Historical Circuit: Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck Fall in Love in 1953’s ‘Roman Holiday’

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Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in 1953's "Roman Holiday"
Paramount Pictures’ “Roman Holiday”

TITLE OF FILM: “Roman Holiday”
FILM YEAR: 1953
DIRECTOR: William Wyler
WRITER: Dalton Trumbo, Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton
STARRING: Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert

SYNOPSIS:

Amid a goodwill tour through Europe, Princess Ann’s (Audrey Hepburn) life leaves no room for the spontaneous. Meetings, presentations, reviews, and speeches fill her daily schedule. She must remain regal at all times, even behind closed doors. The monotonous, overwhelming lifestyle leaves Ann exhausted.

One night while on a stop in Rome, Ann reaches a breaking point.  Ann’s outburst triggers her personal doctor to give her a sedative, but before the drug kicks in, she sneaks out of the palace hoping for a night free of obligations.

Alone on the streets of Rome, Ann feels the effects of the sedative and falls asleep on a park bench. It is there that American journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) finds the princess. Unaware of her identity, Joe begrudgingly takes a very sleepy Ann back to his apartment for her safety.

The next morning at his work, Joe learns the woman staying in his apartment is in fact the visiting princess. Figuring he has got a heck of a scoop, Joe keeps his professional identity to himself and spends the day with Ann. As the two spend time together, they fall in love in the eternal city.

OBSERVATIONS:

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck on the Spanish Steps at Centro Storico

Entirely shot in Italy during the summer of 1952, director William Wyler originally planned to shoot in Hollywood. Insisting this be an “on location” shoot, upon viewing the final product, it is clear Wyler knew best. “Roman Holiday” has scenes iconic locations such as the Trevi Fountain, the Piazza Venezia, the Colosseum, and others. The locations provide a stunning visual playground for the leads. The Mouth of Truth is the setting for one of the most iconic scenes in the film. Peck and Hepburn are downright infectious in the scene as Joe plays a lighthearted joke on Ann that leaves her horrified and him “handless.”

The chemistry between Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn is the stuff of romantic, Hollywood daydreams, just glowing together. When “Roman Holiday” began production, Peck was an established Hollywood star, and up to that moment, a four-time Oscar nominee, while this was Hepburn’s first leading role. As the film unfolds, the pair display a perfect dynamic.

Peck’s Joe is a cynical, “been around the block” civilian while Hepburn’s Ann is experiencing the magic of the outside world for the first time.  The audience can catch Joe gazing at Ann in absolute awe and in these moments, see clear evidence of Peck’s captivation by Hepburn’s natural appeal. In such, Peck seems to have such a wonderful time watching her bloom.

While Peck carries a wonderful performance, and he is quite good, Hepburn is all the better. She simultaneously showcases the grace of a dancer and the whimsy of a child and plays physical comedy like an experienced comedian. As Ann, Hepburn fidgets on the throne collecting her lost shoe, and she stumbles around the streets of Rome half zonked with amusing results. Hepburn seems at ease in front of the camera, and the camera loves her. Her wide, expressive eyes show Ann’s stress in her royal position, her glee in new discoveries and her heartache come through when she bids Joe farewell.

CULTURAL AND THEMATIC ANALYSIS:

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck

Written by screenwriting legends John DightonIan McLellan Hunter, and Dalton Trumbo, the script emulates a fairytale, taking cues from classics like “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Lady and the Tramp.” However, embedded in humanity, the emotions are what the film inevitably conveys successfully.

In a scene late in the film, Ann offers to cook something for dinner, but Joe tells her he has no kitchen and usually just eats out. “You like that?” Ann asks. “Well, life isn’t always what one likes…is it?” Joe replies. Solemnly, Anne agrees, “No it isn’t.” In life, much like in “Roman Holiday,” what we want and what we are left with do not always align. No matter how romantic the dream, the reality is always waiting. Joe and Ann’s obligations are a heavy burden that forces a difficult choice. Every holiday must come to its inevitable end.

RECEPTION TO THE FILM AT THE TIME:

In 1953, A. H. Weiler of the New York Times attended the film’s premiere and wrote:

“For ‘Roman Holiday,’ which arrived at the Music Hall yesterday, is a royal lark in the modern idiom about a regal but lonely young thing who has her moment of happiness with an adventurous newspaperman. It is a contrived fable but a bittersweet legend with laughs that leaves the spirits soaring.”

Upon its release, Hepburn became a star. And for this, her first leading role, she won a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and the Academy Award for Best Actress. “Roman Holiday” received the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Comedy, and netted ten Academy Awards nominations, winning three – Hepburn for Best Actress, Edith Head for Best Costume Design-Black-and-White, and Dalton Trumbo for Writing, Motion Picture Story.

History isn’t as “rosy” as the success suggests. Trumbo was part of the “Hollywood Ten,” which comprised 10 motion picture producers, directors, and screenwriters.  In October 1947, these 10 individuals (Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Trumbo.), appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  After refusing to answer questions regarding their suspected communist affiliations, and, after spending time in prison for contempt of Congress, the studios mostly blacklisted the men.

Because of this label, Trumbo did not receive his Oscar on the night of the Academy Awards. According to his biography “Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical,” Ian McLellan Hunter took credit for the story on behalf of Trumbo. In 1993, fifteen years after his Trumbo’s death, the Academy finally presented his well-earned Oscar to his widow.

COMPARISONS TO ANY MOVIES OF TODAY:

Robert Downey Jr and Marisa Tomei may have noteriety at the moment due to their recent roles in 2017’s “Spiderman: Homecoming” and the box office smash “Avengers: Endgame.” But before this duo went Marvel, they co-starred in a little romantic comedy from 1994 called “Only You,” an homage to “Roman Holiday.”

Marisa Tomei (who dons a Hepburn pixie cut) plays a Pittsburgh teacher named Faith. In the film, she follows a man she has never met to Rome. Based on an Ouija board reading, she believes they are soul mates. Robert Downey Jr. plays a man who falls for Faith while she is looking for her Mister Right. Along with a reenactment of the Mouth of Truth scene, “Only You” mimics “Roman Holiday” in a woman’s search for a new life and a man’s willingness to see her dreams through.

Faith is a hopeful person, but she questions her future. When she takes a chance and escapes to a new world, she is opening her heart to possibility, all the while Downey Jr’s character is in love with her innocence and her romantic spirit. In both films, the couples fall for each other despite their diverging paths. But in “Roman Holiday,” the couple’s parting fate is one of mutual understanding, and in “Only You,” they throw realism out the window in favor of the everlasting holiday.

WHY IT STILL RESONATES TODAY:

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck

“Roman Holiday” is a film for friends and for lovers. This writer, in particular, saw it twice on the big screen. While watching the film with my college boyfriend, I found myself drawn to the romantic side of the story. During her time in Rome, Ann’s experiences are due, in large part, to Joe. He is her guide through the adventures that await her, and the two fall in love because of what they bring out in each other.

Upon a second viewing, this time with girlfriends, I was more aware of the agency Ann demonstrates. Ann runs away to the streets of Rome, she cuts her hair (Felicity style) to shed her long locks. She drives a moped and chooses the route, and she is the one who ultimately leaves it all behind to fulfill her royal duties. The strength Ann shows, whether in a relationship or on her own, is commendable. Although the romantic holiday may be magic, the real world awaits us all. But hopefully, the memories can sustain us until our next venture, when or if it comes.

What are your thoughts on “Roman Holiday”? Let us know in the comment section below!

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