Joie de Vivre : A Classic Movie Survival Guide – "Roman Holiday"

by Jean-Paul Chaillet and Juliette Michaud April 17, 2020
A scene from "Roman Holiday", 1953

paramount pictures

Lockdown getting you down? Unlock your spirits with a timeless classic. How about William Wyler’s Roman Holiday? Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, enchantment, and la dolce vita, all guaranteed to lift your mood.

How can you not fall in love with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck riding a Vespa through the streets of Rome or having gelato on the Spanish Steps? Between Audrey’s radiant freshness, her trendsetting fashions (courtesy of the great Edith Head), and the short haircut that all girls would soon start to copy, and 37-year-old Gregory’s more sophisticated charisma, channeling as it did the comic flair of a Cary Grant, the couple, and their short but moving romance, are well-nigh irresistible. Indeed, when the film came out, the more experienced Peck insisted on having Audrey Hepburn’s name above his on the movie poster, showing that he knew full well who the real star of the movie was.  Seven years before Fellini’s Dolce Vita, this movie captures the lost Roman lifestyle of the early fifties, a time which seems today even more precious than ever.

Roman Holiday is the perfect rom-com – or maybe we should say Rome-com? – treat the movie that made Audrey Hepburn a sensation and an international star. At a time when more voluptuous sex-symbols like Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe were known for their curvaceous charms, her “funny face,” waif-like figure and unmistakable individual style helped launch the now-iconic gamine look that would later be emulated by the likes of Shirley MacLaine, Leslie Caron, and Jean Seberg.  In 1954, at just 24, Audrey won both the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama and a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in the film.

Later she would confess to having been surprised by her instant success and sudden fame. “In the beginning, I was very much involved with the classical ballet and the movies were really not serious. I sometimes did bits in movies to earn an extra buck, but that was just it - to earn an extra buck. It wasn’t going to be my career.”

Audrey’s Hollywood breakthrough is the stuff of legend. In 1951, she had been filming the British-French comedy Monte Carlo Baby on location on the Riviera, when author Colette, who happened to be there on vacation, spotted her, and immediately decided that she would be perfect for the title role of Gigi in the Broadway adaptation of her eponymous novel. Glowing reviews of this performance quickly got Hollywood interested.

Roman Holiday is the story of Princess Ann, a crown princess, on a visit to Rome, who yearns to escape from her royal duties for just one day. She has a chance encounter with Joe Bradley, an American journalist, who offers to show her the sights of the Eternal City: his ulterior motive is to gain the greatest scoop of his career by writing about their brief roman holiday, but after a while in the Princess’s company, he finds himself wanting something more.

The lengthy search for the actress to play the part of Ann was similar to the one that had been undertaken to find Scarlett O’Hara for Gone With the Wind.  Established star Elizabeth Taylor was the original choice, but the instinct of veteran director William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur) in betting instead on the unknown Hepburn was brilliant. For her screen test, he had asked his cameraman to let the camera keep rolling after he had said “cut”, revealing footage that showed in the actress a natural spontaneity that impressed him.  He had found the right princess, a young woman with European sophistication who was also able to tap into a unique sense of touching melancholy.

The script was written by the legendary Dalton Trumbo, but because he was still officially blacklisted, his name could not appear on the credits. In the director’s chair, Wyler had just the one non-negotiable requirement: to be able to film all the exteriors in Rome. Paramount allotted him a mere one million dollars budget for this, which meant that in order to accommodate the shoot, the film must be made in black and white.

Audrey Hepburn went on to make two more films with William Wyler, The Children’s Hour (1961) and How to Steal a Million (1966).  In 1990, when she received the Cecil B. deMille Award at the 47th Golden Globes ceremony, she made a point of thanking both Wyler and Gregory Peck, her longtime mentors and friends.

In the 70s there was talk of a sequel to Roman Holiday, but, sadly, it never materialized.

The poster for "Roman Holiday", 1953

paramount pictures


Roman Holiday, 1953. Directed by William Wyler with Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert, Margaret Rawlings, Harcourt Williams.