Every so often, like phoning up and old friend, I have to put this movie in the DVD player (I wore out the VHS version). Like David Lean’s Summertime (Archives, No. 29. 4), it takes me back to a great city that is also a “character” that plays Cupid in an almost any schmaltzy romantic sweet tragedy for my romantic soul. It was an apt title for a film that fit in with the semi-travelogue features being made in “the Eternal City” during the 1950s by Hollywood on the Tiber.
Roman Holiday, with due credit to Dalton Trumbo’s writing and William Wyler’s direction, has more to it than films like Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) that tried to capitalize in Roman Holiday’s success but were little more than travelogue. Ultimately, that success, it must be admitted owes mostly to an engaging old city and an enchanting young girl. It is, or rather became in no uncertain terms, Audrey Hepburn’s film. Established co-star Gregory Peck reputedly insisted after the first day of shooting, that the newly-introduced actress be given equal billing. She won the “Best Actress” Academy Award for her rookie performance as a princess from an un-named European country who is in Rome as part of a diplomatic tour and escapes her handlers for a few days wondrous romp as a uncommon commoner in the city.
Struggling reporter Peck discovers her snoozing on a bench beside one of the city’s magnificent fountains and, when he further discovers she is the errant princess, the game is afoot. Keeping the princess away from apprehension by her handlers while the reporter surreptitiously gets the story of his career and sidekick photographer Eddie Albert snaps candid shots of the beautiful ingénue all takes place before the Coliseum, the Spanish Steps, the artsy Via Margutta, and the 1950s clean streets of Rome. It is a contrast to a parallel and socially-contrasting story by Federico Fellini, La Strada, released a year later, in which a young girl is sold to a travelling entertainer.
The fresh and fetching beauty of Hepburn against the crumble of the ancient city is ideal for a plot of discovery. The princess is not only charming in her discovery of how the common people live, but also of her own existential dilemma—the prison of her royal duty. That is what I wanted to expose to my class of mostly female students in Hong Kong in 2000 when I screenedRoman Holiday for them. Would the princess, who gets to wear beautiful gowns and has servants at her beck and call, forsake it all for her budding love for the handsome American news reporter? Or, would she return to the tiresome routine of her royal obligations?
I can tell you what I was rooting for. I was already in the skin of Gregory Peck and I really felt for him (and me) when that stunning beauty with a captivating innocence makes the hard decision to return to the palace. I have a lot of contempt for royalty in general, and I wanted Peck (me) and Hepburn to continue roaring around Rome’s streets on that Vespa, she clinging with those balletic arms to him (me), carefree in the Eternal City. That was my fantasy when I saw the film as a young man, when I screened it for my students, and it still was the other night when I was shoving popcorn in my gray-bearded face (which maybe somebody should throw a glass of cold water into). Maybe it was best that Peck was left longingly looking back into that palace where she gave her news conference in full princess regalia and demeanor. Maybe he would have aged faster than her and the thrill of the Vespa rides and the discovery of first love would have eventually, as it always must, worn off. The Eternal City can be unforgiving about the realities of life; it has seen enough of it for a hundred cities. By 1960, Fellini was exploring a more sordid and debauched Rome in La Dolce Vita, a title with plenty of irony.
I don’t remember much of what my students thought, but the girls, all Chinese, were blown away by Hepburn. “How beautiful she is!” they exclaimed. They wanted to be her, and who can blame them. I reported to them that, back in the 1950s, American girls rushed out to have their hair bobbed like Audrey did in the movie, to shape their eyebrows like her, even her clothes were mimed everywhere. She was still a sensation, forty-seven years later.*
But when I was once again wishing she would choose love over duty in Roman Holiday it came to me that Audrey Hepburn seemed to have a special charm for older men and I can’t have been the first to, belatedly, notice it. Peck is clearly many years older than Hepburn in her first screen romance. But watch a few more Audrey Hepburn movies and you get the idea that Hollywood saw her as the woman who could easily steal the hearts of older men. She has the same success with much older Gary Cooper (Love in the Afternoon, 1957), much older Cary Grant (Charade, 1963), much older Fred Astaire (Funny Face, 1957), much older Humphrey Bogart (Sabrina. 1954); and very much older Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady, 1964). She is also a “bride of Christ” really very much older, in The Nun’s Story (1959). Her role opposite George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) seems the exception.
Perhaps this wonderful actress was (and remains) the older man’s dream: beautiful, sophisticated and innocent. So what’s wrong with my still being boyishly in love with her? I have plenty of company.
© 2009, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.17.2009)
*Audrey Hepburn has also become somewhat iconic in the Orient. Her beautiful long neck fits well with the almost fetishistic and erotic regard Asian men, particularly Japanese me, have for the female neck. See, e.g. Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn’s Neck (1997), a novel of young men coming of age in Tokyo.