Making Mr. Right
Perhaps the very best fairy tales are those that allow for the possibility that, sometimes, Prince Charming gets lost along the way and doesn't find his sleeping beauty. Or those that admit that, at other times, Prince Charming never shows up with the glass slipper, simply because he's something of a heel.
Billy Wilder's 1954 Sabrina is the kind of shimmering confection that even people who are stubbornly immune to its charms describe as a fairy tale. And rightfully so, being that it's a canny update of the Cinderella mythos, with just a smidgen of the Ugly Ducking story tossed in for good measure. Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn), the mousy little chauffeur's daughter, goes off to Paris to nurse a broken heart -- she's fallen for a gallivanting playboy (William Holden) who doesn't know she's alive -- and to train as a chef. She returns as a smart and self-assured fashion plate who makes the playboy stand up and take notice. Unfortunately, while he's noticing Sabrina, he's ignoring his wealthy fiancee. Eager to avoid a scandal, the playboy's older, uptight brother (an affectingly autumnal Humphrey Bogart) sets out to woo Sabrina, to distract her from his feckless sibling. Falling in love with her isn't part of the plan. But fall in love he does, with magically transforming results that lead, inevitably, to a happily-ever-after ending.
With its matter-of-fact acknowledgment of class distinctions, its glossy, fashion-magazine emphasis on the heroine's made-over look and its unashamedly romanticized view of life and love among the rich and fatuous of Long Island, Wilder's Sabrina is very much a movie of its time. And it is very much to the credit of director Sydney Pollack and screenwriters Barbara Benedek and David Rayfiel that, unlike some other makers of remakes, they have recognized what no longer works, what no longer is relevant and what may be most difficult to preserve about the original. Compare Pollack's Sabrina to, say, Stella, the disastrous 1990 updating of Stella Dallas, and you can appreciate the difference between an artful reimagining and a hopeless anachronism.
Even more impressive, however, is the way Pollack has managed to give his gossamer concoction a core of genuine feeling. The new Sabrina is an enchanting romantic comedy with the magic of a fairy tale, but also with the poignance of a broken heart. The romance is all the more romantic, and the funny stuff is all the more amusing, because it's set against the very distinct possibility of unhappily-ever-aftering. In short, this is gossamer with a hint of gravitas.
The focus has been shifted slightly, so that Sabrina is no longer primarily the story of a shy, love-struck girl who turns into a fetchingly sophisticated woman. This new version is more of a story about the playboy's uptight brother, Linus Larrabee, played by Harrison Ford as a kind of Ice Prince who needs a Cinderella to jump-start his sleeping heart.
Initially, Linus is depicted as a cold-blooded manipulator, a brilliant businessman who prides himself on infallible gut instincts. He listens to those instincts, not his heart, when he decides to woo Sabrina (Julia Ormond), the chauffeur's daughter who turned herself into a Vogue magazine functionary during a two-year stint in Paris.
Sabrina is quite lovely, to be sure, and Linus fully appreciates that -- much the same way that, years ago, he appreciated the superiority of fiber optics over coaxial cable in time to make a major investment change. But there is no grand passion to his romantic gestures. Indeed, they are nothing more than gestures, carefully calculated to keep Sabrina from distracting his brother, David (Greg Kinnear), just when Linus can least afford for David to be distracted. David is on the verge of marrying the daughter (Lauren Holly) of a boisterous tycoon (Richard Crenna) who controls the fate of a billion-dollar merger with the Larrabee family's multinational corporation. No marriage, no merger. For that reason alone, Linus plots to turn himself into Mr. Right. He offers romantic afternoons in Martha's Vineyard, cozy dinners in Manhattan, even a long evening in a Broadway theater where, occasionally, people stop talking and start singing. There is nothing Linus won't endure to carry out his plan.
But then Linus actually falls in love. And that's when the ersatz Prince Charming begins to have second thoughts about his masquerade.
To get the most obvious question out the way first: no, Julia Ormond won't make you forget Audrey Hepburn. But, then again, she doesn't have to. As Sabrina, she runs the gamut from girlish yearning to womanly self-assurance with nary a false step along the way. She is captivating enough to make Sabrina a prize well worth winning, and substantial enough for her to be considerably more than a mere prize. She brings out the best in Kinnear, the TV talk show host who is richly amusing and altogether ingratiating in his first major acting role. (He won't make you forget William Holden, but this, too, is irrelevant.) More important, Ormond also brings out something that is profoundly affecting in Ford. In fact, with her help, Ford is able to do something he has never quite managed to do before in a movie: he breaks your heart.
For quite some time now, it has been obvious that, in the right role and under the right circumstances, Ford has all the smooth moves and slow-simmering charisma of a classic leading man. He has an impressive knack for light comedy and self-deprecating silliness -- look at the way he realizes what a goof he's making of himself when he tries to "dress down" for Sabrina by wearing an uncomfortable cap. (The image recalls the sage advice of humorist P.J. O'Rourke: "A hat should be taken off when you greet a lady, and left off for the rest of your life. Nothing looks more stupid than a hat.") And better still, Ford has mastered the art of somehow maintaining his dignity even as he acknowledges his own goofiness -- which, when you think about it, is just the sort of thing that Linus would also be able to do.
None of this is terribly surprising, considering what Ford has done in the past. What is surprising, even startling, is the way Ford makes Linus visibly thaw in the light of Sabrina's radiance, and how he conveys Linus' conflicting impulses of guilt, gratitude and quiet desperation. Ford has never before been so charmingly vulnerable on-screen, not even when he gazed dumbstruck at Greta Scacchi's come-hither carnality in Presumed Innocent. And he has never been so deeply moving as he is here in the scene where Linus is so overcome with love and self-loathing that he tries to convince Sabrina, and himself, that it was all a charade, all a nasty trick, and he couldn't, wouldn't ever love her. It's probably unfair to Ford -- and to Ormond and the movie as a whole -- to make too much of this scene. But everything here -- the direction, the writing, the acting, even the lighting -- conspires to create a wrenchingly vivid picture of a man who isn't merely pretending he's not in love, but absolutely certain that he isn't worthy of being loved. And Ford, who's three years younger than Humphrey Bogart was when Bogart played Linus, suddenly appears much older than his predecessor, as though the life force were draining from him as he kisses off his last, best shot at spiritual redemption.
Here and elsewhere in this handsome and heartfelt film, Sydney Pollack confirms that, after three decades in the director's chair, he remains Hollywood's most accomplished master of the grand romantic gesture. Just as important, he proves that he can make the very kind of movie that everyone says that nobody is making anymore. Sabrina is Hollywood classicism at its most luxuriantly enjoyable, complete with a slew of wonderfully talented and meticulously well-cast supporting players: John Wood as Sabrina's dry-witted father, Nancy Marchand as Linus and David's grande dame mother, Lauren Holly as David's fiancee, Dana Ivey as Linus' attentive secretary, Fanny Ardant as the Paris editor who takes a special interest in Sabrina. (Angie Dickinson is a bit much as the fiancee's mother, and Crenna is much too much as the abrasively crude father, but there's not enough of either of them to cause much damage.) The production values are suitably lush, and often as expressive as the performances. For example, Bernie Pollack, the director's brother, has designed costumes for Ford that speak volumes about Linus' temperament. And Sting, rapidly establishing himself as the premier soundtrack balladeer of our generation, offers a lovely rendition of the movie's theme song, "Moonlight," which has lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, music by John Williams, and Oscar nomination written all over it.
But what really makes this Sabrina so special -- special enough, I think, to stand on its own merits as a true original, not a remake -- is the sense of melancholy darkness beneath all the bright gaiety, the intimations that a very lively game is being played for very high stakes. Prince Charming may not make it in time this time. Fortunately, he may have a Princess Charming who will meet him halfway.
Directed by Sydney Pollack. With Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond and Greg Kinnear.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.