My friend was delighted when they discovered I was going to watch ‘Roman Holiday’ (1953) last night for the first time. “Oh, you’ll love it!” they told me. “It’s delightful and charming.” And yes, ‘Roman Holiday’ is delightful and charming, but hold it up to the light at just a slightly different angle and it’s also sordid, sleazy, grubby and possibly the least romantic movie I’ve ever seen. Don’t believe me? Try playing the movie back in your mind but with ‘Steptoe and Son’s Wilfred Brambell in the Gregory Peck role and let me know how it plays for you then. Not quite so charming now, is it?
Audrey Hepburn plays Anne, a princess from an unnamed European country, who is on a state visit to Italy. After being heavily sedated one night (due to the pressures of her royal position) she slips off into the city of Rome to escape her restrictive life. However, Anne cannot survive by herself so it’s just as well that Gregory Peck’s Joe Bradley comes along to help her out a little, at least until the drugs wear off.
At first Joe sees Anne as a nuisance, yet Joe is also a reporter for the American News Service who spends his nights gambling so needs a big story to pay off his debts. When Joe discovers that the annoying young woman back at his flat is actually a princess, and a princess he was supposed to have conducted an interview with no less, Joe sees his chance for an exclusive scoop and he becomes determined to get to know Anne in the most intimate ways possible.
To do this Joe takes Anne on a Roman holiday where she can kick back and enjoy life free from rigid restrictions and Joe can, er… enlist his friend to secretly take photos of Anne without her consent?!!!
Having only seen the publicity still of Hepburn and Peck on a Vespa together I was under the assumption that at this part of the movie that they were falling in love. But no, they’re not. She’s off in a world of her own whilst he’s in the middle of some awful invasion of privacy scheme for his own selfish gain. I found myself constantly pulled out of the movie and, for me, the problem was Peck, both his character and as an actor.
You see, I thought Joe was meant to be a down on his luck, schlubby hack; the sort of guy who sleeps in his suit and puts his butts out in his cold, morning coffee. He needs to be roguish yet sympathetic but with a touch of romantic flare, like Marcello Mastroianni, if his character is to work. Personally speaking I can’t see Peck doing any of that. He’s too stiff to be schlubby, too patrician to be roguish and too emotionally contained to be sympathetic. If you want a whale harpooned, a munitions dump destroyed or your kid murdered in a church then Peck is your man. But romantic comedy?
Don’t believe me? Look very closely at Peck’s eyes when he’s looking at Audrey Hepburn. It’s EXACTLY the same look he gives the Nazi guns when he’s on Navarone so it’s hard to take him seriously as a romantic lead when I’m not sure if he wants to take Anne in his arms and kiss her or plant some high explosives under her bed and blow her up.
I also feel the movie let’s Peck’s character off the hook at the end. He’s done terrible things to Anne but we know we’ll never see Peck confess his actions to her because, let’s face it, can you imagine Gregory Peck getting on his knees, bursting into tears and pleading for Anne’s forgiveness for having invaded her privacy? I just can’t imagine Peck pleading. So, instead, the film has the confession prompted by external circumstances thus relieving Peck the ignominy of admitting to exploitation. What a cop out!
This allows Anne to safely return to her mothership which can take her back to her own planet and that’s when I realised ‘Roman Holiday’ is, basically, the forerunner of ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982) where a innocent being from another realm visits Earth for a few days as the authorities pursue her and she, at the end, has to leave the one true friend she has made behind (she even gets driven around on a bike at one point).
None of this is to say I didn’t enjoy ‘Roman Holiday’ because I did, and by quite a bit. The cinematography of Rome is gorgeous, the bar fight exciting and funny (“Hit him again. Smitty!”) and it contains possibly the greatest haircut I’ve seen in any movie. Peck might be too buttoned-up for my tastes (I think he struggles a little with the slapstick to really make it work, too) but good grief, Audrey Hepburn radiates enough charm for both of them. This is not a love story between Anne and Joe but Hepburn and the camera. No wonder Peck can only walk away at the end totally helpless and alone.
You have to be careful how you view ‘Roman Holiday’. View it as a frothy, yet exceptionally well made, tale of two people getting to know a little more about themselves and each other over a weekend and it works a treat. View it as a version of ‘E.T.’ set in Rome except with Elliot working as a scummy hack for the News of the World tabloid and trying to surreptitiously film the alien little creature in its dress at the Trevi Fountain and it’s a fucking ethical nightmare.