Humphrey Bogart and William Holden as the Larrabee Brothers
Ever since I fell in love with Billy Wilder's 1954 romance Sabrina over a decade ago, I have found myself defending its most controversial element: Humphrey Bogart. With his craggy face and dour demeanor, the 54-year-old Bogart seems like the only misstep in a film that is otherwise pitch-perfect. But I think it is precisely because of his bizarre casting that the love story between Audrey Hepburn's Sabrina Fairchild and Bogie's Linus Larrabee blooms before us in such a sweet way.
Let me explain.
It has been said that Cary Grant was Wilder's first choice for the role of Linus, the responsible older brother of Sabrina's eternal crush, David (William Holden). While I will always mourn the loss of a Grant-Wilder collaboration, I have to wonder if he would've been right here. With his gorgeous, well, everything and knack for radiating warmth and geniality, it would've been difficult to buy Cary as an austere businessman who hasn't been interested in romance for years and never once caught Sabrina's eye -- not impossible, mind you, because I truly believe Cary was a better actor than he was ever given credit for, but still difficult. With Bogie as Linus, though, there are clearer obstacles to the character's happy ending. He isn't conventionally handsome; he is noticeably older than Sabrina, which he is very much aware of; and he absolutely presents as someone who has closed himself off from romance for quite some time (as one line goes, "Oh, you need dusting!") -- all of which makes his and Sabrina's feelings for each other that much more powerful. He never expected to find love, while she never expected to be swept off her feet by the sterner Larrabee brother.
Another reason why I love Bogart's casting is because it is just so oddball. Humphrey Bogart in a romantic comedy... by Billy Wilder... that has him win Audrey Hepburn... over William Holden?! Every bit of that sounds absurd, but the results are magical in my eyes. And how could it not be? This is a Bogie performance, after all! The man was one of our greatest actors, and I find his work in Sabrina to be woefully underrated. While he is admittedly a little stiff here -- perhaps inevitable since he didn't enjoy making the film and didn't get along with Wilder, Hepburn, and Holden -- Bogie possessed a deliciously wry humor and intimidating cerebral air that really bring Linus to life in understated but important ways. The quiet romanticism he had in films like Casablanca and Dark Passage is evident here, too.
And then there are his iconic mannerisms. The wolfish smile he flashes after he says a joke to David. The hilarious way he silently looks Holden over as he spies David hiding the champagne glasses in his pockets. The calculating glances he gives Sabrina as he lies to her, followed by the pained expressions when he realizes how much the truth will hurt her. The way he rubs his chin with his thumb and forefinger as he thinks.
The hesitance to accept Bogie is, I think, amplified by the presence of William Holden. With his deep tan, casual athleticism, and megawatt smile, Holden heightens the contrast between the two actors, which makes Bogie's age and appearance even more conspicuous. However, this contrast is a feature, not a bug. In his white tuxedo jacket and sparkling sports car, David is Prince Charming, the white knight, the moon that Sabrina has long been reaching for. But Wilder, Ernest Lehman, and Samuel Taylor's script subverts the fairy tale by shifting the focus and making Linus, in his black homburgs and somber suits, the dark horse that no one saw coming. In the end, David is only a fantasy -- a beautiful, sweet-talking fantasy that Sabrina can indulge in but must ultimately leave behind as she fully becomes a woman.
Unlike Bogie, Holden's performance has long been praised for its breezy, rakish charm, and rightfully so! The actor is delightful as a hedonistic, head-in-the-clouds pretty boy who elides commitment and consequences at every turn. Holden elevates everyone he is in a scene with, including Bogie, making the brotherly dynamic between Linus and David a joy to watch. Throughout the film, they only take each other at face value: Linus sees David as a vapid playboy while David believes his brother to be a boring stuffed shirt. Because of Sabrina, though, they both evolve and recognize how the other has changed. David becomes more responsible by going through with his marriage and the company's merger and by arranging Linus's reunion with Sabrina; Linus, meanwhile, is willing to ruin the merger by placing Sabrina's happiness before business.
Sabrina is incredibly special to me, and there is absolutely a soft spot in my heart for the Larrabee brothers and the performances of the men who portray them. Every viewing of the film leaves me just as besotted as the first one, and I will probably spend the rest of my life begging for justice for Bogie's casting. Which I think just means I'll be a really fun 80-year-old to be around.
This is my contribution to the Fifth Golden Boy Blogathon: A William Holden Celebration, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema, The Flapper Dame, and myself. Check out the entries from Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.