Haircuts shouldn’t be underestimated. Not the most profound thing I will ever write, but true. William Wyler, director of Roman Holiday (1953), knew this. Billy Wilder, director of Sabrina (1954), also knew this. And that is why, at pivotal points in both films, Audrey Hepburn’s hair gets fairly unceremoniously lopped off. In both films, the moment that we see her without her ponytail for the first time, is the moment she becomes the real protagonist of the film. Sabrina sitting in a tree gazing at David isn’t the real Sabrina. Humphrey Bogart didn’t fall in love with that Sabrina, he dragged her out of garage and made fun of her pitiful suicide attempt. The ponytail is a reassuring symbol for the audience, as we know that whatever happens to her before the chop will be resolved when she gets a haircut and some gumption.
In Roman Holiday, Hepburn’s haircut is her first real act of rebellion. Of course, before that she hops over the palace wall and into the real world, but she is loopy on sedatives, and promptly has to be rescued by the handsome and streetwise Gregory Peck. The next morning, however, she is thinking clearly again, and walks into a salon and tells the hairdresser to cut it all off. In fact, it takes two attempts to assert this independence, as the bob he gives her is a crashing anti-climax.
When he finally crops her hair and rolls the edges, she suddenly becomes royalty. Not the little princess drowned in her ankle- length nightdress and waist-length hair, dutifully drinking milk before bed, but a regal and dignified woman.
Sabrina may cut her hair for the wrong reason, but it has the same effect. It takes a year at cooking school, a friendship with a wealthy octogenarian, and a haircut to transform Sabrina the chauffeur’s daughter, into Sabrina the woman.
When the Baron rightly identifies why Sabrina’s souffle is a flop, (“a woman happily in love, she burn the souffle…a woman unhappily in love forgets to turn on the oven”), he gives her the best piece of advice she could hope for. Her father may have sent her to cookery school in Paris, but the Baron told her she looked like a horse – the ponytail had to go. And just like that, on her return to Long Island, Sabrina and David are equals. Her appearance is the ultimate status symbol.
“Oh Sabrina, where have you been all my life?”
“Right over the garage.”