Oscar Vault Monday – Roman Holiday, 1953 (dir. William Wyler)
This was one of the first films I ever saw. Between this film and Sabrina (my favorite Audrey film) for the longest time the only classic actresses I gave a hoot about were Audrey and Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind. I’m talking about me at the age of 6 and 7. Also, because of this film I fell hard for Gregory Peck. He is so gorgeous and so charming in this film. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning three: Best B&W Art Direction, Best B&W Cinematography, Best B&W Costume Design (won), Best Film Editing, Best Writing – Screenplay, Best Writing – Motion Picture Story (won), Best Supporting Actor Eddie Albert, Best Actress Audrey Hepburn (won), Best Director and Best Picture. The other films up for Best Picture that year were Julius Caesar, The Robe, Shane and winner From Here To Eternity.
The screenwriting credit – and Best Writing – Motion Picture Oscar – were originally credited to Ian McLellan Hunter, who acted as a front for blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo (who would later win another Oscar while blacklisted for 1956’s The Brave One). In December 1992 the Academy finally changed the records and gave credit to Trumbo. Hunter was then removed from the official record for the Motion Picture Story category and the Oscar was posthumously presented to Trumbo’s widow on May 10th, 1993.
This was Audrey Hepburn’s first lead role and what an impression she makes. She is regal and elegant and seems every inch the princess she is portraying. I think this is one of the greatest debut lead performances ever, not just because of how great Hepburn is in the film, but how perfectly the role fit her as a person. Princess Ann was a defining role, placing Hepburn amongst the most elegant women ever. The actress won her sole Oscar for this role, though she would go on to be nominated four more times, for Sabrina (1954), The Nun’s Story (1959), Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) and Wait Until Dark (1967). She also received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1993. It was awarded posthumously, as the voting took place prior to her death on January 20th, 1993.
As I said earlier, Peck is absolutely drop dead gorgeous in this film. I think he did for suits what Cary Grant did for tuxedos. He also gives one of the most refreshingly light performances of his career. That’s not to say it’s not a good performance; I would argue that it’s a one of his greatest performances. It’s just very different from performances in “weightier” films. It’s a shame the Academy didn’t see fit to reward him with a nomination for it. In his lengthy career Peck was nominated for five Academy Awards, four prior to this film and one after, winning once: The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) (won). In 1968 he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. The role of newspaper man Joe Bradley, who has to choose between the biggest scoop of his career and his heart, was originally intended for Cary Grant. Grant declined the role because he felt he was too old to play opposite Hepburn (ironically, he would do just that ten years later in Stanley Donen’s Charade). Peck’s contract stated that he would have sole billing above the title, but halfway through filming he insisted that the then relatively unknown Hepburn should receive equal billing.
Eddie Albert, probably best known for playing Oliver Wendell Douglas opposite Eva Gabor on Petticoat Junction and its long-running spin-off Green Acres, is stupendous as Joe’s photographer Irving Radovich. I especially love the scene where Irving first meets Princess Ann, who is going by “Anya,” and Peck’s Joe keeps spilling things on him, etc. to get him to keep his mouth shut. The timing in that scene is so great. Albert was nominated a second time for Best Supporting Actor for 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid, though he lost the award both times.
I wanted to talk about a handful of scenes that I really love. The first is at the beginning of the film, when Princess Ann is greeting dignitary after dignitary at some sort of ball. I love the shot of her uncomfortable feet, slipping in and out of her shoes. When I worked at a clothing store and stood on my feet for 8 hours a day behind a cash register I used to do something very similar with my shoes and every time I did, this is exactly what I would think about.
One of the most iconic scenes in the film is when Princess Ann decides to get her long hair cut very short. This short cut would become a bit of a signature for Hepburn early in her career and boy does it fit her face perfectly. The pure joy on her face as she looks at her new hairdo is one of my favorite things in any movie ever. It’s at this point in the film that Hepburn’s performance reaches the heights of effervescence and remains there for much of the film.
The film was shot on location in Rome and that adds to the tangible charm of it. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking and the film just feels so alive with energizing verve. I always love the Old Hollywood films that were filmed on location just a teensy bit more than those that were shot completely on the backlot. Even when the backlot shots are exquisitely done, they just can’t compare to the real thing.
Perhaps the most iconic scene from the film takes place at the Mouth of Truth. Apparently, while filming the scene Peck decided to do a trick he saw Red Skelton do once, without informing his co-star beforehand; Hepburn’s scream at Peck’s missing hand was not acting, but a real reaction to the situation. I absolutely love that story. What a trickster!
I also love the final parting glance between Joe and Princess Ann. Look closely and you can see tears in both of their eyes. I can’t watch this scene without crying, too. Such sacrifice on both their parts. This is cinematic romance at its finest. This is a Casablanca-calibre tear-jerker ending.
The final image is Peck walking away from the press conference, a slight smile on his face. Few films end on such a perfect note.
TCM will be showing Roman Holiday this Friday (April 29th) at 10pm EST / 7pm PST. If you’re interested in purchasing this film, you can do so here.