Roman Holiday (1953, William Wyler)
The popular 1950s romantic comedy Roman Holiday, scripted by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, conjures up a shocking gamut of emotions today. Much of it can be pared down to the individuals involved. Audrey Hepburn in her first major role invents the good-hearted waif she would be stuck playing over and over again for the rest of her career; she is beautiful, sweet, intelligent, deeply felt… but one continues to wish she ended up having the kind of opportunities afforded, say, Julie Christie. (Can you imagine Hepburn in Petulia, for example?) Gregory Peck is still a mannequin and is no more trustworthy as a comedic leading stud than he was as a good father or a crazy person. The great William Wyler still wishes like crazy, as in virtually all of his films, that he were making a suspense picture (perhaps no director has ever made his own kind of “I’d Rather Be Fishing” motif so clear, as opposed to, say, George Roy Hill, whose theme was “I Could Be Fishing But I’d Rather Coast”). And in the final sequence in particular, he aches for the late Gregg Toland like a rejected lover.
You can also speak of Roman Holiday in terms of its sense of place; the credits proudly announce that the entire movie was shot in Rome as if that were some kind of an achievement instead of an easy way out of paying taxes for a prestige comedy. But Rome is indeed glorious in black & white (Woody Allen wishes he coulda shot it like this), and the locations are resourcefully used, especially in the famous scooter chase. Like Blake Edwards except classier, or Lubitsch or Wilder but sillier, Roman Holiday feels right, comfortable, pretty, and thus it serves its purpose. You could even deride it, if you wanted to, for being too frothy, but its simplicity and the aching sadness at its core are too effective — and too unique, in terms of big Hollywood romantic pictures — not to overwhelm that problem.
I don’t use “unique” lightly in that sentence, because in the abstract Roman Holiday is practically a remake of Princess O’Rourke, a much scrappier and funnier film made ten years earlier with essentially the same premise, the same story beats, and a more appealing leading man in Robert Cummings. Nevertheless, several curious elements of the film take it far beyond a pleasant curiosity and into something quite alluring. There comes over the film something ever so slightly magic: the yearning for a different life by the princess Hepburn doesn’t feel like some feel-good class-conscious condescension so much as an expression of a true secret heart, maybe Trumbo’s but ultimately who cares whose. There are also so many moments of undiluted comedy and charm, but their weight adds up to a strange melancholy.
The first time you see Roman Holiday and it coalesces into that final sense of absolutely crushing loss and missed opportunity, its moments of joy and humor linger wistfully in the mind. And upon seeing it a second time, you realize the entire film is imbued with regret and the sensation not just of the terrible temporariness of all things but of just how many people in all walks of life never get to be who they want to be or do what they wish with their lives. In a sense it’s one of the bleakest well-known films in classic-era Hollywood — but because this is Wyler (whose directing, composition and freewheeling camera are as agile as ever throughout) its barely-contained depression is also matched by a genuine feel for human kindness, something it achieves without the characters having to ever even once say what they’re really thinking. (And thanks to Trumbo, what they do say is pretty dandy.)
Peck’s woeful miscasting is a crisis averted not just by Hepburn but by Eddie Albert as his photographer friend. Albert’s every move in the film is fascinating, his performance vastly more believable and honest than the taller, darker movie star lead. And he’s a total clichéd third-wheel character, but he is exactly what makes the entire film work. And more than an attractive addition to the cast, he is effortlessly sexy, even when side by side with the inexhaustibly sensual Hepburn. Incidentally, I didn’t expect to say this, but kudos for the film’s sexual politics — they can’t come out and say it, but Hepburn does seek pleasure and isn’t punished for it (by the film, anyway), and at several crucial moments the decisive action is hers and not Peck’s or Albert’s. She even is allowed to participate in a fight scene. That kiss when they come out of the water is about as erotically charged a moment as there can be in American movies of this period. (It’s fucking creepy when Peck tries to take that girl’s camera, though.)
Then there’s the ending, which remains a shattering surprise. Perhaps some may find it maudlin, but there’s something menacing and magnificent about a crowd-pleasing romance movie wherein not only do the two leads not end up together (nor do they die), but they have essentially no chance of ever seeing one another again, and both are deeply unhappy about it. Peck and Albert’s final sacrifice to Hepburn in the last scene is lovelier, more wistful than any climactic kiss probably could be. And the sense of beauty and yearning to that last sequence has a stunning sense of reality, doom, and the beauty in the unrequited that is difficult to resist. I understand skepticism about a proto-romcom this slick, but Roman Holiday is a genuinely affecting and heartbreaking film — very much of its era, but profoundly lovely in any. It’s even instructive in a sense — some of us need to be reminded once in a while that the fleeting nature of things, matters of the heart or not, needn’t make them less sweeping and beautiful.
[Slight rewrite of an equally hormonally charged 2007 review.]