Wednesday 28 April 2010

Roman Holiday (1953)

Director: William Wyler
Stars: Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I was mildly disappointed with Roman Holiday. I'd seen it long ago and remembered it with a subtle pleasure, but revisiting the film in 2005 I realised that as enjoyable as it is it's really just innocuous fluff and however much director William Wyler dresses it up with historic architecture and Audrey Hepburn's smile, it remains just innocuous fluff. Think of it less as Casablanca and more as The Lizzie McGuire Movie, merely done with a lot more panache, though fortunately a heck of a lot more. Gregory Peck has top billing, in his first romantic comedy, and the potential to lighten up his serious image was the chief reason why he took the role, knowing from moment one that it was clearly inferior to that of his leading lady. While his contract ensured solo star billing, he realised the magic that was being conjured up by that leading lady and asked the producers to give her equal billing. He told his agent, 'If I don't I'm going to make a fool of myself because that girl is going to win the Oscar in her very first performance.'

'That girl' is Audrey Hepburn but Peck was right and wrong at the same time. Yes, she won the Oscar and it's one win I doubt anyone would argue about, but this was not her first appearance. It was her first leading role after lesser credits in seven other films, six if you count the English and French language versions of Monte Carlo Baby as one. It was also her first American film, after five pictures in the UK and the two versions of Monte Carlo Baby in France, though it still feels rather European as it was entirely shot in Rome. She tested for the film and won the part in a rather unusual manner. She demonstrated her dignity in the traditional way, but after she'd finished the cameraman left the camera rolling and captured the sheer joie de vivre of the actress talking to the director. Given that the part called for a good deal of both characteristics, this demonstrated in no uncertain terms why Hepburn was perfect to play Princess Ann.

Princess Ann is the heir to an unnamed European country, who is touring the capitals to much media fanfare and we witness her elegance through faux newsreels without the benefit of sound. We catch up with her at the Embassy Ball in Rome where she greets and dances with ornate people with ornate names, many played by real Italian nobles who donated their salaries to charity. In a single cleverly written scene, she demonstrates her tenacity by standing to greet an apparently endless line of guests, her human side by losing a shoe to discomfort in the process and her dignity in recovering it without performing a social gaffe. Yet when she finally gets to bed and her lady in waiting reads her schedule for the next day, she goes into hysterics at the sheer regimented tedium of it all, eventually needing to be sedated by a doctor. She eventually gives in but we know she really wants out, to see the real Rome and that's just what she does.

If Gregory Peck was playing second fiddle to Audrey Hepburn in this film, both of them were supposed to take backstage to the city of Rome itself, which is really the central character from moment one when the names of the stars are gone and the title appears. The opening credits unfold against a set of shots that count as moving postcards of the city's most prominent tourist attractions. Princess Ann sneaks out of the embassy in the back of a supply truck but while she obviously enjoys her first taste of unchaperoned freedom, waving at people following behind her, she soon falls asleep. She wakes up and climbs down when the vehicle stops but she's still more than a little woozy from the sedative so falls asleep on a wall in the Via del Fori Imperiali. Fortunately for her, American journalist Joe Bradley is on his way home after a late night card game and there aren't too many people more safe to be discovered by than Gregory Peck.

Now, Bradley works for the American News Service ('all the news, all the time') in Rome and he has a personal invitation to the princess's press conference the next morning. However he has no idea what she looks like, so assumes she's just another drunk young lady who's unable to get home on her own and does his best to help her. Unfortunately she doesn't say much except 'so happy' and suggests that she lives at the Colisseum, so Joe ends up taking her home and putting her up for the night, blissfully unaware of who she really is, however many hints she unwittingly drops. She's obviously well dressed to begin with, lets slip that she's just as well read, and in her sedated state acts rather regally for some random drunk. 'Never carry money,' she mumbles as if it's the most natural thing in the world. 'Is this the elevator?' she asks of Joe's apartment. She even suggests that he should help her get undressed, but of course he stops after her tie.
Thus far this has been fun, because we know that any character played by Gregory Peck is not going to take advantage of the princess but we're intrigued as to what he will do in a romantic comedy. When she takes his bed, he rolls her unceremoniously onto the couch. 'So happy,' she mutters. It's only in the morning that Peck shows how miscast he was because he sleeps in and attempts to lie to his boss about what went on at the princess's press conference. Now, when Peck is putting the case for Tom Robinson, commanding the USS Sawfish or hunting Moby Dick, he's utterly believable, possibly the most instinctively trustworthy actor Hollywood ever got their hands on, ahead of people like Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda and Walter Huston. However Peck lying through his teeth to his boss about a press conference that he doesn't know was cancelled, with official pronouncements about a sudden illness, after the princess went missing is not.

Cary Grant, the original choice for the part who turned it down because he felt he was too old to romance Audrey Hepburn, would have carried this scene so much better. No wonder Peck said that when looking for a film to lighten his character he felt that every romantic comedy script he read 'had the fingerprints of Cary Grant on it.' It's hard not to see Grant in almost every scene that follows, as Joe Bradley discovers from the front page of the paper just who the girl in his pyjamas really is and decides to use the opportunity to get a real scoop out of her. The only reason that the film doesn't fall apart with Peck in the role, discreetly following the princess as she leaves his apartment and surreptitiously bumping into her again on the Spanish Steps in an clumsy attempt to persuade her to spend the day with him, is that he knew that this was a departure for him and he was determined to make something of the change.

The film revolves around a double deception. Princess Ann pretends to be a regular young lady called Anya Smith in order to see the city and Joe Bradley pretends to not be a journalist in order to get her story. The worst parts of the film all centre around Peck's inability to be unscrupulous, mercenary or deceptive. His attempts to persuade a schoolgirl out of her camera are almost painful and his pretense at being a fertiliser salesman is not far behind, even though it's true as a euphemism. He phones Irving Radovich, a photographer friend played by Eddie Albert, to ask him to help him out on an important mission but doesn't tell him what it is, so when Radovich arrives and immediately notices the striking resemblance between Anya Smith and Princess Ann, Bradley has to flounder around to avoid spoiling the scoop. He resorts to knocking over his chair and spilling drink over him, unsubtleties better suited to the Marx Brothers than Gregory Peck.

The best parts of the film centre around Audrey Hepburn who merely needs to be on screen to sell us on her character. Unlike Peck, she can effectively bend the truth rather than lie outright, so she believably suggests that she has run away from school and the last time she drank champagne was to celebrate the 40th anniversary of her father getting his job, merely forgetting to mention that the job in question was king. She carries the whole film with her ability to look simultaneously perfect and appropriate wherever she is, calling on elegance or girl next door innocence as appropriate. When she smiles, which she does often, she looks like a mischievous pixie, as her modern equivalent and namesake, Audrey Tautou, did in Amélie, and there's nothing more appropriate for this deceptive voyage of discovery. She didn't just succeed beyond the studio's wildest dreams, she succeeded in an iconic way that everyone wanted to copy.

It seems bizarre to read now about costume designer Edith Head's expectations in costuming the actress who would go on to be voted 'the most beautiful woman of all time' by New Woman magazine and 'the most naturally beautiful woman of all time' by Australian newspaper, The Age. Initially Head believed that her hardest task would be to disguise Hepburn's figure flaws: her long neck, flat chest and dancer's legs, especially once her character was incognito in Rome and apparently entirely uncaring of her appearance. Yet Pamela Clark Keogh wrote in the New York Times that, 'thanks to their first glimpse of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, half a generation of young females stopped stuffing their bras and teetering on stiletto heels.' Beyond the costume changes from elegant gowns to plain blouses with rolled up sleeves, Head had to cater to the fact that Princess Ann's long hair would be chopped off in a memorable scene that turns her into the Audrey Hepburn we recognise, a rare woman who looks better in short hair.
The best and most natural scenes are the ones when Hepburn sets out on the streets of Rome alone around the halfway mark. One reason why they're both utterly charming and utterly believable is that they were actually shot on the streets of Rome rather in some Hollywood set. My favourite little scene is the one where a florist tries to hustle her with flowers, making them initially seem like a gift but then asking for a thousand lire, only to end up giving her one for free when she demonstrates how little money she has left. To me that captures the essence of Rome even better than the iconic Vespa scenes that land the lead characters in court, only to be effectively let off with congratulations as Bradley pretends that they were on their way to get married. It also captures it better than Wyler's apparent attempts to film every ornate fresco, every ruined column and every other bit of ancient architecture that he saw in Rome.

Perhaps there was just a natural exuberance in the air, given that this was the first American picture to be shot entirely on location in Europe since the end of World War II almost a decade earlier. Wyler was eager to take on the film after Frank Capra and George Stevens passed on it, because it was light material compared to his last few films and because he wanted to get as far away as he could from the House Committee on Un-American Activities, especially as the film was written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Wyler described Hepburn as 'the spirit of youth' and that pervades the picture enough to sell it to the most cynical. Even Peck described making this film as 'probably the happiest experience I ever had making movies', perhaps partly because he met a French journalist called Veronique Passani on his way to Rome and after completing this film returned to Paris to be with her. They married the day after his divorce became final in 1955 and remained together until his death in 2003.

While the Cinderella story in reverse is interesting on its own merits, apparently based on the real life adventures of England's Princess Margaret who had been romantically linked to RAF Group Captain Peter Townsend, it's really what Audrey Hepburn brings to the role that makes it so memorable. There are cleverly crafted scenes, Trumbo being one of the most skilful writers in the business even though he couldn't put his name on the finished product, but in the hands of a less magnetic leading lady the film could easily have ended up as yet another fifties romantic comedy. Where everyone's genius becomes apparent at the same time is at the end of the film when the press conference finally happens. Even Peck is back on safe territory for him as the serious journalist whose priorities have changed utterly and who no longer plans to get the heck out of Rome and 'back to a real newsroom in New York'. This is a Roman holiday for him too.

Of course the title is mostly there for Princess Ann and it's after she returns to the embassy and shows how her experience has grown her character that she becomes a real princess instead of just a girl keeping her many appointments and saying the things she's been told to say. Instead of being almost force fed milk and crackers at bedtime, she lets her lady in waiting know in no uncertain terms but very politely that they will no longer be required. She also runs the press conference rather than just turns up and does her duty, obviously no longer in the invisible cage she felt herself in at the beginning of the film. She has her own mind and she's found a way to use it while still fulfilling her obligations. In this scene the chemistry is palpable, but it's between Hepburn and whoever is on the receiving end of her majestic gaze. The magic that this film has is there in her smile and in the way she can make a simple 'thank you' the greatest gift of all.

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