Wilder Diversions: Sabrina (1995) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Wilder Diversions: Sabrina (1995)

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While she was growing up, Sabrina Fairchild (Julia Ormond) spent more time perched in a tree watching the Larrabee family than she ever did on solid ground. As the chauffeur's daughter on their lavish Long Island estate, Sabrina was invisible behind the branches, but she knew them all below... There is Maude Larrabee (Nancy Marchand), the modern matriarch of the Larrabee Corporation; Linus Larrabee (Harrison Ford), the serious older son who expanded a successful family business into the world's largest communications company; and David (Greg Kinnear), the handsome, fun-loving Larrabee, who was the center of Sabrina's world. Until she was shipped off to Paris. After two years on the staff of Vogue magazine, Sabrina has returned to the Larrabee estate, but now she has blossomed into a beautiful and sophisticated woman. And she's standing in the way of a billion dollar deal.

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

One of my favorite TV shows was a goofy show called "Boston Legal." Its lead actors were James Spader and William Shatner, if that gives any indication of its direction. There's one particular line that struck me from the show, after Shatner's character has been married to a woman for roughly forty minutes and the intrepid cast has finally found her to be a gold digger, that I think sums up Sabrina. Even though he's obviously being taken advantage of, Shatner admits he still loves the woman, and tells her this: "Our love story is a fairy tale for grownups."

And I think that's where Sydney Pollack's version of Sabrina ended up heading. Taking the very fairytale original and beefing up the interplay between Linus and Sabrina-- here, Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond-- manages to make the film still feel suitably romantic but a different beast than the original.

There are lots of other changes too. Sabrina becomes a photographer rather than a cook, David realizes he's kind of a jerk much earlier on in this version, Sabrina isn't so willfully destructive as Hepburn was and not nearly as secure, the Larrabees have lost their father and gained a business minded mother, and now the name of the game is flat screen televisions instead of sugar plastics.

I won't say all of the changes are net positive. The opening sequence, with Sabrina's narration over the Larrabee grounds sounding more flat that florid, is especially messily constructed compared to the original. Luckily, for all of its quiet changes, I think it improves immeasurably once Harrison Ford makes his entrance. Far sexier than Humphrey Bogart (there, I said it, and I won't take it back), Sydney Pollack always brought out the best in Ford, and it pays off in spades. It's amazing that they can make Ford look uncomfortable in a baseball cap and how funny it is at the same time.

I don't think this remake is a complete success, and I'd have to place that on Ormond's shoulders. While she's got a nice flutter, she's hindered by a particularly awful 'ugly duckling' opening segment and she never comes into her own as Linus romances her. I think being in Hepburn's shoes is probably more than a bit of a burden here as well.

The movie's themes are the same as in the original, even though Linus may not have the same generous outlook on capitalism that he espoused in the '54 version. The Larrabee's home is a bit more broken here, too, as it seems to focus more on the two brothers realizing that there black and white worldviews are unsustainable.

So I have to say that this is probably my favorite Wilder remake. Funny in spots, but smart and thoughtful in other bits. Sure, the score is grating, and it seems that Richard Crenna made a small career out of appearing in Wilder remakes, but I can't say have a whole lot of other complaints besides. How do you feel about it, Ryan?

For me this version of Sabrina is the ultimate movie that melts away after watching it. I had watched it 10 years ago and when I played it again it was amazing how little of the film I remembered. The reason for this is there really isn't anything bad about the film but I don't find anything that good about it either. I thought Pollack was a good director but a better lover of film and producer. He tries his best to make a version of Sabrina that is faithful to the original and probably did a better job than 99% of filmmakers did but he didn't capture that feeling that the original had.

I feel bad for Julia Ormond because the deck was stacked against her from the beginning and it is a thankless role to try to outdo a beloved legend in one of their most famous films. For many people Hepburn just had "it" and was charismatic as hell in the original Sabrina and Ormond can't replicate this. As we talked about in the original review, Sabrina is kind of a crazy stalker but Hepburn can make that work for her while Ormond comes off as kind of out of touch in this film.

One thing I wanted to ask you is do you find this version of Sabrina to be much more chaste than the original? In the mid 90's movies could show/talk about a lot more when it comes to sex but I think the naughty playfulness that populated the fringes of the original movie were missing here and it really hurt the film. What do you think Danny? Is this a case when what is implied is a lot more fun that what is shown?

I see what you're saying there, but I think it's a case that Pollack was just less interested in that aspect. He's much more interested in the conflict between the brothers, and Linus' Cinderella story, than in the romantic triangle. That probably doesn't help the movie too much.I don't know if sexing it up would have made it much better, and while implication is certainly more fruitful in the original, I don't think that's where its flaws lie. In making Sabrina, I think Pollack wanted to tether it to reality and add some depth to the proceedings.

The Larrabees are broken because their father has died, Sabrina isn't a man eater but a confused woman who thought she was over her crush and discovers she wasn't. They even give Sabrina's dad a rather pointless plotline where he's revealed to be rich and in love with a maid. And, hell, there's young Paul Giammatti sitting off to the side just for kicks.

I think Sydney Pollack's gift was that he saw the sadness that surrounded the world and used that to find comedy or drama. He was behind grand moving pictures like They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Out of Africa, and Tootsie. I think his filmmaking, while having a romantic streak, isn't as Lubitsch-sophisitcated as Wilder strove for. He's much more of a Michael Curtiz Casablanca/Mandalay sort of man. I think this version of Sabrina isn't bad, just different.

Hell, I could almost imagine a universe where someone enjoys this more than the Wilder original. Almost.

You bring up good points and I wonder what people would think of the movie that didn't know about the original. A big problem with me is I don't think it ever found the right tone. You said it is a fairy tale for grown ups and if that is true he didn't hit it home for me. It tried for the whimsy of the original but then would swing to something more grounded and the two never meshed.

I agree that Pollack always gravitated to the melancholy in his work and that explains not only his directing jobs but also the movies her produced and starred in. He was the perfect person for the small role in Changing Lanes because if that movie had been made 10 years earlier he probably would have made it. Finally, I think it is interesting that his isn't the first big name that we have discussed trying to adapt Wilder. Famed TV personalty Steven Bochco was behind the horrible Double Indemnity remake and now we have Pollack trying to adapt one of the most beloved romantic comedies of all time.

Maybe it is just me but if I was going to adapt one of the greats, I would turn in something completely different so comparing the two would be hard. Double Indemnity stayed very close and only changed odd things that made it stick out even worse and Sabrina had a chance to be different but was pulled back towards the safety of the original over and over again. Maybe Wilder will figure out the key to remakes when we turn the tables on him and look at a film he remade later in his career but the odds don't seem to look that good.

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Next week: The Seven Year Itch (1955)

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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  1. While I respect your analysis, it was thoughtful and insightful, I must say that I DID
    enjoy the 1995 Sabrina better than the original. While I always liked Bogart, the
    ending of Sabrina 1954 was not believable for me. However, the passion at the
    end of the 1995 version was a little underdone. That WAS the fault of the actors,
    especially Ormond, who I definitely liked in this version, but I just wish she had done
    it, well, different. I felt that her hurt should have given more quickly to growing
    excitement, the beating heart when faced with Linus in Paris and to a more obvious
    quickened breath–all hallmarks of being effected by someone you love romantically.
    And Linus should have found a better line than, “It was a lie….and then it was a dream.”
    No actually it wasn’t a lie. Apparently everyone seems to believe that Linus was falling in
    love and didn’t know it Okay, I like that but it should have manifested before actually going
    to Paris. That part really didn’t work for me. I agree about the relationship between the
    brothers–extremely well done. You got that they actually loved each other.

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