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Best Corporate Allegory: Sabrina (1995)

This essay is part of Avidly’s RomCom Superlatives Series

Only the Gap ad could rival the rom-com as the epitome of 90s culture. So it’s no mistake that Sabrina (1995), the Sydney Pollack-directed film starring Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond, and Greg Kinnear, drops a reference to Kinnear’s character David appearing in this most zeitgeisty of 90s forms.

Produced in the midst of a series of media-tech mergers, the film is a deeply self-conscious remake of the beloved 1954 Billy Wilder classic, which stars Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and William Holden. The 1995 Sabrina is never more aware of its 1950s origins or its status as a 90s rom-com than during Sabrina’s opening narration, when she describes the core members of the ultra-wealthy Larrabee family, owners of a massive media-technology company for whom her father works as a chauffeur. Through a voiceover that intercuts the Larrabees interacting with guests at an opulent outdoor party, Ormond’s Sabrina explains their celebrity through magazines: the matriarch, Maude (Nancy Marchand), was featured on the cover of Fortune; corporate magnate older son, Linus (Ford), was on the cover of Time; and, Sabrina purrs, “David did a Gap ad.”

Played for laughs, and meant to indicate the intense crush that Sabrina has on David—how could she think being in a Gap ad was more impressive than the other two publications?!—this otherwise throwaway line helps us understand how the film serves as an allegory for the media landscape of the mid- to late-90s. Much like the Gap’s print and video advertising across the decade, which featured contemporary and cutting-edge celebrity and cultural figures along with images of classical Hollywood stars, Pollack’s Sabrina is both timely and timeless, eternal and ephemeral. In the film, these competing energies construct a tone of cynical nostalgia. If cynicism seems a weird vibe for a rom com, the effect also serves a purpose: it underscores the increasingly shitty effects of corporate media consolidation, one of which would be the rom-com’s increasing erasure from studio-backed efforts. If Sabrina seems dark, that may be because it’s anticipating a trend that would only become starkly apparent over a decade later.


Across the 90s, the Gap’s print ads were inescapable. Shot by (or in the style of) Annie Leibovitz, these black-and-white portraits featured provocative contemporary celebrities like Spike Lee, Demi Moore, Anthony Kiedis, and Joan Didion wearing understated basics (black t-shirts or turtlenecks, relaxed jeans or jean jackets). Complementing this campaign were arresting images of early and midcentury icons—James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Salvador Dali, and Miles Davis—with a tag indicating that you, too, could achieve classic cool with a quick trip to the mall: “Hemingway wore khakis.”

If you flipped on the TV in the late 90s, while you were watching ads for You’ve Got Mail or Never Been Kissed, you probably paused to admire the choreography of “Khaki Swing,” where dancers clad in t-shirts and khakis swing dance with joyful energy to Louis Prima’s (not Brian Setzer’s) “Jump Jive An’ Wail,” or the holiday ad “Mountains,” featuring dancers and skaters in puffer vests and festive sweaters rocking out to a mashup of  late 1940s masterpiece “Sleigh-Ride” and its 90s counterpart, “Ice Ice Baby.” In the 90s, Gap ads were equal parts nostalgia for an idealized past and projections of an ever-relevant and profitable present and future.

In name-checking the Gap ad campaign, the film articulates its own strategy. It’s harkening back to a classic midcentury romantic aesthetic while also embedding an ironic Gen-X antagonism towards corporations and mainstream media, all while also also being a product of that corporate system whose ultimate goal is to make money and gain industry accolades.

And in the mid-90s, taking a page from the Gap playbook was a savvy choice. The formula of these ads established an elevated legitimacy for the company: when Vogue celebrated its centennial in 1992, its cover featured supermodels including Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Yasmeen Ghauri, Niki Taylor, and Christy Turlington wearing Gap white button-downs and jeans. A few years later, Sharon Stone famously wore a black Gap mock-neck t-shirt with a Valentino skirt to the Oscars. In the 1950s Sabrina, fashion came from Hepburn wearing originals from Givenchy; in the 90s Sabrina, fashion came from the general direction of the mall (by way of the garage). So even though the film uses the Gap ad as a punchline, it’s also aware that being featured in a Gap ad was indeed a peak 90s achievement, one that would come to unlock the full potential of the 2000s celebrity culture. David is famous for being rich and famous before it was cool. The faux ad identifies David, like the Hiltons and Kardashians that would come after him, as a “socialite.”


Of course, the genre of the romantic comedy has long made stories out of corporate symbolism and the clashing of elite and everyday culture. During the studio era, vertical integration created powerful synergies among a handful of huge media corporations that controlled the production, distribution, and exhibition of Hollywood films.  The period’s screwball romantic comedies based in the workplace, like His Girl Friday (1940), complementedplots of bootstrap-pulling, working class men and their socialite love interests in films like It Happened One Night (1934) Holiday (1938), Bringing up Baby (1938), and Philadelphia Story (1940). Many of these films indulged the glamor of the 1% while also critiquing its insularity.

As the studio system waned during and after the 1950s, romantic comedies based in and around corporate America allegorized matters of not just class but also gender and (to varying and problematic degrees) race. A partial list would include the 1954 Sabrina, along with Wilder’s films The Apartment (1960)and Avanti! (1972), Working Girl (1988), Pretty Woman (1990), Boomerang (1992), Fools Rush In (1997), You’ve Got Mail (1998), and Jerry Maguire (1999). Some films followed protagonists whose romantic awakenings ignited resistance against increasingly impersonal corporate machines. Some explored the uneasy line between promotion and prostitution. In both, conflicts and confluences between the romantic and professional drove plots and characters and also industry renown. Many of these films achieved box office success and received significant, enduring recognition (as you know, many of these films are perennial features on “best rom-com” lists).

What distinguishes Pollack’s Sabrina from the list above, aside from the fact that, regrettably, it rarely appears on those “best of” lists, is its status as a remake that is deeply beholden to, and not simply inspired by, its source. It insists on its distinctive 90s singularity even as it heavily relies on the plot and dialogue of the original, which allows the film to critique the conditions under which it was (re)created. The 90s saw a series of aggressive media-tech mergers, ushered in by Sony’s purchase of Columbia in 1989, followed by the merger between Time, Inc. and Warner Bros. in 1990, and Viacom’s purchase of the Sabrina’s studio, Paramount, in 1994 (although Time Warner wouldn’t merge with AOL until 2000, both Sabrina and its corporately-anxious descendent, You’ve Got Mail, both cannily predicted such a move).

TM, ® & Copyright © 2001 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Sabrina (1995) receives such a thorough 90s-corporate makeover partly because Sabrina (1954) was also preoccupied with corporate mergers.Both Sabrinas portray a timid but lowkey beautiful chauffeur’s daughter whose travel to Paris transforms her into a glamorous ingenue who, upon her return home, steals the hearts of both Larrabee brothers and threatens to halt the expansion of their corporate empire. While Sabrina is away in Paris, the handsome, womanizing, happy-go-lucky family fuckup David has finally done something right: he’s become engaged to Elizabeth Tyson, the daughter of fellow corporate magnate Patrick Tyson, which in turn has inspired a merger of the two companies. Linus, the tightly-wound type-a foil to his brother, notices David’s interest in Sabrina, and, in an attempt to defuse the threat to his deal, sets out to seduce Sabrina himself.

While both films build their plots around Sabrina’s threat to a marriage and a deal that stands to make the family business extraordinary profits, the remake reworks the merger’s details to bring it uneasily close to the broader Hollywood context of the 90s. In the original, the Larrabee company is a broad signifier for vertical integration: in a visual gag when Hepburn’s Sabrina visits the New York skyscraper that houses the “family business,” the camera pans laboriously up the side of the building to depict the dozens of placards that indicate the vast number of industries under its umbrella: we see “Larrabee Land & Water Co.,” “Larrabee Paper Co.,” “Larrabee Holding Corp,” “Larrabee Construction Co.,” “Larrabee Tool Co.,” and “Larrabee Copper Co.” (the list goes on).

In the 90s, the Larrabees own a media tech company, and Ford’s Linus wants the Tyson merger to happen so he can acquire a specific proprietary technology: a virtually indestructible flat-screen monitor that would complement the Larrabee telecommunications holdings. This sharpening of the Larrabee business can’t help but reflect and respond to a moment when the film industry was finding new ways to synergize. As we now know, these corporate mergers led directly to Hollywood’s broad disinvestment from the entire genre of the rom-com, in favor of capitalizing on profits derived from big-budget blockbusters and the safe investment of franchises.

What can the marriage plot tell us about mergers? Can a genre that affirms the former criticize the later? Pollack’s Sabrina knows the threats that Hollywood mergers pose to movies and rom-coms specifically. It uses the romantic resolution of the film to circumvent its core anxieties: the merger and the marriage between David and Elizabeth happen, but only after Linus quits his job and boards a last-minute flight on the Concorde to beat Sabrina to Paris to show that he’s reformed and chosen her over company and profits.

In portraying a scenario where profits are made, mergers occur without disruption, and true love wins out regardless, the movie fantasizes its way to a happy ending for the characters and, by extension, the genre. But for all its gorgeous romance, in hindsight the 1995 version of Sabrina looks just like the Concorde, the flat-screen technology on which the Larrabee merger hinges, and the Gap ad too.  It’s a 90s phenomenon at the height of its powers —  and just on the cusp of obsolescence. 

Danielle Spratt thanks her mom for driving her and a friend to see Sabrina​ at the mall when it was released in 1995, even though it was December and the roads were bad and her homework wasn’t done. She is a professor of English at California State University, Northridge. You can share your fav Gap ad with her at @dlspratt or @dlspratt.bsky.social (hers is here).

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