Sublime: Billy Wilder’s “Sabrina”

Much like the other Wilder work I’ve seen recently, including The Apartment and last month’s Some Like It Hot, I admit there is no good reason for me having never seen 1954’s Sabrina. But, unlike my misguided prejudice towards Wilder’s comedies and a conservative father leading me away from questionable cross-dressing, Sabrina‘s omission makes sense to me. My earliest memory is not of this one at all, but the 1995 remake by Sydney Pollack, starring Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond and Greg Kinnear. When trailers and commercials started popping up, I remember, seemingly, every adult female in my life swooning, including a sister and my mother. Given this time in my life, just brisking in my teens, I can only guess how uninterested I was in romance and “chick flicks.” Honestly, if you asked me my favorite film in 1995 – and still one of my favorites – I would’ve replied David Fincher’s Se7en. Adult-themed for a boy not even in high school, mature for a young man in a friend group still playing with action figures, but a movie that one can believe a kid gravitating to horror might like. Gruesome, unsettling and, to tell the truth, a movie that gave me nightmares for weeks afterward. (I slept in my dad’s room for the duration.) Subsequently, and very off-topic, I was deeply entranced with that film for years; daring myself to watch it alone on VHS to overcome my fears. I can note no other film for teaching me how to control my base emotions better – well, until The Exorcist: Director’s Cut came along, but that’s a story for another day. Anyway, back to the point: would you expect a punk kid – or wannabe punk kid, chain-wallet and all – on a steady diet of horror and action to even give a fuck about Sabrina?

And that’s the one in color. I wasn’t averse to black & white; some of my favorite films growing up were b&w, including Psycho. But, consider for a second: I don’t care about Harrison Ford falling in love with the help (I’d rather watch him race Nazis to historical treasure and swing a whip, anyway), would I care about Humphrey Bogart? I’m not even completely sure I had seen a Bogart film by that time. I knew who he was; a gargantuan star of yesteryear, parodied in Warner Bros cartoons and brought back to life through the miracle of computer-generated imagery. Billy Wilder’s Sabrina was not on my radar. And there it remained, several rungs down on “the work of the masters;” no one ever said, “See Sabrina!” at the same time he/she said, “See Seven Samurai!,” “See The Godfather!,” “See Casablanca!,” “See Jaws!,” “See On the Waterfront!”

It. Just. Did. Not. Register.

Part of me is glad I waited until I was an adult, with several relationships under my belt, with an idea of the world, class structure and how working for a corporation can be. That autobiographical shorthand allowed me to experience Sabrina for its story and characters, without having to translate it to the whims of a child. How does a complex emotion like loving someone you’re not sure loves you back translate to Blink-182 and X-Games? (god, I hate me.) How do you go from feeling so intently about someone for a lifetime to knowing that isn’t for you? What understanding of life would I share with Linus Larrabee or Sabrina Fairchild? Nothing was lost in these years preparing me for a film like Sabrina.

Sublime. Light. Funny. Romantic. Beautiful. Warm. That’s how I felt watching it. If there were better-looking women than Audrey Hepburn in the history of Hollywood, I certainly forgot about them for two hours. William Holden is atypically cast as the womanizing playboy, David, whose older brother, Linus (Bogart) – the undertaker – oversees the family corporate empire in New York. David is fun, living each day as his last. Linus is focused on work, dead serious and regimented. On the Larrabees’ estate, of course, is the help, including chauffeur, Thomas Fairchild and his daughter, Sabrina. Admiring David from afar her whole life – from outside the garage or from a tree – Sabrina is infatuated with him. She even goes so far as to attempt suicide via carbon monoxide asphyxiation, after hearing that his affections have been won by another in a long line of revolving PYTs. Rescued by a well-meaning Linus, returning a car to the garage, the two spark up a respectful understanding: she has something to live for, even if it isn’t David. Leaving the next day for Paris, Sabrina is to become a woman of culture, kitchen skills and manners befitting those in the employ of the Larrabees. Upon her return, she has changed: gone is the ponytail, replaced with Hepburn’s signature cut; gone are the clothes of a girl, replaced with the figure-hugging chic dress of a woman of the world.

Having blossomed, Sabrina is now able to pique David’s interest immediately. In one of the funniest scenes in the film, David happens upon her waiting to be picked up at the train station. He gives her a ride, all the while trying to place where he knows her from. I can’t sell it well enough to convey how light and engaging this sequence is, as David finally realizes who he is driving on their arrival at his own house. I dare anyone to not fall in love with Hepburn after this scene, if they haven’t already.

What follows is The Chase from David, all the while having been betrothed to a rich girl whose family means good business for Linus’ designs for a merger. Linus runs interference to protect said business interests and tame David’s wandering eye. But, in doing so, Linus falls for Sabrina. (Awkwardly, on their first “date,” he keeps reminding her that “it’s all in the family.” Kind of disturbing, when you think about it.)

Along the journey of this gradual love affair, the film has some interesting points to make about the chasm between the classes; the fear, the taboo of “a rich man running off with the help.” The Lord and Lady of the Manor, the Elder Larrabees, make no secret of how against the prospect they are. Linus too, at least at first, seems to be only “handling” Sabrina to keep David from making a huge mistake.

The other side of it is, of course, the older man/younger woman scenario. Bogart, as the aging bachelor who has lost years to being so focused on his business, does not expect to feel the way he eventually does about Hepburn. She, in turn, never saw him as a romantic interest; he was seemingly always nice to her, but nothing more than background to her infatuation with his younger brother. Neither are prepared for the emotional windfall. Sabrina, especially, is not prepared for the growing up; she thought she had it all figured out after Paris.

This film is supremely romantic. I mean it. If you have a heart, it will swell six times in size. It’s also not overly sentimental or saccharin, at least in my opinion. It’s beautiful Old Hollywood; the fantasy of the ugly duckling blooming into a grand swan, of Cinderella, of the lower class being admitted into the Circle. If you’re a cynic, maybe you’ll get less out of it.

But, for me, it’s my new love affair.

1. Some Like It Hot (1959)

2. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

4. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

5. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

7. Cinema Paradiso (1988)

8. Breathless (1960)

9. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

10. It Happened One Night (1934) / His Girl Friday (1940)

11. Sabrina (1954)

12. Hell in the Pacific (1968)

Dissuaded as a Child – Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot”

THE PROBLEM

Billy Wilder is one of my favorite filmmakers – Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity and especially Ace in the Hole – so it makes no sense why I haven’t seen Some Like it Hot. I watched The Apartment for the first time about a month ago, which succeeded Some Like It Hot by one year, and I loved it. I guess the pattern is I’ve gravitated to Wilder’s dramas, his noirs, his serious social statements, while avoiding his “slapsticky, light, jazzy fluff.” (At least, that’s the phrase I’d award my prejudice.) One speed bump also were the comic interludes of Stalag 17, a movie I was super excited to see, then was rather disappointed at how much dated, almost obnoxious, material plagued the “serious war movie.” Nonetheless, I was beside myself with how wrong I was about the comedies when I finally saw The Apartment; a hilarious, tightly written comedy about a spineless businessman, taken advantage of by his co-workers and boss for the use of his apartment for their “extracurricular activities.” At some point, the need I felt to see Wilder’s serious cinema extended to The Apartment, and my reaction to that film spurned my want to see Some Like It Hot.

But, why did I miss it in the first place? It’s undeniably a classic. It’s consistently noted as one of the best comedies ever, awarded time and time again, and on many lists, including #1 on AFI’s 100 Years 100 Laughs. However, I think I’ve pinpointed it in a simple way. Even though my father showed me classic films throughout my rearing, including Psycho, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, and On the Waterfront, he steered me clear of anything “questionable.” I should add that my dad is an ultra-conservative. Anything including cross-dressing leaned way too close to homosexuality; something he found no humor in, unless it was at the expense of it. Though he never raised me with opaque homophobia, in retrospect, I see that he never let even skirting the issue enter into the viewing experiences of his boy. For me, it’s funny to think how much violence he was fine with showing me – Robocop, Rambo, numerous horror movies – but again, anything dealing with sex, much less same gender sex, was off the table. He was the type of person the MPAA was made for.

THE SOLUTION

So, seizing the opportunity to wipe this shame off my list, I made it the first film I’d tackle for “Cinema Shame.” (And not the last Wilder I’ll see this year) Written with frequent collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, Some Like It Hot is a snapping, hilarious romantic comedy, the prototype for basically every rom-com we’ve seen I’d bet. In fact, every SNL cast member owes a debt of gratitude to this film for creating the formula of comedian-turn-leading-man – Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, David Spade, Rob Schneider – as well as other talent like Denis Leary. Regardless of their success, which is rare (and only Ferrell has broken out of this, by my count), every film they make is a variation on Some Like It Hot. Take a protagonist in trouble, put them in a disguise, odd occupation, or alien environment, have them find a girl, fall in love with her, and when the trouble reappears, they have to come clean about their secret. Only then can the girl show she doesn’t care about it after all, and wants the joe schmo protagonist for who he really is. (In fact, if I’m being honest, one of my favorite films of the 1980s, Just One of the Guys, is an almost-exact retread of Some Like It Hot too, just gender-flipped.)

The film, beyond its influence, is rather good. A great first 30 minutes, a great last 20 minutes, and including a capper last exchange between Jack Lemmon and his “old money” suitor that had to ruffle some feathers in 1959. In the middle, it slumps a bit. But, I wonder if its the fault of the movie, or how many times I’ve seen this plot done to death in variation. Mistaken identity and the mismatched chase: Tony Curtis pretends to be a rich, yacht-owning snob with a Cary Grant accent in order to woo the status-hungry, sometimes drunk Marilyn Monroe; Jack Lemmon in drag being pursued by the aforementioned elderly, never dissuaded, actual rich, yacht owner. There’s some cleverness there, and even when it’s flat, it’s amusing to see Curtis and Lemmon run between scenes and their alter egos. Overall, it’s a fun film.

But, wait. Is it possible that another shame is veiled in my repentance? It is, indeed. This is the first and only Marilyn Monroe film I’ve seen. I admit, Monroe is well put-together. I dig her. She is watchable but not fantastic in Some Like It Hot. Maybe now that I’m past the “dress blowing up as she stands over the subway vent,” I can look at her performances in films with a differently critical eye, without her image and reputation clouding the proceedings.
Anyway, one in the bag.

1. Some Like it Hot (1959)

2. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

4. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

5. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

7. Cinema Paradiso (1988)

8. Breathless (1960)

9. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

10. It Happened One Night (1934) / His Girl Friday (1940)

11. Sabrina (1954)

12. Hell in the Pacific (1968)

My List of Shame: 12 Films by @MisterGreggles

Reading my compatriots’ introductions, I am falling in love with this idea. I interviewed Twitch Film’s James Marsh last year. One of the series he curates for that site is “Full Disclosure: Twitch’s Lists of Shame.” Editors are brought together to admit, watch and write-up their reaction to oft overlooked blind spots in their pop culture knowledge. And, just like my peers here, I can’t wait to dive in. We ALL have these movies that everyone around us swears by — like the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, or the benchmark of the French New Wave, Breathless — and your best friend or even your sibling will not let you forget how alien you are — how much of a failure you are — for missing that one film. You can play it off, but we all know what lurks in the hearts of film fans: shame. And, this year, we rectify that. Here’s my list:

1. Some Like it Hot (1959)

2. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

4. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

5. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

7. Cinema Paradiso (1988)

8. Breathless (1960)

9. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

10. It Happened One Night (1934) / His Girl Friday (1940)

11. Sabrina (1954)

12. Hell in the Pacific (1968)