Wednesday, October 28, 2020

On a Celebrated Holiday with Hepburn and Peck

1953 proved to be a banner year for classic Hollywood which, along with the introduction of Cinemascope and the rise to prominence of Marilyn Monroe and 3D, featured such diverse classics as From Here to Eternity, The Band Wagon, The Big Heat, and William Wyler’s quintessential romantic comedy Roman Holiday. Wyler had a knack for bringing out a performer’s best and, wisely filming on location in the Eternal City to ensure the proper mood was captured, he proved to be the ideal directorial choice for the auspicious Hollywood introduction of the endearing and enduring charms of Audrey Hepburn. Happily teamed with one of the era’s top leading men, Gregory Peck (who insisted his largely-unknown leading lady be given above-the-title billing with him once the rushes starting coming in), Hepburn became an immediate audience favorite and won the Oscar to boot after so memorably portraying the film’s capricious, enchanting Princess Ann as to the manner (or palace) born.

Hepburn’s unique onscreen charisma was possibly shown to its freshest and most unforced advantage in Holiday. This is the kind of rare performance that blends the perfect performer and role in a way that transcends regular acting. Guided by Wyler in her first major film role (after playing small and bit parts in several British films- check out her charming brief exchange with Alec Guinness in The Lavender Hill Mob), Hepburn makes nary a false move throughout the film and, along with her beauty and beguiling nature, shows an intuitiveness for providing an emotional depth and truthfulness at the center of her work. Although she would be logically cast (and excel in) several Cinderella-type roles (Sabrina, Funny Face, Love in the Afternoon, et. al) after her enormous impact in Holiday, and offer her most iconic fashion “look” in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hepburn continued to also work on her substantial dramatic gifts in both comedy and drama, resulting in some unforgettable portraits which offered a fascinating mixture of quite grace and turbulent emotions, specifically in 1959’s The Nun’s Story, wherein Hepburn beautifully conveys the moral conflicts facing her character as she attempts to maintain her religious convictions and in her terrific work in 1967’s double-header of Wait Until Dark and Two for the Road.

For Gregory Peck, Holiday provided a welcome change-of-pace after scoring a string of hits for nearly a decade as a handsome, stoic, reliable leading man in a series of dramas, most notably 1947’s Best Picture Oscar-winner Gentlemen’s Agreement and Twelve O’Clock High. Although Peck’s earnestness served him well and he could sometimes lend humor and colorfulness to roles (his work in 1946’s as the wise, gentle father in The Yearling and, in stark contrast, as the low-down but sexy villain in the same year’s Duel in the Sun are particularly endearing) he’d never taken on a flat-out romantic comedy.  As not-always-ace reporter Joe Bradley, Peck is clearly enjoying himself and eager to display his talents in a lighter vein. Along with his obvious rapport with Hepburn, he’s also great with Eddie Albert as Irving, his photographer sidekick who suffers a few indignities at the hands of Joe. Peck most valuable contribution may be in playfully providing one of cinema’s most renowned improvisations in probably the movie’s most famous scene at the “Mouth of Truth,” wherein Peck reportedly caught Hepburn off-guard and provoked a delightful reaction from her at the end of the scene, based on his mischievous actions therein. Albert also does solid, ingratiating work and scored an Oscar nomination for his troubles, while Paolo Carlini is also memorable as Mario, the shy-yet-cheery hairdresser who takes a shine to the incognito Princess and invites her to the dance that serves as a climax to the Princess’ adventures.

The ingenious, delightful story and screenplay by Dalton Trumbo is another critical component in the film’s success and ongoing popularity. Although blacklisted at the time and unable to collect his well-earned Best Story Oscar for his sublime work (Trumbo’s friend Ian McLellan Hunter agreed to stand in for him so Trumbo could collect a hefty salary by proxy; years after his 1976 death, the Academy finally rectified this injustice and properly credited Trumbo- God the blacklist was so stupid, and to no purpose) Trumbo hopefully could take some solace knowing how invaluable his contribution was to the film’s initial and ongoing success. In Trumbo’s hands, the fanciful tale never becomes overly sentimental or cute; for example, notice the carefully-composed dialogue early on between Peck and Hepburn in his apartment, before he’s aware of the visiting royalty therein, as the audience understands Anne’s asides are completely in keeping with her regal role, but not something Peck would be able to fully grasp without more information. Thanks to Trumbo’s smart, original work, the viewer buys into and follows Princess Anne’s exploits throughout the film without pondering how improbable the events might be in actuality (such as no one in Rome recognizing the princess, whose likeness has been filling the daily newspapers, as she cavorts around the city). 

Paramount recently came through with a wonderful restoration of the film via its Paramount Presents Blu-ray line, granting a new generation of viewers a chance to see this touching and timeless bittersweet fairytale in the best visual rendition possible. A critical and financial hit upon its release, with film rentals (according to Variety) of $3,000,000 and 3 wins from 10 Oscar nominations (besides Hepburn and Trumbo, Edith Head scored one of her eight Oscars for the film’s costumes), the glories of Rome and Audrey Hepburn never had a better showcase than in the inventive, artfully crafted Roman Holiday.