Monday, September 29, 2014

Film Review: The Audrey Hepburn Collection on Blu

Audrey Hepburn has always held a kind of magic for me.  She’s one of the classic actresses that tended to play herself in all her roles, but since I love the person she was, I find nothing to criticize.  She always had a disarming charm that made me wish I could be like her.  In movies like Sabrina and Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Charade, she possessed a delightful confidence and unassuming candidness rarely seen in contemporary films.  I envy her these traits.
Warner Brothers releases the Audrey Hepburn Collection on Blu Ray, containing audio and visual transfers of three of Hepbun’s most iconic films: Sabrina, Funny Face, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Sabrina is the story of a chauffeur’s daughter (Audrey Hepburn) obsessed with the youngest son of her father’s employer. She gets shipped off to a quality cooking school in Paris, where her father hopes she will not only learn skills to help her gain employment, but also that she will get over David Larabee (William Holden), a notorious playboy.
Sabrina, however, returns a transformed creature.  No longer awkward and girlish, she steals David’s heart with her sophistication and charm, right out from under his workaholic brother’s nose.  Afraid that his plans to marry off David to seal a twenty million dollar merger will go awry, Linus Larabee (Humphrey Bogart) attempts to dissuade, then distract Sabrina from her heart’s desire.  In the process, however, he discovers he has a heart as well as a brain, and Sabrina begins to waver in her certainty of her love for David.
 I saw the Julia Ormond/Harrison Ford Sabrina first, many years ago, and LOVED it, but I had no idea it was a remake until a friend of mine rented the DVD (remember those days?) and brought it over.  I remember watching in and mentally comparing it to its more recent counterpart, and I concluded in the end that the original Linus did not love the original Sabrina.  Why?  Because the way Bogart played him felt more like a calculating charlatan, while Ford’s version clearly transitioned from callous seducer to altruistic suitor.  The change was more obvious, genuine, and above all, believable.  Yet I didn’t understand why until I watched Sabrina again in this collection.
It wasn’t so much the story itself, but rather Bogart’s tendency to act the same precise way with certain lines.  I’ve seen enough of his work between my first viewing of the 1954 Sabrina and now to conjecture that in particular parts where Linus tells Sabrina some sad story of his past, it’s not that Linus is making it up to gain her sympathy like I first thought; it’s the way Bogart delivers, “Oh, yeah,” as if being recalled to something he mentioned previously is somehow an unexpected surprise.
Don't get me wrong.  I love Bogart.  I love him in Casablanca, and I love him in To Have and Have Not, and I love him in this.  I suppose my bias toward Harrison Ford is partially rooted in my love for Han Solo, and partially rooted in my dislike of the generally accepted condescension toward women during Bogart's era.
Hepburn, however, is far superior to Julia Ormond in her performance of Sabrina Fairchild.  While Ormond held her own acting with Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear and had her own characterization of Sabrina, she didn’t have the same illumination in her face, nor the same confident grace for which Hepburn is renowned.  And, of course, Hepburn added to all this her singing a lovely little French ballad, La Via En Rose.

Funny Face
This isn’t your normal opposites-attract love story.  When a fashion magazine executive Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) and her head photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) barge into a bookstore without permission to use it for a photo shoot, bookseller Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) catches their attention with both her vocal assertiveness and unique face.  When the same magazine executive decides the world needs a representative of the “ideal woman,” the same old models just won’t do, and she decides that Jo is different enough to make it work.  Jo, however, has no desire to model, and it takes an appeal from Dick to lure her to Paris to both model for their magazine and meet her favorite living philosopher. 
Funny Face is one of my least favorite Audrey Hepburn movie.  It follows the same general direction of all musicals – songs and dances are stuffed into scenes wherever possible, regardless as to whether they ought to fit there.  I think perhaps sometimes a composer is so intent on squeezing a song into a scene that they sacrifice quality and character believability. 
For example, the modern dance number in the Paris café – was there a revealing character point that needed to be mad?  No.  We already know Jo is independent, willful, and naive.  The dance does nothing to augment or clarify that.  It might be construed as demonstrating the “accepting” or perhaps “indifferent” mindset of the café patrons, as they studiously ignore Joe’s antics no matter what she does.  However, had the film would not have suffered in the slightest if the number were cut.
Also, the song about what reporters would ask Jo as the representative of the ideal woman.  In no other scene do reporters ask anything of Jo, so why it is there? Again, we know the characters’ traits and history from previous scenes, so there’s no development needed, and the song doesn’t forward the plot or reveal anything necessary to the climax or resolution.  It might have been added to help show what the fashion industry tries to shove down women’s throats about how to “be lovely;” unrealistic standards, all of them, since loveliness as defined by this song is possessing an endless supply of happiness, charm, know-how, jolliness, and cheeriness.  Ridiculous.  However, despite this clarification, the song has no useful function.  Thus, the film, again, would not have suffered by its absence.
The story, however, can be viewed as rather compelling.  It’s a tongue-in-cheek battle between the superficially beautiful and the self-righteously intelligent.  The two war against each other, saying their way is the single definition of value, the true way to happiness.  Each detests the other for their lack of understanding and acceptance, for their disrespect and mockery.  But the representatives of these worlds, Dick and Jo, somehow manage to connect, appreciate, and eventually love each other.  Dick is the only one in the fashion world that treats Jo with any modicum of respect, and Jo is much more than the usual glamorous-yet-vapid models with whom Dick usually works.  Unfortunately, they still step on each other’s toes in surprisingly realistic dynamics: Jo forgets an appointment in her excitement at spending time with fellow philosophers; Dick reacts badly when confronted with jealousy; Jo’s naiveté about men’s motivations put her in a dangerous situation; and Dick insults Jo’s beliefs in a fit of frustration.  They apologize, forgive, miscommunicate, resonate, and, ironically, manage to overcome their differences by exercising the one trait Jo prizes so highly, yet fails at applying: empathy.  Moral of the story: It’s never either/or, but a balance of both/and.
Rant on the video quality: There are two scenes where the director chose to make artistic changes, the most annoying being glaring over-exposure.  The edges of everything are softened, and anything white catches the light so intensely it gives the picture a hazy shimmer.  It’s hard to watch despite the lovely location and pretty song, so much so that it gave me a mild headache.  All other scenes noticeably lack this little flare, and are the better for it.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s 
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of the most celebrated of Audrey Hepburn’s films.  She plays Holly Golightly, the carefree ingénue searching New York for her perfect dream millionaire.  One morning, Paul Varjack (George Peppard), a disillusioned young writer, moves into her building at the behest of his “patroness,” and he gets caught up in Holly’s hectic yet captivating lifestyle.  She calls him Fred because he resembles her brother, and the two of them form an affectionate bond, one that survives personal drama, drunken insults, and romantic entanglements.
I feel sorry for Holly Golightly.  She spends the whole movie not knowing who she is or what she wants, scared to pieces that she’ll be trapped in a life she hates, all while pretending to be glamorously eccentric.  Charming she is, for sure, but even within the first ten minutes, we see her admiring wealth, fleeing aggressive suitors, manipulating men, and confessing to have moments of inexplicable terror – what she calls “the made reds.”  But then, she is also so darling and innocent and child-like all at the same time you can’t help but enjoy her when she’s lively, or feel protective when she’s scared or grieving.  I think that’s Holly’s universal appeal, the timeless draw of Breakfast at Tiffany’s:  We see pieces of ourselves in Holly, and Hepburn has such a way of taking any character she plays and making her endearing.
Paul is also an interesting character.  I’ve seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s three times, but only during this last did I pay attention to his character story.  I always felt him too forgiving of Holly, but there are aspects of him I didn’t notice before – how he people watches instead of interacting, his constant “saving” of Holly (though she often forces it on him), his acceptance of being “sponsored” by a married woman, and his resentment at the lack of success of his first book.  He transitions from a passive-aggressive protector to an active rescuer to a demanding lover, ultimately refusing to accept Holly’s stubborn pursuit of easy wealth and challenging her on her notions that everyone else is seeking to put her in a cage – she’s already in one of her own devising. 

I enjoyed my little foray into Audrey Hepburn’s most celebrated works.  She’s spunky, affectionate, and guileless, with a lovely singing voice and long, dramatic eyelashes.  From the glamorous Sabrina to the unconventional Jo to the whimsical Holly, Hepburn is always a delight.

Okay, fine, I'll say it - she's damn adorable. :)

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