I’ve long felt that I need to see more films by William Wyler. A prolific director who made more than thirty silent movies before switching to an even longer, more distinguished career with talkies, Wyler was nominated for an incredible 12 Best Director Oscars between 1935 and 1970, and won the award three times (for Mrs Miniver in 1942, The Best Years Of Our Lives in 1946 and Ben-Hur – the only film of Wyler’s I’d seen until a week ago – in 1959; only John Ford (4 wins) has been more successful).
A trio of Wyler’s films were also nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award: The Heiress (1949), Roman Holiday (1953) and Friendly Persuasion (1957), though none of the three actually won. He also made The Big Country, How To Steal A Million, The Children’s Hour and Dodsworth, among many others. And as for experience with actors, during his career he directed Humphrey Bogart, Laurence Olivier, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Simmons, Shirley MacLaine, James Garner, Charlton Heston, Terence Stamp, Peter O’Toole, Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift and Barbara Streisand. In short, he is a Hollywood legend.
Roman Holiday is considered a romantic comedy classic today, and it holds an impressive 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which meant it looked on paper to me to be the “easiest” way in to Wyler’s back catalogue. Hepburn was given her first starring role in the film as Princess Ann, a member of the royal family of an unnamed country who touches down in Rome amid a hectic tour of European capitals. Ann is suffering from exhaustion, and sneaks off one night to escape the meet n’ greets and official photo-ops that are planned for the following day. After getting drunk she is discovered on a bench by newspaper reporter Joe Bradley (Peck), who takes her back to his apartment. Famously Wyler chose Hepburn for the role after instructing the cameraman filming her screen test to carry on after they had seemingly stopped, in order to see what she looked like when she was at ease.
Eventually Bradley realises who exactly he is sheltering, and – hiding the fact that he is a reporter – offers to show her around Rome so that he can write an exclusive interview for the paper, netting $5,000 in the process. Ann isn’t aware of his motives, but eventually agrees to accompany him, so Bradley enlists the help of photographer Irving Radovich (Eddie Alpert), who tags along as the couple explore the sights of the Italian capital. Meanwhile, the newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief, Mr Hennessey (Hartley Power, gnashing and frothing like all good editors should do) starts to suspect that the missing princess is with his young reporter, and tries to get Bradley to admit he knows where she is. As Bradley shows Princess Ann the sights of Rome and treats her to a night out, the couple gradually fall in love.
It’s easy to sneer today at Roman Holiday‘s simple, obvious shots of Rome’s well-visited tourist attractions; there are scenes at the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain and the Roman Forum, as you would expect. Yet when Roman Holiday was made it was still common for Hollywood studio backlots to be used when exotic locales were required, and Wyler became the first director to shoot entirely on location. Still, despite the unfamiliarity that existed with regard to Rome’s tourist sites, it’s very much (and understandably) an outsider’s view of the city, and it’s interesting to compare it to two Federico Fellini’s films that followed in its wake: the Rome of La Dolce Vita – granted a film set a little closer to the more liberated sixties – seems like a far more exciting place, with a verve and swagger that is lacking in the nightlife of Roman Holiday, whereas Roma offers a more honest, rounded portrait of a noisy, working city.
Unfortunately the natives in the film seem to be there just to play up to some kind of ill-thought out stereotype. All the Italian characters seem to have ridiculous bulging eyes and flaring nostrils when they converse with Bradley and Princess Ann, and, presumably for comic effect, the ‘hilarity’ of the language barrier is milked throughout as characters struggle to communicate with each other. It’s a little cringeworthy today to say the least, but it’s certainly easy to forgive – and understand – in a film that was made 60 years ago.
Hepburn and Peck are both believable, and likable, as the young couple from different backgrounds that meet by chance and fall in love (a simple story that is still being used in many a film today). Peck’s part had initially been written for Cary Grant, but Grant declined the offer, feeling that the male lead in the film was playing second fiddle to the female lead (heaven forbid). (Interestingly, in the DVD extras, Peck suggests that at the time he felt every script that landed on his doormat had already been turned down by Grant. He comes across as being a very likable man, as it happens.) Hepburn, as mentioned earlier, was in her first major role, but was not considered to be the (or a) star of the film until midway through when Peck, realising just how good her performance was, lobbied the director and the studio to put Hepburn’s name above the title with his, where it deserved to be.
Though Peck was better known for his roles in serious dramas, he acquits himself well in Roman Holiday‘s gentle, occasionally farcical, comic moments, and his unthreatening presence adds to the film’s light, easy air. There is much reliance on Alpert for laughs, and he brings a real spark to his scenes, playing an effervescent and unpredictable photographer that leaves Bradley looking a little dull by comparison. But the film is rightly remembered as Hepburn’s breakthrough, and she gives an assured performance as the Princess. Despite some irksome faux-drunk overacting at the start of the movie, once things settle down she is very good. She has a hint of the tomboy about her, and a mischievous look in her eye throughout.
I have to admit my mind started to wander during the film, and throughout I had a strong sense of knowing what was about to happen next (having said that, the bittersweet ending came out of nowhere and left me shocked, though it’s a shame that the final scene was the first time that my interest was piqued). Perhaps it’s because I’m familiar with the locations used, and the class-mismatch love story, though it’s hardly Wyler’s fault that so much romantic pap has been made in the past five decades since that has liberally borrowed from films such as this (*cough, ahem, Notting Hill*). Though the years haven’t been particularly kind to certain aspects of Roman Holiday, it also has a hell of a lot of timeless charm, most notably thanks to Audrey Hepburn’s performance and many striking – if now familiar – scenes of Rome’s most glorious features.
Directed by: William Wyler
Written by: Dalton Trumbo, Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck
Running Time: 118 Minutes