YMRT #22: Audrey Hepburn: Sex, Style and Sabrina / by Karina Longworth

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Like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, it sometimes seems as though Audrey Hepburn’s actual movies have been swallowed up by a superficial image of her as a star. When you think of her, you probably think of her in a black cocktail dress, swinging a cigarette holder — an image from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a film about a golddigging party girl which somehow convinces the viewer that it’s about a girl-next-door princess. This ability to mix sex and class and innocence was Hepburn’s real trademark, and along with her ballerina/waif body type - the total opposite of the bombshell look that was in vogue at the time — it made Hepburn not just a great star, but a groundbreaking one: she was the first glamorous actress whose style seemed to be to dress for herself, and not to appeal to men. 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s came along fairly far along in Hepburn’s evolution as a star. Today we’re going to talk about a film which sparked that evolution, Sabrina — Hepburn’s second Hollywood film, on which she was romanced by William Holden, resented by Humphrey Bogart, and first dressed by Givenchy. It was also the first film on which her complicated star persona as a “new woman,” who used fashion to both broadcast her individuality and negotiate around the censors, started to come together.

Show Notes!

My book Hollywood Frame by Frame contains several pages of images taken on the New York set of Sabrina. There’s one page that shows Hepburn, Holden, director Billy Wilder, and screenwriter Ernest Lehman, sitting around a table together — without Bogart. When I started researching that photo, I learned that Bogart had been an antagonist on that set, in part because he seemed to feel threatened by the up-and-coming Hepburn, who he thought was getting special treatment, and who would thus upstage him. That reminded me of the portion of Sam Wasson’s book Fifth Avenue 5 A.M., in which he details the special treatment that Hepburn did get, in that she was sent to Paris to pick out items for her character’s (and her own) wardrobe at the atelier of Hubert de Givenchy, the designer with whom Hepburn would work for the rest of her career. I thought it would be interesting to explore ways in which Sabrina, made when Hepburn was still a total newcomer, put in motion various aspects of her now-indelible star persona. 

This episode features more film criticism/analysis than usual, and because I had researched these films and Hepburn’s life before, I didn’t need to do the usual exhaustive research. But most of the quotes and information about Hepburn’s early and personal lives came from Barry Paris’ biography Audrey Hepburn.


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