One year after Audrey Hepburn won her Oscar for playing the pure and innocent Princess Ann who left her home to have some fun in the Eternal City in Roman Holiday, she received her second nomination for another light-hearted part that only she could turn into something much more lasting and interesting than it should be. In Billy Wilder’s comedy Sabrina, she played Sabrina Fairchild, a young woman far from being a princess; she may have the elegance and the almost royal face but she’s only the chauffeur’s daughter – and hopelessly in love with David, played by William Holden, the good-looking son of her father’s boss. Sabrina is not among Billy Wilder’s most memorable work – it’s an engaging but still rather average romantic comedy that doesn’t find the same kind of magic heart as William Wyler’s Roman Holiday did, but the performances of Audrey Hepburn, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart added a good amount of charm, wit and sophistication. Especially and obviously the screen presence of Audrey Hepburn gave the most needed sparkle in this love-triangle.
Even though her performance in Roman Holiday was only one year old, Audrey Hepburn already found a way to use her own personality beyond the elegant and charming creature. In Sabrina, she doesn’t have the same overwhelming bubbling charm as she did in her Oscar-winning part – but instead, she crafted a character that was the result of a more balanced combination of charm and talent. Her work in Roman Holiday became instantly captivating thanks to Audrey Hepburn’s ability to lighten up the screen with every smile but she didn’t forget to go beyond her own features and used every opportunity the script gave her to invest a certain sense of sadness that would ultimately be replaced by her own sense of duty. Audrey Hepburn’s performances are always interesting to analyze by judging how much of their success is based on her winning screen presence and how much on her talent as an actress. There’s no doubt that this talent is always visible in her work but very often it seems overshadowed by her elfin delicacy. It is to her credit that she never seemed voluntarily to rest on this delicacy – even in her most charming roles, she always tried her best to develop a deeper truth in her characters. In Sabrina, she still used her charm and her sparkling personality but the script also demanded a more serious look at her character’s behavior than Roman Holiday did. Her Oscar-winning role was basically a plot-device that could only be turned into such an unforgettable portrayal thanks to Audrey Hepburn’s powerful presence – her part in Sabrina is a little more demanding and asked her to stretch herself more as an actress but at the same time she also elevates Sabrina as a character with her charms. Still, Audrey Hepburn does a very commendable job by trying to not let her charm be her most distinctive feature. She obviously worked very hard to let her performance appear so light – but she’s not completely able to overcome the problems of her part. She may have ‘acted less’ in Roman Holiday but the role of Princess Ann was simply the perfect vehicle for her – even if it didn’t present a real challenge to her as an actress. In Sabrina, she did the best she could with a part that didn’t feel tailor-made for her – but she never feels as irreplaceable as she did in Roman Holiday nor as wonderful as she did in The Nun’s Story and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Sabrina is neither innocent entertainment like Roman Holiday nor a character study like The Nun’s Story, it’s a harmless movie that takes itself a little too seriously and Audrey Hepburn sometimes struggles to find the right balance. The reason is probably that, even though she had Billy Wilder behind her, the part of Sabrina feels to banal and one-dimensional to really impress – sure, Princess Ann had the same problems but Roman Holiday was constructed in a way that fit an empty character like this better than Sabrina. Sabrina is a woman who, just as Princess Ann, is trapped in a life that prevents her from getting what she wants. Sabrina sitting in a tree and watching a party of the rich and beautiful or Princess Ann standing in her bedroom and watching a party of the ‘common’ and happy – in both cases, Audrey Hepburn’s character wanted something else. But in Sabrina, she is still able to show a deeper pain. Princess Ann simply knew she wanted something different – Sabrina knows exactly what she wants. And that she can’t get it/him. This already makes clear that as a character, Sabrina only exists in her search for Mr. Right. This allows Audrey Hepburn to give her signature sparkle, wear beautiful dresses and show some tears but she’s not able to really leave the one-dimensionality that Sabrina represents behind.
In her scenes as a love-struck teenager, Audrey Hepburn is able to find a lot of subtle comedy in some rather dramatic situations. Her suicide attempt, so often unexplainably put into movies for laughs, feels just like what it is – a young girl thinking that life has no meaning when she can’t get the man she loves but this young girl is only inexperienced and shows the naivety of youth. And so Audrey Hepburn is somehow able to turn the whole event into a rather charming, almost innocent moment that makes it easy to sympathize with her character not because of her unanswered feelings but because of that naivety and inexperience that most viewers have already experienced themselves.
10 years before she would play a flower-girl turned into a lady, Audrey Hepburn already underwent a minor character transformation. But even though she changed her wardrobe and her haircut and became apparently more relaxed and secure of herself (Audrey Hepburn is completely winning when she lets Sabrina enjoy herself by making a fool out of David when he picks her up in his car), her main aspect of character development is her attempt to break her own tradition of loving David. She also doesn’t make her transformation too sudden – she is obviously still the ‘old’ Sabrina and her new-found self-confidence is clearly struggling with her old insecurities since her transformation seems to bring her just as much closer to David as it takes her further away from him. Before that, she already shows a surprising amount of honesty in Sabrina’s feelings – when she returns from Paris and finally gets the recognition she wanted for so long, she is perfectly aware of how David is trying to play the same games with her as he does with every other girl he wants to get to bed with. And Sabrina seems completely willing to play this game, knowing that she won’t get true love but willing to fulfill her countless dreams and hopes this way. Audrey Hepburn invests a lot more cleverness in Sabrina than seems visible at first – both in her scenes before and after she went to Paris. And later, she is very amusing in showing the confusion and guilt in Sabrina for maybe cheating on a man who isn’t even her boyfriend.
Overall, Audrey Hepburn clearly fulfills all the tasks that the script and Billy Wilder give to her – she finds subtle ways to let the comedy of the script shine and handles the romantic aspects with her usual elegance, even if there is a shocking lack of chemistry with Humphrey Bogart which seems to be more his fault since he loathed everything about his role but Audrey Hepburn isn’t able to overcome these problems. She does her best to invest the love story with plausibility and has a strong scene when she phones him from the lobby but the outcome of the story is neither romantic nor sentimental – instead, it’s what has been expected right from the beginning but doesn’t feel right either.
The part of Sabrina isn’t really more complex than that of Princess Ann the year before – both characters learn and both develop in a certain way but Roman Holiday gave Audrey Hepburn better possibilities to use her own charisma and talent in the most effective combination. In Sabrina, her role gives her more opportunities to ‘act’ but it prevents her from combining both her charisma and her talent to full extent. She’s her usual winning self and gives her part a strength and effectiveness other actress might have missed but the role still doesn’t allow her to explore her talents as other roles later in her career did. In the end, her charming, amusing and mostly satisfying performance gets