Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Sabrina

Coming out in the same year as the Rob Reiner/Aaron Sorkin fairy tale The American President, Sydney Pollack released his own fairy tale, Sabrina, a remake of the Billy Wilder classic starring Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, and Audrey Hepburn. Reiner and Pollack’s sought to make films that stood out as a stark contrast in an era of cynicism and conglomerates; they are escapist films about characters that escape themselves into fantasy worlds. They are both great examples of films that elicit the kind of response where one waxes nostalgic about how, “they don’t make ‘em like they used to." But I’m here to talk about Sabrina, and to watch Sabrina is to be absorbed by a film where time simply melts away. To watch Sabrina is also to watch a film where we understand that everything depends upon the performances. The story – an ugly duckling fairy tale with a “once upon a time…” opening narration – is familiar, the results of the story are definitely familiar, and the tone – and how Pollack will visually convey that tone – is also familiar to anyone that’s either seen the original Sabrina, seen a Sydney Pollack movie, or knows of Pollack’s love for ‘40s/’50s cinema. It’s a touch on the long side at 126 minutes, and even though the film feels like its spinning its wheels in the third act, I’m never bored by the film because I just love spending time with these characters and the extravagant milieu they inhabit. It reminds me of Tootsie in that it’s pure cinematic comfort food.

Based on the 1954 Billy Wilder film – which was based on the play by Samuel Taylor – Sabrina concerns itself with Larrabee family. Brothers Linus (Harrison Ford) and David (Greg Kinnear in his first major role) run the family business while mother Maude (Nancy Marchand) merely makes appearances and throws parties, leaving the day-to-day operations to Linus. David loves the lifestyle but not the work (he doesn’t take it seriously and has never stepped foot in his office), and if I were to tell you that he was a playboy type that had a new girlfriend every week, meets Elizabeth Tyson (Lauren Holley) whom he loves and wants to marry, and then falls out of love with her later in the film, would you be surprised? Would you be surprised if I told you that the woman he is planning to marry is the daughter of the family that Linus is trying to merge with (and thus when David’s love wears off it affects the merger, making it impossible for him to actually not follow through with the wedding) and that Linus must do everything he can to keep the merger going forward despite his brother’s obvious unhappiness?

No, the narrative and how it plays out is of little to no use to us here. We know how this story goes. We know that Sabrina (Julia Ormond in a performance that elicited a, “what ever happened to her” while I re-watched this the other night), the daughter of the family chauffeur, who adores David – often from the vantage point of a tree outside the cottage that she and her father live – and the lavish lifestyle of the Larrabee’s will go off to Paris, learn about life, mature, and come back with a makeover that transforms her from naïve girl to beautiful woman. We also know that everyone will recognize Sabrina except David, but when he does recognize her, he will, of course, fall in love with her, jeopardizing his engagement to Elizabeth. Sabrina naturally falls for all of David’s schemes that she used to giggle at from her tree; however, this jeopardizes the giant merger between the Larrabee’s and the Tyson’s (Richard Crenna plays Elizabeth’s father) and draws the ire of Linus and Maude. After an unfortunate accident involving some champagne flutes, David is incapacitated for a few days, which opens the door for Linus to hatch a plan to divert Sabrina’s attention from David onto him so that David can’t screw up the merger.

Again, we know where this is all going: Linus and Sabrina share some moments together on the beach and over Mongolian food; despite his efforts being rooted in a plan to fool Sabrina, Linus eventually falls in love with her because of what she awakens in him; Sabrina falls in love with Linus but still is infatuated with the fantasy that David represents; Linus’ plan is foiled because he can’t handle what it does to Sabrina, but also because of Sabrina’s surprisingly grown-up reaction to finding out about Linus’ plan; and David saves the day by becoming responsible for once, completing the merger, and allowing his brother to be happy for the first time in his life. It’s all very charming and sweet.

In Roger Ebert’s review of the film, he states that with a film like Sabrina, “Everything depends on the casting[…] In a movie like this, skill and talent can take you only so far, and then the camera is simply sitting there and regarding you, and you had better be regardable, or the cause is lost.” I tend to agree with this sentiment (we can actually apply it to a lot of Pollack’s films) because this is so much what those films of the ‘40s/’50s that Pollack revered so much are about: watching big stars look pretty, say funny things, and fall in love, enjoying ourselves during the process. This is what Sabrina does so well. Harrison Ford is perfect as Linus – a performance that marks one of the last times Ford still looked the sure-fire 100 million dollar leading man (he wouldn’t be the haggard Harrison Ford until ’99 when he re-teamed with Pollack for Random Hearts). Greg Kinnear in his first big role (he also starred in the much-less enjoyable, downright awful Dear God the same year) is charming as David; Pollack once again shows his knack for seeing something in an actor and eliciting the best performance possible from them. The supporting cast – the aforementioned Crenna and Marchand, but also Angie Dickinson, John Wood, Fanny Adant, and the great character actress Dana Ivey – is fantastic here, as well.

But the film’s successes hinge entirely upon our love of Sabrina. And she is played by relative newcomer at the time Julia Ormond (she had just starred in Legends of the Fall and First Knight). It’s easy to see why Pollack would cast her: she plays the loveable Duckling (and does a good job, despite how beautiful she is, of looking not like a movie star prior to her transformation post-Paris) well and holds her own in a comparison to Hepburn even if Pollack knows along with the rest of us watching that trying to compare someone to Audrey Hepburn is futile. Hiding behind long, curled hair and big glasses, the make-up and costume people do a decent enough job of making Ormond look like a naïve girl in awe of this foreign world that is right next door to her. And when she comes back from Paris, she is striking in her beauty – her smile, still in awe of the Larrabee lifestyle, is infectious – and is appropriately compared to a lovely breeze that has come in and instilled life within David, charming him; she charmed me, too. Ormond’s performance is always the right balance of being in awe of the Larrabee lifestyle yet still grounded by her experiences in Paris. Obviously her transformation from innocent girl to experienced woman isn’t as striking as Hepburn’s, but then again you’ll notice that I’ve stayed away from comparisons between the two films (and casts) because…well, because that’s just stupid to compare anything to Billy Wilder. So yeah, Julia Ormond: I loved her in this performance and give major kudos to Pollack for casting her (the other finalist for the role was Juliette Binoche) when I’m sure the studios wanted a much bigger star (in fact, Pollack insisted on casting a “name” actress).

Like Sabrina, we too fawn over the extravagance that fills every frame as Pollack’s camera lovingly lingers over the glitz and glamor of the Larrabee parties. So, in addition to the actors really shining, Brian Morris' production design as big a star. You feel as though you are walking through that archway into the Larrabee party. It’s so well defined and executed that it’s one of the reasons why I don’t begrudge Pollack for letting his camera linger a little too long on certain scenes. Who can blame him? We believe Sabrina’s reactions – her naiveté – because we too are stunned by the night parties with big band and fireworks, the solarium, the plane rides, the mini-vacation to Martha’s Vineyard…it’s all alluring without being too distracting from the personal story that’s unfolding. The environment is beautiful to look at, and I’m glad he lets his camera just kind of mosey its way through the party because I was absolutely drinking all of it in and enjoying every minute of it.

Sabrina isn’t one of Pollack’s best films – it’s much too average for that – but it’s certainly one of my favorites of his. Even though he reluctantly made a remake of a classic Hollywood romantic comedy  (he hated the idea of doing a remake, especially a remake of Billy Wilder film, because people were almost always unforgiving about remakes), Pollack dives right into what can only be described as his only truly Hollywood romance film; his one and only fairy tale. No ambiguous ending, no larger metaphors for the world that surround the characters, just uninhibited and unmitigated niceness; a charmer of a movie that doesn’t have a second of cynicism in it. I appreciate that about Sabrina: it’s a romantic comedy that I don’t roll my eyes at. And you know something, it takes a lot for a romantic comedy to get me to completely buy in and not approach it with cynicism.  The film wasn’t a hit for Pollack (or for Ford as it was one of his rare films to not eclipse the 100 million mark) as it barely eked out a 3 million dollar profit thanks to worldwide box-office, but it’s an infectiously attractive and amiable romantic comedy filled with infectiously attractive and amiable people that succeed in always putting a smile on my face whenever I pop in the DVD. 


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