Sunday, September 25, 2011

Starting Point

Films: Roman Holiday
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

All actors start somewhere. Those who end up having a career get lucky at some point and are in something that hits. Those who become legendary have the same luck, but prove that some of that luck was created by them in the first place. Audrey Hepburn is one of those legendary performers, and she started in Roman Holiday. I consider myself a fan of Audrey Hepburn, so I was very interested in seeing this, her first major role, and the film that earned her an Oscar.

The story is a pretty simple one. Princess Ann (Hepburn), who is from an unspecified European country, is currently on a tour around Europe to boost trade and good will. However, she is bored by the tasks put in front of her and intensely frustrated. Upset, she’s given a sedative, but when she is left on her own, she runs off into the streets of Rome where she is picked up by Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a reporter working for a news service in Rome. Joe doesn’t recognize her at first, and believes her to be drunk because of the sedative. He takes her back to his place and puts her up for the night.

He discovers who she is in the morning and calls in his photographer friend Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert) to help him. He gets his editor to agree to a huge price for an exclusive story on the princess on what is essentially her first day off in her life. While she goes off on her own at first and gets a severe haircut (that looks better on her than her long hair, incidentally), Joe makes plans, then meets up with her again and takes her around the city while Irving hangs out incognito and snaps photos of their day. And as will surprise no one, the pair falls hard for each other by the end of the day, a scene made poignant when both realize that they live in very different worlds. All of this leads to the inevitable concluding scene.

Roman Holiday is in many ways the template for the typical romantic comedy. It has all of the earmarks of romantic comedies that are still being made today—an extremely privileged woman has everything she wants except for the one thing she really wants, and that comes from an unexpected place. The pair meets cute and has wacky adventures together—in this case involving a scooter ride through Rome and Ann trying her first cigarette—before they decide at the end that they really want to be together. While the career of princess is perhaps a bit less common these days, women in romantic comedies still tend to have these sorts of dream careers (book editor, museum curator, high-profile author, etc.). And the guy tends to be ultimately decent despite being a little dangerous or potentially deceitful at the start.

Most of the time, this formula doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t work because it’s so obviously lifestyle porn and romance porn for women that I can’t bring myself to do much but be repelled by it. Modern romantic comedies generally involve the guy acting in ways that would get a restraining order slapped on him in a heartbeat. But that doesn’t happen here. In fact, Joe and eventually Irving are downright noble in their actions throughout. Part of that may be the year in which this film was made, but part of that is the characters themselves.

There are some very cute scenes. At the Mouth of Truth, for instance. Tradition states that if a liar puts his or her hand in the mouth, it will bite the hand off. Joe places his hand in the mouth, gives a scream, and then pulls out his sleeve with his hand missing, only to reveal it tucked up his sleeve. According to legend, Audrey Hepburn didn’t know Peck was going to pull that stunt, and her scream reaction is a genuine one. Just as cute are the pratfalls taken by Irving when Joe is trying to clue him in on the identity of Princess Ann. These are sweet moments of real joy, because they come across as actual instead of overly “film-y” or forced.

What romantic comedies seem to have forgotten is that what’s important is not that the characters fall for each other eventually, or even that opposites attract, at least on film. What’s important is that we as the audience care for these people and want the same things they do. I dislike most characters in modern rom-coms because they are shallow, stupid, snotty, selfish, and other words that probably start with “s.” In a well-made romantic comedy like this one, I want the characters to end up happily because I like them and have grown to care for them. That’s the success of this film more than anything else.

And it doesn’t hurt that Audrey Hepburn is Audrey Hepburn. That covers a lot of faults. When the film has very few and only minor faults to begin with, the end result is something truly special. And it also doesn’t hurt that the ending is the right one. It may not be the one that everyone likes, but it’s still the right one.

Why to watch Roman Holiday: Because it’s the start of Audrey Hepburn’s career.
Why not to watch: The ending is the right one, but you might not like it.


  1. Just bought it, need to see this.

    When I do ... I'll get back to you.

  2. I'll be interested in your take on it. I was more than pleasantly surprised.

  3. As usual you are spot on and I nod "yes" to every sentence. It is important that we like the characters but also that it does not get sugary sweet. Modern romantic comedies swing from one to the other and forget the balance. In Roman Holiday the balance is just right. We like them, but they are not perfect creatures and the do the right thing where a modern version will have have you think that you can and should get anything if you really want it and to hell with reality.

    1. The "you should get everything you want" thing is dangerous, I think. It's that sort of expectation that leads people to believe that they are entitlted to so much more than they are. Love takes work and even then it doesn't always work out.

      For as much fantasy as Roman Holiday is, it works because it stays real.