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Cinderella has nothing on her
on December 17, 2002
I was surprised at how good this movie is. A remake of a movie starring Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, directed by one of the greats of American cinema, Billy Wilder, is not exactly the kind of task for the faint of heart. The fact that Sydney Pollack (They Shoot Horses Don't They? (1969), Tootsie (1982), Out of Africa (1985), etc.) decided to do it must have raised a few eyebrows in Hollywood land.
And let's just say I had preconceptions as I sat down to watch this. No way could this be anything near as good as the original. And for the first twenty minutes or so I was not dissuaded. Julia Ormond, who was given Miss Hepburn's title role, seemed nothing far removed from ordinary; and Greg Kinnear, who played the playboy David Larrabee, seemed a poor imitation of William Holden. Of course Harrison Ford, I told myself, is another story, since he is the embodiment of the fulfillment of the desire of many woman, and a fine, accomplished leading man. He would be, I suspected, the lone bright spot. In the original, Humphrey Bogart, a little past his prime, and in not exactly the best of moods, and not entirely pleased with the relatively inexperienced Audrey Hepburn, played the cool tycoon Linus Larrabee with some distracted forbearance in what many consider one of his lesser performances. Surely Harrison Ford could improve on that.
He did, but what really surprised me was just how diabolically clever the oh, so romantic script by Barbara Benedek and David Rayfiel turned out to be. I mean, Cinderella move over. Sabrina could not have achieved a more glorious existence had she died and gone to heaven. It is hard to imagine a more fulfilling fantasy for a chauffeur's daughter than what transpires here.
Quickly here's the premise of this celluloid fairy tale/romance: Pretty but ordinary Sabrina, born of working class parents, her father the chauffeur of the ultra rich Larrabees, grows up living above the garage in the palatial Larrabee estate. She watches the lavish parties thrown by the Larrabees from a spot in a tree and falls madly in the kind of puppy love that never goes away with the younger of the Larrabee brothers, David, who is the kind of guy who gives playboys a bad name. When she comes of age, she goes away to Paris (apparently to work for a fashion magazine: in the original Sabrina, she goes to a cooking school in Paris), picks up confidence and a new kind of eye-popping sophistication, comes back and...well, gets noticed.
The basic skeleton of this, the story from the first Sabrina (1954), which is dreamily romantic enough and then some, is greatly augmented here with some very fine psychological touches including developing Sabrina's character beyond the pretty and stylish to something bordering on the wise and heroic. Suffice it to say that we come away feeling she deserves every rainbow's end she gets. I can see Benedek and Rayfiel exclaiming with riotous joy as they are writing the script (trading e-mails perhaps): "They want romance, they want woman's fantasy? They want Sabrina to have a pot of gold and true love everlasting? How about riches beyond counting and the doting attention of the two handsome, very rich brothers? She can take her pick. We've give 'em romance, we'll give 'em dreams come true!" And they do. Not only that, but they keep us guessing about who gets the girl until the last possible moment, and they do that very cleverly.
Of course it helps to have professional direction by Sydney Pollack and a fine cast including Harrison Ford--at his best, by the way--and Julia Ormond, a hard-working and talented actress (I recall her from Smilla's Sense of Snow, 1997), who knows how to be cute without fawning, supported by Greg Kinnear, Nancy Marchand, John Wood and Angie Dickinson. I mention Miss Dickinson because, as the mother of a perspective bride about to throw an incredibly lavish wedding, she gets to deliver this "let them eat cake" line: "We thought we'd use recycled paper" (for the wedding invitations).
The script is full of similar witticisms, some verbal, some like eye candy. For example, when Sabrina removes her glasses (the usual Hollywood signal for the adolescent ugly duckling to become a beautiful swan) after gaining sophistication in Paris, she quotes aptly but surprisingly from Gertrude Stein: "America is my country and Paris is my home." (Of course Gertrude Stein never heard of Paris, Texas--but that is another film, and besides, I digress...)
I also liked it when Sabrina is in the arms of her Paris would-be lover who kisses her, and--noticing that she is not as engaged as she might me-observes with perfect decorum, "I'm embarrassed that you're somewhere else."
Memorable was the shot of Harrison Ford momentarily looking jealous and hurt. By the way, he has a number of good lines, and he delivers them well. I especially liked it when he sadly confessed: "I was sent to deal with you. I sent myself."
It is probably better if you haven't seen the original and can experience this on its own merits without the odiousness that sometimes comes with comparisons. Comparing Audrey Hepburn with Julia Ormond is like comparing Grace Kelly with Jennifer Lopez. They really are very different people. And comparing Billy Wilder's 1954 film (from the play by Samuel Taylor) is a little like comparing Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera with Andrew Lloyd Webber's.
Bottom line: see this for both Harrison Ford who wears the business-first character of the "only surviving heart donor" very well, and for Julia Ormond whose intense and beguiling performance makes us forgive her for not being Audrey Hepburn.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!"