat which they plan to convert into a torpedo boat and sink the enemy’s boat downstream–a plan suggested by Rose. Charlie, however, hoped that Rose would soon become discouraged and abandon the plan, but after they survive the first set of rapids, Rose becomes even more dedicated to their cause. She tells him, glossy-eyed, when he asks how she liked the rapids, “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating! I’ve only known such excitement a few times before, a few times in my dear brother’s sermons when the spirit was really upon him!” Later, Charlie half-drunkenly reveals he never intended to complete their plan and insults Rose, who retaliates by branding him a liar and a coward–and promptly disposes of all the alcohol on board.

Then comes my favorite scene (outside of Bogart mimicking the hippos and monkeys, which is just fun) and one of Bogart’s best in the film.

Charlie attempts to apologize to Rose, by cleaning up his appearance (via shaving) and complimenting her. Rose completely ignores him, silently reading a book. Charlie grows frustrated, apologizes, and explains his actions, saying, “What ya bein’ so mean for, Miss? A man takes a drop too much once in awhile–it’s only human nature.”

“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above,” replies Rose.

Touché!

In this scene, Bogart is adroitly conciliatory, frustrated, angry, pleading, and begrudgingly submissive in the space of just a few minutes. Even though (in my opinion) there were more deserving performances in 1951, Bogart earned this Oscar for a very good performance.

2. Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire *****/*****

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Brando received his first Oscar nomination for A Streetcar Named Desire. He did not win. He would be nominated an additional seven times (six Lead Actor nominations, one Actor in a Supporting Role) and won twice, in 1954 for On the Waterfront and in 1972 for The Godfather, an honor (some might call it an offer) he refused.

Update: I am now writing this blog toothless and hairless because I pulled out all my teeth and all my hair trying to rank these last two performances. Now that you have that lovely image in your head, let’s talk about something slightly more pleasant and pretty.

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“What’s that?”

“Oh, those cats. ME-OW!”

(That’s what I say when I see your face.)

So.

Brando.

Marlon Brando.

What do you say about one of the greatest screen performances of all-time? What do you say about an actor who took a flat, detestable character and made him explosive, sensuous, and vulnerable? And what do you say when you learn that this actor was robbed of the Oscar (co-stars Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden were all nominees and winners in their respective acting categories)?

You don’t “say” anything, per se, you just sort of do this:

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It’s really not fair. He should have won.

Still, there’s one more performance that I think was maybe–just maybe–even better.

1. Montgomery Clift, A Place in the Sun *****/*****

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This was Montgomery Clift’s second Oscar nomination. He did not win. He had been nominated in 1948 for The Search, would be nominated in 1953 for From Here to Eternity, and in 1961 for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Judgement at Nuremberg. He never won, and that is an absolute travesty.

According to Patricia Bosworth’s biography of the actor, Clift sometimes imitated Charlie Chaplin’s “goofy, expectant smile” in the last frames of City Lights, which a spectator described: “It was fascinating to watch him become a different person without uttering a sound. He could capture the essence of a personality, a character, instantly and not only that, make you experience a rush of emotion–and you had no idea how he did it.” Bosworth quotes a film director later observing this same technique, stating, “Montgomery Clift knows how to use silence and fill it up.”

And this is exactly what he does in A Place in the Sun. 

Clift portrays George Eastman, an ambitious young man who attempts to earn his own “place in the sun” by working his way up through his wealthy uncle’s prestigious company. Along the way, though, he falls in love with two women: Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a fellow factory worker in the company and Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), a wealthy socialite. George and Alice’s romance must remain a secret, as it is against company policy, but it quickly moves further into the shadows as George becomes acquainted with Angela. It becomes even more complicated, however, when Alice reveals to George that she is pregnant.

Stop reading if you’ve never seen this film (watch it) and don’t want to be spoiled.

The only solution Alice and George are able to find is to marry and leave town and start a new life somewhere else, where nobody knows them. This plan, however, would thwart George’s designs for his “place in the sun.” He is also unwilling to give up Angela.

And so George plans (or does he?) to take Alice out in a boat on the lake and, knowing she cannot swim, drown her. As the two are in the boat, however, George begins to have second (and third…and fourth…) thoughts. In just a scene lasting just a few minutes, Clift expresses George’s contempt for Alice as she talks about what their married life would be like, then you see his face soften, feeling almost sorry for her, then you see him imagining drowning her, malice shining in his eyes, and he then again crumbles, unable to fathom going through with the murder. Clift faultlessly conveys this wrestling of emotions George has with himself–and he does it without uttering a single word. 

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It gives me goosebumps. It just might be Clift’s finest piece of acting–and that’s saying quite a lot.

But what follows is perhaps even more compelling and impressive acting by Clift. George is eventually arrested and put on trial for the murder of Alice. The film leaves it unclear whether George truly and maliciously murdered Alice Tripp. During the trial, George testifies that he could not go through with the murder and that he was thinking of someone else (Angela) while he and Alice were on that boat, not of murdering Alice, and that her death was an accident. You believe him. Clift makes you believe him. You believe him so much that when George is grilled by the prosecuting attorney, who declares, “You pushed that poor girl into the lake and watched her drown. Isn’t that the truth?” You sit there, shouting at the screen, “No! No, it isn’t! That isn’t the truth! He isn’t a murderer!” And you get so mad at that stinking lawyer, you just want to stick your tongue out at him. Or something slightly more menacing.

And then you remember…George Eastman is just a character. Montgomery Clift is an actor. This is just a movie.

But that is a testament to the power of Clift’s acting and skill. And that is what ultimately compels me to rank his performance at the top of this list.

But then I have a soft spot for Montgomery Clift.

I can’t believe he never won an Oscar.

I mean, shouldn’t he have at least got a special Oscar for that face?

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Lord have mercy.

Well, there you have it. In 1951, the Academy awarded Humphrey Bogart the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. But I would have given it to Montgomery Clift. Or Marlon Brando. Or Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. Oh, think of all the beautiful photos of those two holding their awards together that could have been!

Now do I not only have no teeth, no hair, but I am officially just a puddle of nothing. Melted by visions of Brando and Clift. I must say, writing this blog post has done wonders for my complexion.

Okay. See ya next time.

(Note: This is a topic I may revisit occasionally–examining and ranking a given year’s nominees in Best Actor/Supporting Actor, Best Actress/Supporting Actress, Best Picture, although I doubt I will ever watch every Oscar-nominated film/performance ever because there are some films I have no desire to ever, ever watch, and I hope to someday have a life. I wouldn’t count on the latter ever happening, though.)