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Sabrina: The ugly duckling

Sabrina: The ugly duckling

RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR | NT NETWORK

‘Sabrina’ (1954) directed by the talented Billy Wilder is a modern-day Cinderella story with the only difference being Sabrina has to deal with two princes instead of one.

The film based on the play, ‘Sabrina Fair’ (1953) by Samuel A Taylor was plagued with difficulties right from the word go. Although the play opened on Broadway with Margaret Sullavan as Sabrina Fairchild and Joseph Cotton as Linus Larrabee, Wilder desired to have Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in these roles, and began rewriting the dialogue with Taylor, so as to fit the screen personalities of Hepburn and Grant. As Wilder and Taylor began revising the draft of the script, the play opened successfully, and Taylor became apprehensive about Wilder’s changes. However, Wilder didn’t hesitate to change the play, even after its success. After several arguments, Taylor quit and Wilder found another collaborator in Ernest Lehman, early in his remarkable Hollywood career.

Paramount paid $75,000 to Taylor for the rights of the play, even before it had arrived on the stage, with the proviso that the film based on the play would not be released until the play had run for one year.

Interestingly, re-rewriting the play became necessary when Cary Grant said no and Humphrey Bogart, who had then signed a three-picture deal with Paramount, said yes, thus playing against his screen image. However, that was not the end but the beginning of the problems. Bogart had originally wanted his wife Lauren Bacall to be cast as Sabrina, and complained that Hepburn required too many takes to get her dialogue right while pointing out at her inexperience.

Wilder did not consider Bacall for the title role since he had specifically suggested the studio to buy the play as a vehicle for Hepburn, a follow-up to her Oscar-winning role in ‘Roman Holiday’ (1953). For the role of David, Wilder selected William Holden, who had won an Oscar for his performance in ‘Stalag 17’ (1953) directed by Wilder himself. Bogart got $300000, Holden received $150000, while Hepburn only $15000.

Wilder began shooting the film before the script was finished, and Lehman was writing all day to complete it. Eventually, he would finish a scene in the morning, deliver it during lunch, and its filming would begin in the afternoon. During shooting, the behaviour of Bogart towards Hepburn was better than his behaviour towards other members of the cast and crew, including Wilder and Holden. He disliked Wilder’s autocratic style of directing, and resented the director’s closeness to the younger, handsomer Holden, besides Wilder’s obvious affection for the charming Hepburn. Wilder’s offbeat casting however produced a performance that critics generally considered successful. Bogart later apologised to Wilder for his behaviour on-set, citing problems in his personal life.

“Audrey was very thin. On camera, she looked fatter than she was. Sometimes she disappeared,” Wilder said later. In fact, he shot more close-ups of her than were customary for him. He very well knew that the camera loved her.

The lighter-than-air tone of ‘Sabrina’ is complemented by composer, Frederick Hollander’s romantic score. The music in the film features three main themes – “Isn’t Love Romantic?” which is Holden’s ‘superficial love’ theme; “La Vie en Rose?” which is Hepburn’s ‘romantic deep love’ theme; and “Banana Song’ which is Bogart’s “cynical, deceitful love’ theme. In the film, during her return from Paris, Hepburn sings in French, “La Vie en rose” (a reference to looking at the world through rose-colored glasses), which is the signature song of the French singer, Édith Piaf that had been highly popular in the English-speaking world as well as in France.

‘Sabrina’ was filmed on location in Glen Cove, Long Island in Manhattan, and at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, from September to November 1953, and was released in October 1954. None of the difficulties encountered during the production showed up in the finished product, with the film being as frothy and delicate as the soufflé Sabrina learns to make.

The film garnered positive reviews from the critics and produced at a budget of $2,238,813, became a worldwide hit by earning $4 million in rentals. Out of the six nominations the film received – including for Best Director and Best Actress – it won only one, for Best Costume Design.

Although Edith Head won the sole Oscar for her costumes, most of Audrey Hepburn’s outfits are rumoured to have been created by Hubert de Givenchy and chosen personally by the star. In a 1974 interview, Head stated that she was responsible for creating the dresses, with inspiration from some Givenchy designs that Hepburn liked, further stressing that she made important changes, and the dresses were not by Givenchy. After Head’s death, Givenchy stated that Sabrina’s iconic black cocktail dress was produced at Paramount under Head’s supervision, but claimed it was his design.

During production of the film, Hepburn and Holden entered into a brief, but passionate and much-publicised love affair. Hepburn hoped to marry Holden and have children with him. However, Holden had undergone 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 the shooting was completed.

In 1995, ‘Sabrina’ was remade starring Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear in the roles originally played by Hepburn, Bogart and Holden, respectively. Directed by Sydney Pollack, it could not hit the bull’s eye at the box-office hit primarily because it suffered from inevitable comparisons to the original version.

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