' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Roman Holiday (1953)

Friday, July 17, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Roman Holiday (1953)

Though William Wyler’s “Roman Holiday” (1953) sets the stage with a newsreel account of Ann (Audrey Hepburn), crown princess of an unnamed European nation, traveling across the continent, it begins for real at a ball in her honor in Rome where she is made to stand in a receiving line and greet a parade of guests. A modern film likely would have sped up the editing here, showing even more people, perhaps, but not imbuing a similar sense of weariness. In hearing the name of each guest, and in seeing over Ann’s shoulder how the receiving line stretches into forever, the monotony of the ritual sinks in. And as the scene drags on, Ann loses a shoe, glimpsed in insert shots beneath her massive ball gown, as she struggles with one foot to find and retrieve it while still saying hello. It’s a nifty metaphor for the arduous delicate balancing act she performs, in this moment and throughout life, and speaks to how Wyler denotes a lifetime of feeling into just a few images. 

The screenwriting economy is also evident in the introduction of Ann’s emergent love interest, American newspaperman Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), playing poker with a few friends, foreshadowing his penchant for turning all life into a gamble. Upon leaving, he encounters Ann, having escape her embassy in the middle of a night, sleeping on a bench. Though she has been knocked out from a delayed sedative taken a few hours earlier, he assumes she’s drunk and ferries her to his home. Another movie might have delayed the reveal of her true identity longer, but “Roman Holiday” allows Joe to realize it the morning after, deciding to give a scoop to the American News Service about the runaway Princess, employing a cameraman to follow them around as they take a variation on a holiday.

If he makes a bet with his boss that he’s got the story of a lifetime, the introductory poker playing also informs Peck’s performance, a virtual poker face in his intentions, never quite letting you know if he’s really into her, merely using her, or a little of both. And that plays perfectly off Hepburn, famously in her star-making role, who is not evincing an innocence so much as a kind of ebullience. It’s funny, I re-watched “Roman Holiday” a month or so after re-watching “Eat Pray Love” and though the latter espouses the sweet art of doing nothing, the movie is so damn busy it never really lets Julia Roberts embody it. Hepburn, on the other hand, is brilliantly given all the room in the world to embody it and she does, physically evincing how all the rigid tension of that opening scene falls away. In one moment, at an outdoor café, slouching in her seat, it’s as if she has spiritually become one with the setting.

That’s vital. Wyler and his cinematographer have incredible grasp of space in “Roman Holiday” and how Hepburn fits in. This shot at the café, in fact, goes hand in hand with an earlier shot, in her bedroom at the mansion, in bed, being doted on, and the headboard is so huge it virtually dwarfs her, denoting the very idea of Ann being overwhelmed by her role in the world. And later, when she’s out walking the streets of Rome, the camera hangs back and just sort of lets her vanish into the crowd, evoking this escaped Princess as now being, well, if not of the people, at least among them.

As Ann and Joe’s day continues and the more fond they grow of each other, the less he wants to write his story and the more she comes to realize she will, eventually, have to go back. It’s a deft trick Hepburn pulls, self-discovery and bittersweet acceptance, embodied in her final scene, back at the embassy, neatly bringing the story full circle, meeting the people of Rome one more time, including the press, her own clever, covert way of saying goodbye to Joe. And as he waits for her in the final shot, I thought less of any fairytale than of “The Third Man” and Holly (Joseph Cotten) waiting in vain for Anna (Alida Valli) just as Joe waits in vain for Ann.

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