1 Hr., 58 Mins.
n receiving the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in 1953’s Roman Holiday, the film which served as her Hollywood debut, the 24-year-old Audrey Hepburn was breathless. Wrapped in white, floral Givenchy and decorated by palmetto-sized faux eyelashes and an angular bob, she looked at once tiny and larger than life – a star who at once seemed to be
in command of her sudden ascent to the top and engulfed by it.
“This is too much,” she said into the microphone after the chipper Donald O’Connor announced her win. “I want to say thank you to everybody who in these past months and years have helped, guided, and given me so much. I’m truly, truly grateful. I’m terribly happy.” Then she tiptoed off the stage.
When we think of Hepburn, we think of style and elegance – a born movie star whose effervescence is at once so contradictorily tangible and mysterious that we can’t help but be taken aback every time we’re re-acquainted with any one of her films. She’s always so composed, extemporaneously charming.
So this brief moment at the beginning of 1954, where she’s nearing 25 and seems daunted by the idea of being on top of the world, sticks in the memory. We’re so quick to think of the actress as a vision of perfection who strictly stars in our cinematic fantasies, never to be rattled. To see her attempt to string together a cohesive sentence while she’s simultaneously thrilled and terrified – conscious there was no reversing her quick acclivity to stardom – is enduringly touching. That lacking of composure was something we never really saw again.
The win was also memorable because it worked as the climax to a fairy tale of an overnight success story. Famously, Roman Holiday was not initially conceived as a project to be headlined by an unknown. Brits Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons, who were well-established by then, were originally director William Wyler’s top choices for the lead. But both proved unavailable.
In 1951, the then-unknown Hepburn, whose experience had mostly consisted of a couple bit roles and supporting performances in British and Dutch films, auditioned for the part and filmed a screen test. (Which has since become rather famous.) And it was then that Wyler knew he wanted her for the part.
Although production was delayed as a result of Hepburn’s decision to star in a theatrical production of Gigi, everything came together with almost preternatural ease. Bankable actor Gregory Peck was cast as the leading man. The screenplay was co-written by the acclaimed albeit laying-low Dalton Trumbo, who had recently been blacklisted and had managed to pen the script inside a cramped jail cell under a pseudonym. The setting would be Rome. The genre would be romantic comedy, light and airy.
The ensuing film is as much one of the best of its genre and it is a definitive debut. Yet while the romance and the comedy are uniformly great, the utmost thrill here is the feeling of discovery that overwhelms us whenever in Hepburn’s presence. No matter if this is the first film in which you’ve seen her or the umpteenth, there’s an eonian freshness here that would continue to be overwhelming in the most essential features in her filmography. From Funny Face (1957) to Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) to My Fair Lady (1964), first being enthralled by the countenance of and then falling in love with Hepburn were recurring, inevitable points of action.
This is at its strongest in Roman Holiday, mostly because the sense that we’re watching a star really arrive is so palpable. In it, Hepburn plays Ann, an antsy young princess on a state visit in Rome. Though the prospects of traveling to a new foreign city’d prove thrilling for anyone, they almost mean nothing to her: forced to adhere to a rigid schedule, Ann knows her opportunities to explore are nil and that she’ll mostly be stuck toiling away in the confines of her country’s embassy.
But per the foreshadowing of the movie in question’s title, Ann eventually throws caution to the wind and decides she’s going to spend her Roman holiday the way she wants to. Which necessitates she sneak out – without a plan, mind you – and strive to soak in as much of the city’s culture as she can. In this misguided endeavor, she adventitiously becomes acquainted with Joe Bradley (Peck, lovable), an expatriate newspaper reporter who shows her around the city and comes to, er, fall in love with her.
The premise sounds tired, but the execution is pristine: this is a lively and veritably joyous feature. You feel as though you’re really adventuring through this open city with this sprightly young woman and this handsome professional man. And like you’re watching people fall in love. (Which makes the immaculately bittersweet conclusion sting all the more.)
Such is a harmonic testimonial to Hepburn and Peck’s star power (and chemistry) and Trumbo’s subversive way of refurbishing seemingly trite premises and making wonderful pieces of material out of them. Wyler’s handling of the locales is formidable, too, and the presence of supporting player Eddie Albert, who portrays Joe’s right-hand man, is the scruffy foil off which much of the romantic and comic anxiety can play.
It is a perfect romantic comedy, an ideal showcasing of a brand new star. Roman Holiday hasn’t lost a hint of its refreshing greenness, and I can’t imagine that timelessness will change any time soon. Hepburn is, of course, pivotal to all that. Peck too. A