Audrey Hepburn’s just a MacGuffin in Sabrina

The movie is called Sabrina in the same way The Maltese Falcon is called the The Maltese Falcon. Both films concern MacGuffins. It’s just easier to wrap one in a newspaper.

Sabrina, directed by the Billy Wilder, came out in 1954 and stars a holy triumvirate of Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn and William Holden. They have a love triangle, the hypotenuse of which is Hepburn, and viewing by Netflix 61 years later on a Wednesday the whole to-do just feels uncomfortable.

It’s not because of character’s disparate ages, although that does stand out. At the time of Sabrina’s U.S. release, Bogart was 54, Holden was 36, and Hepburn was 25. This undercuts some of the intended chemistry, particularly with Bogart. Hepburn could be his progeny as easily she could be his paramour.

In a crucial scene late in Sabrina — a romantic comedy satirizing classism — Bogart and Hepburn talk in the window of a New York City sky-rise, lit in deft chiaroscuro. Hepburn is gracile, all perfect surfaces and youth. Bogart, who would die less than three years later in 1957, has a face savaged by vice, his toupee a prominent co-star.

But large age gaps between leading women and leading men in classic films aren’t uncommon — it’s still not uncommon — and Wilder seems to wink at this when Bogart and Hepburn’s characters make plans to see The Seven Year Itch on Broadway, which tells the story of an older married man and his obsession with a younger woman. In 1955, Wilder directed a film version of the play, so it’s possible he was just promoting his next project, too.

Hepburn often played the love interest of an older man, notably in Roman Holiday (Gregory Peck, 13 years older), My Fair Lady (Rex Harrison, 21 years older) and Charade (Cary Grant, 25 years older). Letting that get in the way of an honest viewing today is, to an extent, unfair. Previous eras were better at suspension of disbelief. Bosley Crowther, the famous New York Times film critic, loved the movie and said nothing of implausibly wide age gaps.

"But it is just as much Mr. Bogart's picture [as Hepburns'], for he is incredibly adroit as the strong-willed aristocrat of business who finally chips when he crashes with true love," Crowther wrote in his review. "And the skill with which this old rock-ribbed actor blends the gags with the arch duplicities with a manly manner of melting is one of the incalculable joys of this show."

Modern films, like most recently Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight, don’t get the same pass, especially when the gap is so big. When the movie came out in July, Emma Stone was 25 and Colin Firth was 53.

Male actors age into virility. Female actors age into mothers.

The bigger problem in Sabrina is the treatment of Hepburn’s character, Sabrina Fairchild. She is the daughter of the chauffeur of the wealthy Larrabee family. Bogart plays the older Larrabee brother, Linus, and Holden plays the younger brother, David.

David is the playboy. Linus is the responsible one, overseeing the Larrabee corporation. Sabrina has had a school-girl crush on David forever and eventually attempts suicide, this before being sent to Paris for two years to not only learn to be Julia Child but also to give the movie a reason to play La Vie en rose as much as possible.

Sabrina returns a boulevardier, and David finally notices her. But he’s engaged now. This marriage, though, is all but arranged, as it will smooth the merging of two corporations into a Reagan-fantasy superpower. This kicks off the love triangle.

Linus lures Sabrina away from David to save the merger and he intends to exile her back to Paris. This is the part that’s hard to overlook in a 2015 viewing. Sabrina, Hepburn’s character, is a pawn. She’s moved between two men as it suits their needs and their business. She’s treated like property and so is her father, the Larrabee family driver.

When Sabrina becomes a problem — albeit a very pretty one who wears small white shorts — the Larrabees have the power to send her away. She has no choice. Her life is decided by rich men.

This is a theme in older movies, even in Casablanca. Its screenplay has been called perfect, but Ilsa exists as Sabrina does. Ilsa doesn’t choose her man; her man is chosen for her. By a man. On the night she stays with Rick and they remember Paris, she cedes her authority, telling him, “You have to think for both of us.”

Sabrina cedes nothing because she has nothing to cede. During that chiaroscuro scene by the sky-rise window with Linus, when she learns of her imminent banishment to France, she doesn’t even protest. Linus is sending her, a grown woman, away. First, though, he’s going to be cruel. Linus will make Sabrina think he’s going, too, and that he loves her. Sabrina will find out when she’s on the boat that her Paris trip is solo, that she’s collateral damage in a corporate merger, that Linus doesn’t love her.

Linus: “I wasn’t going to take you to Paris. I was going to send you.”
Sabrina: “Alone?”
Linus: “Yes, all alone.”

Marginalizing women probably wasn’t Wilder’s intent. It’s a movie about economic castes, an issue still relevant thanks to the worst income inequality since the 1920s. Sabrina and her father are of a servile class — one, though, that seems a bit rigid for 1954.

There is a scene in which Linus intends to take Sabrina on a date and have her father the chauffeur, Thomas, drive. Thomas of course finds this uncomfortable and tells Linus. Linus says it never occurred to him that it would be awkward or improper. Linus and David’s Monopoly-guy father also says at one point, “What right has a chauffeur got to call his daughter Sabrina?”

Later, father and daughter address the relationship, and Thomas says: “Would they praise the chauffeur’s daughter? … Nobody poor was ever called democratic for marrying someone rich.”

The satire is effective, but the movie’s treatment of women undercuts it. Sabrina is less a peasant and more a thing. She’s better than your average MacGuffin and used differently, but that doesn’t mean she’s not one.

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