A fairytale romance which gave birth to a Hollywood icon
One of cinema’s blue-ribbon romances, “Roman Holiday” is a cleverly fun fairytale of a film. This twist of sorts on “Cinderella”, has a brilliant script which makes the implausible plausible. Add the lively directing, location shooting in Rome, and Audrey Hepburn’s luminous debut, and you have a total popcorn-eating treat. Once viewed, you’ll understand why it was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including “Best Picture” (winning three).
The setup for “Roman Holiday” is simple: while stopping in Rome on her European Goodwill Tour, the young and spirited “Princess Ann” runs away, eager for a taste of some non-royal experiences. While incognito, she quickly meets a handsome reporter who secretly realizes her identity, and sees the opportunity of a lifetime in getting a story of “the private and secret longings of a princess”. As the two explore Rome, their escapades brim with humor, romance, an intoxicating tour of Rome, and the troublesome moral question of just how much one is willing to exploit another - albeit one who is “fair game”. This film is absolute enchantment from start to finish.
“Roman Holiday” was directed by William Wyler, one of Hollywood’s most accomplished and respected directors. For this film he earned his ninth Best Director Academy Award nomination (out of twelve nominations and three wins), and his first of two Best Picture nominations as a producer. I’ve written about Wyler twice before (in “The Heiress” and “Funny Girl” posts) where you can read more about him. Wyler’s expertise and personality are evident right from the start, as he delightfully introduces us to “Princess Ann” - via her shoes. Wyler was exceptional with actors, and this is another instance where he led a newcomer to an Oscar win (as he did with Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl”). Primarily known as a dramatic director, this was only his second comedy - his first being “The Gay Deception” in 1935. Wyler insisted “Roman Holiday” be shot entirely in Italy, and this film is noted as being the first Hollywood film to be completely shot on location abroad. Rome is a vital part of the film, for as “Princess Ann” tours the city, so do we. Action takes place in many famous sites, including the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, and the Forum. The princess even gets a gelato! This was a marvel for audiences, as international travel was nothing like today (pre-COVID), and they got to see landmarks previously only heard about. It was the 1950’s instagram! From the landlord to the cab driver, the Italian extras in the film are wonderfully colorful, and greatly enhance our Roman holiday. Like the minimally crowded landmarks in the film, “Roman Holiday” very much reflects an era gone by, as the story is tied to the days when the press was respected and being an American overseas carried regard.
“Roman Holiday” was written by Dalton Trumbo, although if you were watching the film during its initial release you would think it was written by Ian McLellan Hunter. Prior to this film, Trumbo was one of Hollywood’s most successful and highest paid screenwriters. Among his most acclaimed screenplays at that time were “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo”, “Five Came Back", and “Kitty Foyle” for which he earned an Academy Award nomination. In 1947, with the arrival of the McCarthy era (which I explain at the end of the “High Noon” entry), he was blacklisted and forbidden from working in the entertainment industry, as he was one of what was known as the “Hollywood Ten” (ten entertainment industry professionals who refused to testify before HUAC or name names). In addition to being blacklisted, he was fined and imprisoned for eleven months. While blacklisted, he secretly continued to write screenplays (mostly “B” movies) using pseudonyms or having other writers put their names on his work. During that period he wrote the story for “Roman Holiday”. Knowing it was special, he asked his screenwriter friend Ian McLellan Hunter to front for him. Thus, Hunter’s name appeared in the film’s credits. Among “Roman Holiday’s” Oscar nominations was one for Best Screenplay and one for Best Motion Picture Story. “Roman Holiday” won the latter and the award was given to Hunter. Just over 40 years later, in 1992, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences changed their records crediting Trumbo with the Academy Award, and presented the statue to his widow in 1993. In 2011 the Writers Guild of America West restored Trumbo’s name to the film’s credits, which were seen for the first time in the film's 2003 DVD release. Trumbo would win a second Oscar (under the same conditions) for the 1956 film, “The Brave One” - this time under the pseudonym of Robert Rich (his nephew). Trumbo was given his statue for that film in 1975. Dalton Trumbo was married once until his death in 1976 at the age of 70. He became the most famous name associated with the Hollywood blacklist. An interesting side note is that actor Kirk Douglas was the person who presented the Oscar for Trumbo’s “Roman Holiday” win. Douglas was later the one who fearlessly insisted Trumbo use his real name for the 1960 classic film, “Spartacus” - which turned out to be one of the key elements that helped bring the blacklist to an end.
Gregory Peck stars as “Joe Bradley”, an American reporter in Italy. Known for his good looks, deep voice, and strong, stoic, almost heroic presence. T he 6’3” tall Peck was one of Hollywood’s major leading men and most popular movie stars in the 1940s and 50s. He had a large and personable presence, always seeming like someone with good morals on whom you could rely. Peck was voted number 12 of the men on American Film Institute’s list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”. A very likable actor whose solidness and quiet sensitivity fit “Joe” like a glove. Peck’s virtuous persona keeps us wondering throughout the film just how all this is going to end morally. He has fantastic chemistry with co-star Hepburn, which you see clearly every time they look at one another. It’s no wonder this film is so romantic.
Gregory Peck was a pre-med student at UC-Berkeley when someone asked him to be in a play. He was instantly hooked, never finished his medical degree, and had a new ambition to be a stage actor. He saw acting as a way of communicating, something he lacked in his troubled childhood. He moved to New York where he studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse with the famous acting teacher Sanford Meisner, and was taught movement and dance by legendary Martha Graham. He appeared in dozens of plays, mostly touring companies and summer stock, and on Broadway beginning in 1942. Always broke, he decided to try his hand at movies, purely for the money. In 1944 he appeared in his first film, as the male lead in "Days of Glory”, and the film tanked. Because he didn’t want to leave Hollywood a failure, he accepted another leading role, also in 1944, this time as a priest in "The Keys of the Kingdom”. That film was a hit, earned him his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination, and made him a success. By the following year he became one of Hollywood’s top stars. He was given the lead in his fourth film, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound”, opposite Ingrid Bergman, because Cary Grant turned it down. Peck later said, when he was offered parts (especially comedies), he often felt they were Grant’s rejects. Peck wasn’t far off. “Roman Holiday” was another of several of Grant’s rejects Peck accepted. Peck continued to appear pretty steadily in films through the 1960s, working less but continuing to appear in films (and later some TV) until 1998.
All of Peck’s unique qualities came together for a perfect fit in one of cinema’s outstanding achievements, the 1962 classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird”. For his portrayal of "Atticus Finch" in that film, he earned a Best Actor Academy Award, as well as a spot on the list of the screen’s most iconic performances. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar four previous times, for “The Keys of the Kingdom”, “The Yearling”, “Gentleman’s Agreement”, and “Twelve O’Clock High”. Peck appeared in many classic films, and others include "The Guns of Navarone", "On the Beach", "How the West Was Won", "Duel in the Sun", "Moby Dick", "The Omen", "Cape Fear", "MacArthur", "The Gunfighter", "The Big Country", and "The Boys from Brazil”. His films often brought light to social injustices and fears, including racism, anti-Semitism, and the threat of nuclear war. Off-screen, Peck helped raise funds and awareness for many humanitarian causes such as cancer research (he became the National Chairman of the American Cancer Society in 1966), gun control and civil rights. He was outspoken about the banning of nuclear weapons, and against the war in Vietnam (while being supportive of his son who served in the war). In 1968 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him their honorary Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and in 1969 President Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Peck also found himself listed on President Richard Nixon’s master list of “enemies of the state” (alongside Jane Fonda, Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, John Lennon, and others). Peck was married twice, the second time to Parisian-American reporter Véronique Passani, whom he met when she interviewed him just before “Roman Holiday”. The two were married for nearly fifty years, until his death. Gregory Peck died in 2003 at the age of 87. I had a friend who worked with, and became friends with Gregory Peck. She said he was funny, genuine, kind, and everything you thought him to be.
Audrey Hepburn gives a star-making performance as “Princess Ann” in “Roman Holiday”. This film put her on the road to becoming an international star, icon, trendsetter, and one of the most famous faces of classic cinema. She was voted number 3 of the women on the American Film Institute’s list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”. She exuded a unique beauty, grace, and style, and brought a new sense of class and elegance onto the screen and into the world. She looked fragile yet possessed an inner strength and charm that always shone through. Her thin build, long neck and short hair were unconventional for an actress at the time, and she broke the mold, as there was no one like her.
Hepburn’s performance in “Roman Holiday” is nothing short of breathtaking. Her almost royal air and star quality made for the perfect princess. She is so genuine you can’t take your eyes off, and empathize with “Princess Ann”. And her final close-up in the film is a knockout, as you see and feel a thousand emotions going on within her. With this role the world fell in love with Hepburn, and remained so even after her death. Prior to “Roman Holiday” Hepburn was completely unknown to film audiences, having only appeared on stage and in small parts in Dutch and British films. This was her first leading role and first American film. When Wyler couldn’t secure the female stars he wanted for “Princess Ann”, he set out to look for an actress who was in opposition to the curvy, sexy Italian actresses of the day such as Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida. He found the angular Hepburn, did a screen test, and a star was born. For this role, Hepburn won her first and only Best Actress Academy Award, and would garner four more nominations throughout her career.
Audrey Hepburn’s life began like a fairytale. Born in Brussels to a Dutch noblewoman and a father in the loan company business, she traveled and learned five languages as a young child. At six years old her the fairytale ended when her father abandoned her and her mother, an event that scarred Audrey for life. With the rise of Adolf Hitler, her mother moved her to the Netherlands (a neutral country at the time), and Audrey started studying ballet. The Germans soon occupied the Netherlands, and Hepburn witnessed many atrocious and traumatizing events, including executions and trainloads of Jews being sent to concentration camps. One of her two half-brothers (her mother was married prior to marrying Audrey’s father) was sent to a German labor camp, the other went into hiding, and her uncle was executed. She is quoted in the Barry Paris biography “Audrey Hepburn” as saying "We saw young men put against the wall and shot, and they'd close the street and then open it, and you could pass by again... Don't discount anything awful you hear or read about the Nazis. It's worse than you could ever imagine”. There was a Dutch famine and Hepburn suffered health problems from lack of food, including respiratory problems and anemia, both of which would haunt her throughout her life. The family’s money and belongings vanished during the war, so for money her mother became a cook and housekeeper and Audrey turned to ballet, modeling, and acting.
She moved to London on a ballet scholarship. Limited from her weakened physical state and being taller than most male dancers, she left ballet and concentrated on acting, finding work mostly in minor roles in films and TV shows. While filming the film "We Go to Monte Carlo” in Monte Carlo (which was released after “Roman Holiday”), French novelist Colette noticed Hepburn and cast her in the lead of her Broadway play “Gigi”. Hepburn was a hit and critical success. “Roman Holiday” followed. From the start of the film's production there was a great buzz about Hepburn from cast and crew, and those watching the rushes. If you look at the way Peck looks at her in the film, you can tell he has fallen under her spell as well. Peck very generously insisted on having the unknown Hepburn’s name appear above the title, just under his. He played down his bighearted gesture in an interview, explaining, “This girl is so great, she’ll probably win the Academy Award in her first performance. I’ll look like a damn fool if my name is up there on top of the picture by myself”. “Roman Holiday” was a huge hit, and so was she. Hepburn’s short hair and clothes became trendsetters, and it was the start of her rise as a fashion and style icon (which would be cemented with her role in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in 1961). Her second film, Billy Wilder’s “Sabrina”, opposite Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, firmly established her as a star, and honored her with her second Best Actress Oscar nomination. She went on to earn three additional Oscar nominations, for “The Nun’s Story”, “Wait Until Dark”, and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. She also won two Tony Awards for her work on Broadway. Other classics not mentioned in which she appeared include "Two for the Road", "Funny Face", "The Children's Hour", "Charade", "Robin and Marian", and the Oscar wining musical, "My Fair Lady". Hepburn worked continuously until 1967, after which she would only make four more films and one television appearance.
Audrey Hepburn never forgot how much the food and medical treatment she received after WWII meant, and in 1988 she became a UNICEF Special Ambassador, and then a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF in 1989. She tirelessly devoted the rest of her life working directly with impoverished children in countries all over the world, including Ethiopia, Somalia, Turkey, Venezuela, Ecuador, Guatemala, El Salvador, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam and Sudan. In the "Audrey Hepburn Tribute | UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador" video, she states “And if this career has left me with something very special, it’s left me with this voice which I can use for the good of children”. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her work, and in 1993 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded her their honorary Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award (though she died before the actual award ceremony). She was married twice, the first of which was a thirteen year marriage to actor Mel Ferrer, whom she met through Gregory Peck. She spent her last nine years in a relationship with actor Robert Wolders, which she considered the happiest of her life, though the two never married. She had two sons, one with each of her husbands. Audrey Hepburn died from cancer in 1993 at the age of 63.
Eddie Albert is superb as “Irving Radovich”, a carefree photographer who goes along for the ride, secretly snapping photos. With his laidback, artsy personality, he rounds out the main cast perfectly, bringing much of the film’s humor. You can’t help but like “Irving”, and he just about steals many of the scenes in which he appears. For his work in “Roman Holiday”, Albert earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination, one of two he would receive in his career. For some unknown reason, Albert was not a fan of this film.
Eddie Albert started as a trapeze artist, singer, and radio host, finding his way to Broadway in the 1930s. In 1936, when television was still experimental, he wrote and acted in TV’s very first drama. He began appearing in films in 1938 earning just over 200 film and TV show credits, through 1997. He is best remembered for his starring roles in television work, in the 1970s crime show, “Switch”, and most famously in the classic 1960s TV sitcom, “Green Acres”. While Albert mostly appeared on television, he did do a lot of film work as well, occasionally as the lead, usually in a supporting role. Some of his notable films include "The Longest Yard", "The Longest Day", "Captain Newman, M.D.", "The Sun Also Rises", "Oklahoma!", and the 1972 film "The Heartbreak Kid" for which he earned his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Before making films Eddie Albert worked for the US government, touring Mexico as a circus performer while secretly photographing and spying on German U-boats in Mexican waters (good training for his role in “Roman Holiday”!). He became a decorated war hero for rescuing 47 Marines at the Battle of Tarawa, and supervised the rescue of even more. In 1945 Albert married Mexican actress Margo, who was a vocal liberal blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Albert was also to be blacklisted, but his war record saved him and his career. The two were married just shy of forty years (until her death), and they had two children, including their son, actor Edward Albert Jr.. Eddie Albert was a humanitarian, fighter for social rights, and environmentalist activist. He worked towards banning the use of the pesticide DDT, founded City Children’s Farms, fought for refugees, helped produced sex educational films in the 1940s, produced films to aid campaigns against pollution, helped create Earth Day, and more. Something I didn’t realize until I began writing this post, is that all of the three major stars in the film were activists who each bettered the world in their own charitable way. Eddie Albert died in 2005 at the age of 99.
In addition to wins for Hepburn and Trumbo, “Roman Holiday” won a third Oscar for Edith Head, who designed its exquisite and trendsetting costumes. I previously wrote about Head in the “A Place in the Sun”, “The Heiress”, "Hud", and “Double Indemnity” posts. Her Oscar for “Roman Holiday” was one of her eight wins, out of 35 total nominations. In addition to what’s mentioned above, the other categories for which “Roman Holiday” earned Oscar nominations were cinematography, art direction, and editing.
This romantic tale of a person longing to step out of their box and see a world different than their own is filled with magic, fun, and emotion. It is a film you don’t want to miss, and one you can easily fall in love with. Enjoy “Roman Holiday”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
One of “Roman Holiday’s” most famous scenes is when “Joe” and “Princess Ana” visit the Mouth of Truth. During the filming of that scene, Peck came up with the idea of having his hand get stuck and hiding it - unbeknownst to Hepburn. Her reaction was genuine, and Wyler captured it in the very first take. I took my own Roman holiday several years ago, and visited the Mouth of Truth. It was crowded (like all the landmarks in the film), with a line of people (including me) waiting their turn to reenact the scene from “Roman Holiday”!
Wyler’s two daughters appear in bit parts in one scene of “Roman Holiday”. It's when “Joe” tries to grab the camera from around the neck of a school girl. Wyler’s daughters are the one with the camera, and the one who calls for the teacher.
Just before the film’s release, a real life version of “Roman Holiday” was playing out in the headlines. Britain’s Princess Margaret was involved with the divorced commoner, Peter Townsend. Because of her royal status and the fact that he was divorced, Princess Margaret was forced to renounce him. The buzz that story created helped generate much interest in this film - a case of life helping art!