There’s no arguing against a statement that Audrey Hepburn was one of the most gorgeous women ever to have graced the silver screen during Hollywood’s Golden Age, but to talk about the film that put her in the spotlight is yet another story. William Wyler’s Roman Holiday has a story that may have been imitated by countless other romantic comedies in the future but all these years it has not only remained so funny – it has still remained every bit as fresh as it did on its release date. But with Roman Holiday, every moment that it spends with our lead characters also happens to make oneself feel like they truly are having the time of their life in a city much like Rome, as if the cutesy nature of the story wouldn’t be enough to win oneself over. For every moment that it seeks to lift up one’s own spirits and even feel as bittersweet as these memories can be, they all build up to what truly forms one of the finest romantic comedies ever made.
In her first starring role, Audrey Hepburn stars as Princess Ann – where she’s given a fitting introduction within a place of royalty. Yet this lifestyle also feels more like a trap for her, for she lives without a sense of freedom within a suffocating schedule as she is touring Europe. During a visit to Rome, she also sneaks out of her home and within no time, ends up within the company of a newspaper writer named Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), who encourages her to spend the whole day together with him, now appearing like a normal person and being completely unrecognizable. For every bit as this may have become the basis of many other romantic comedies that have followed, and every bit as simple as it may sound, all of that still factors in the makings of what feels just like a most desirable trip to Rome – for this film is all about having a good time being spent while you can, finding everything that makes oneself happy, like any ideal vacation.
Roman Holiday opens with a fitting critique of the system that the privileged are made to endure, because Princess Ann has a personality much like that of an ordinary person, and thus she never feels the freedom that this so-called “power” would have entrusted upon her. In these moments, William Wyler still builds up the sort of character that she is, suffocated and without a sense of autonomy. But this feeling of being trapped also gives the film’s social commentary a perfect start, and the film never lets down from there. When you’re recognized by just about everyone that runs into you, then as a human being your space will always be occupied by many – but at the same time you also are made to say certain things under pressure. It’s a film about finding freedoms, and no one better encapsulates that spirit compared to Audrey Hepburn in what was only her first starring role in a legendary career. For a film that established her own career in Hollywood, it’s also one that best captures a most likeable personality, showing the most from comedy and drama in a soul desiring freedom.
It doesn’t end there, however. The male lead is played by Gregory Peck, who still recognizes the fact that the girl who passes herself off as “Anya Smith” is actually the princess he was assigned to write a story about. Gregory Peck, who was not particularly one for making comedies, has such impeccable timing here – best matched together with his photographer friend Irving Radovich, who immediately recognizes Ann, letting his own self-interest get the best of him. It’s a perfect descriptor for both the male leads in Roman Holiday, but what it is that makes a wonderful comedy out of such personalities is the way these self-interests find themselves at odds with one another. And yet Ann is still at the center of everything, with Joe having fallen in love with her and Irving wanting to make money out of the experience that they have together.
Yet it only occurred to me upon a recent revisit that there’s also something far more bittersweet at play in here. It ends just like you know you feel like your best vacation would end, where you feel that you don’t want to leave anymore. It’s a perfect descriptor for what Roman Holiday makes me feel, because I can watch a film that spends even more time just covering the entire day that Joe and Ann spend with one another, but like a vacation where you know you have to say goodbye, it still sends off that note where something from the experience was so life-changing for you, it almost feels so bitter saying goodbye. And given as the circumstances of such a scenario akin to that from Roman Holiday are so unlikely, that makes it feel even more bittersweet, as shown right from the film’s final shot. It just hangs onto that moment, as you come to terms with the fact that everything is over – and a sadness is clearly visible, but in the end, you still do your best to cherish the ride.
When you’re having a Roman holiday, you already know you want for it to be a good time. William Wyler does the very best to capture how beautiful a city like Rome truly is, and the script also does everything possible to balance comedy and drama with such ease – it almost feels like a memory of a vacation that you see as nothing other than truly perfect. If anything best describes how well Roman Holiday works as a whole, it simply nothing short of being a perfect film. And what better describes a film like Roman Holiday other than being a vacation that you know you’ll truly treasure as one of the best times of your life? It’s a film that sets out to make you feel good while it lasts, you don’t want it to end, yet you know that time must come – because that’s the reality that everyone lives within. It still feels like a perfect reminder you must allow these moments to remain treasured in your memory, allowing it to end on a good note.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Paramount.
Directed by William Wyler
Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton
Produced by William Wyler
Starring Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck
Release Year: 1953
Running Time: 118 minutes