Review: Roman Holiday (1953)

Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton, and Dalton Trumbo (originally uncredited due to the Red Scare)
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, and Eddie Albert
Composer: Georges Auric
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Rating: G
It’s good for both critics and audiences to reconsider old movies. Not only are many of them good, but they are as startling as movies from other cultures. Old movies were made with a different sensibility. Their contrast helps us see modern movies better. The other explanation is that I wanted to review a bunch of Audrey Hepburn movies. I fear we may never know the truth.
Roman Holiday is the movie that made Audrey Hepburn a mega-star. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and Hepburn won for her performance as Princess Ann, who flees her royal schedule and spends a day exploring Rome with Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). Ann doesn’t realize Bradley is a reporter who thinks the exclusive story of a lifetime has dropped into his lap.
The movie was filmed entirely in Rome. There was less international travel in 1953, and it would have been delightful to see the sights of Rome on film. This makes Roman Holiday a travelogue, a display of Rome’s sights, a star vehicle, a comedy, a love story, and a tragedy.

Content Guide

Violence: A fistfight is shown.
Sexual content: No direct depiction. A character innocently stays the night in another’s apartment. There are subtle allusions to prostitution and pornography.
Drug/alcohol use: A character is sedated without proper consent and drinking is shown.
Other negative themes: All characters lie to each other to some degree.
Positive content: Devotion to duty and putting loyalty to friends ahead of selfish gain.

Review

Princess Ann is over-scheduled, stressed, and feeling rebellious. After being given a mild sedative by her doctor, she escapes into the streets of Rome. As she dozes on a wall she is reluctantly helped by a reporter named Joe Bradley. The next morning Joe realizes who she is, and takes her on a day of fun around Rome so he can write an intimate exclusive. And they fall in love.
The movie is built around Ann and Joe’s relationship, and the performances are wonderful. Hepburn’s Ann oscillates between very reserved and extremely expressive, while always being charming and funny. Peck’s Joe is more normal but more guarded. It is only in the movement of his eyes and the tensing of his jaw that we see when he is moved, in love, or devastated.
What surprised me most about Roman Holiday was its patience. It’s frantic when necessary or funny, but it can also play the audience like a Hitchcockian violin. The movie’s climax is a formal reception of the press where Ann shakes Joe’s hand and says goodbye. The touch of genius? He’s about two-thirds of the way along the line. We see Ann hold her composure through a dozen handshakes and introductions, almost lose it when she is face to face with Joe, and then move on through sheer force of will and devotion to duty. Our two leads move together and then apart again–a summary of the whole movie. The movie ends with a long tracking shot as Joe slowly walks out of a huge, luxurious, powerful room. No music or dialogue is needed. The movie’s thesis statement is purely visual.
Wow, I’m gushing like a schoolboy who’s just seen The Matrix. Is this movie really that great? It’s certainly very good. But not great. A great movie can enthrall people from any time and culture. This movie wasn’t just made in the 50s, it communicates in a very 50s way. There are many moments–the way Joe takes a drugged Ann home for her safety, Irving’s secret camera, the barber asking Joe for permission to dance with Ann, the fistfight with the secret police–that land like lead balloons today. I’m not dinging the movie for being made in the 50s; only noting some ways in which it struggles to connect outside its own cultural moment.
But there are just as many moments that leap across the culture differences. Ann’s haircut is no longer daring in the West, but we still understand that it symbolizes her new independence. And the restraint with which romance is treated makes it more powerful. Every time Ann and Joe touch it’s electric. They don’t kiss until three-quarters of the way through the movie, and both know at once that they have no future together.
Roman Holiday shows us at least one thing that is rare in film today: a love story that doesn’t work out because other things are more important. At the end, Ann and Joe aren’t cursing cruel fate. They are grieving the costs of their own choices. That’s a kind of fragile joy and bitter realism that modern film-making could stand to rediscover.

Positives

+ Excellent performances + Lovely cinematography

Negatives

- Hollywood-in-the-Sixties gender relationships

The Bottom Line

A delightful comedy and romance with a bittersweet resolution.

 

7

Lucas Sharley

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