ROMAN HOLIDAY IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR (And Then There Was Hollywood….Fifth Rumination)

Roman Holiday (1953)
D. William Wyler

There’s a famous anecdote about the discovery of Audrey Hepburn, from the notoriously unreliable Anita Loos, which is too good not to be true.

Colette, the famous French authoress of the Gigi stories, had refused all English language requests for rights to the stories for decades until she saw Loos’s stage adaptation of her own Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She agreed to sell the Broadway rights to Gigi if Loos would do the book. Loos signed on.

The rights were bought, Loos wrote her adaption, the theater was booked and the cast and crew assembled. As the date for official rehearsals drew nigh, the only thing missing was an actress right for the title role. In the midst of the New York producers developing itchy scalps and premonitions of doom, Loos received a telegram from Colette that read:

Have found Gigi. Come at once.

Loos rounded up her pal Paulette Goddard (the actress who David Selznick had finally settled on for Scarlett O’Hara once upon a time, until the last second discovery of then virtually unknown Vivien Leigh altered the Cosmos) and they caught the overnight express to Paris.

When they arrived at their hotel, they were told that Colette had sent a package to their room.

In the room, they found a model’s portfolio lying on the bed. No message.

Loos thumbed through the portfolio without comment. Then she handed it to Goddard.

Goddard leafed through the pictures, put the portfolio back on the bed and said:

“Maybe she lisps or something.”

Within a few weeks Audrey Hepburn was cast for the lead in the Broadway version of Gigi.

A star was born.

Except not quite.

Hepburn won good reviews on Broadway, but with only bit film roles to her credit (her cameo in The Lavender Hill Mob is dazzling) might well have been destined for a career limited to stage stardom….except that, just as her touring obligations to Gigi were winding down, Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons turned out to be unavailable for a script written by blacklisted screenwriting ace Dalton Trumbo, and William Wyler spotted her for his upcoming film, the first comedy he had done in nearly twenty years.

He called for a screen test. She passed. Gregory Peck got the male lead (which Cary Grant had turned down). They were off.

A few weeks into the shoot, Peck, who had a contract that stated only his name would appear above the title, called the producers and insisted Hepburn’s name be moved above the title as well.

It wasn’t altruism or self-deprecation, he later claimed.

He just didn’t want to look like an idiot.

Thus….a star was born.

I knew exactly none of that the first time I saw Roman Holiday.

TBS ran it after midnight when I was in college circa the very early eighties. I was then living in a studio apartment two blocks from FSU’s campus where I had learned to kill fleets of German cockroaches with my bare hands because I couldn’t always afford traps.

I could never reach the spray fast enough, and it was better than letting the nasty buggers get away.

The television was black and white. Nineteen inch.

Cable came with the rent and had maybe thirteen channels.

Roman Holiday had three and half stars in Leonard Maltin’s movie guide.

If  VHS existed, I didn’t know about it.

I was nineteen or twenty years old and didn’t know Audrey Hepburn from a stripper. Gregory Peck I’d heard of, which was more than I could say for William Wyler.

I’m setting the scene so you’l have a sense of the atmosphere in which I was struck by the lightning that struck Collette and Anita Loos and Paulette Goddard once upon a time.

I didn’t even have the defense mechanism available to Goddard.

Roman Holiday was a talkie and the talk was by Dalton Trumbo.

And Audrey Hepburn, she did not lisp.

*   *   *   *

For the next twenty-five years–until I grew old enough to understand John Ford–Roman Holiday was my favorite movie.

I only saw it half-a-dozen times, far less than I saw other movies that were nowhere near my favorite. Anyone who has seen it once might understand.

Yes, it is a comedy. But it is also an elegy and elegaic comedy is the hardest kind of comedy, not to mention the hardest kind of elegy. Even now, I’m not sure I want to examine its effects too closely. The degree to which Civilization has receded since 1980–let alone 1953–has made the final scene, a scene that made a friend of mine once declare “that’s the saddest movie I’ve ever seen,” punch even harder.

Was it really not so long ago that you could make a mainstream film introducing a breakout star (on her way to becoming a universally acknowledged icon and, less acknowledged, one of the best scene-for-scene actors in the history of film) with the expectation of an audience who understood that life, like glory, is fleeting?

Now there is no “mainstream,” hence, nowhere to for concepts like breaking out or iconography or history or film to go.

That’s the Lost World effect these days of a film that can, in production pitch terms, be described as a simple fairy tale: The Princess and the Peasant, though we’ve also traveled a distance that makes this variation–the Princess and the Newspaperman–even more far-fetched.

This is one of those rare movies that I revisit in hopes I’ll spot some way it might have taken a different turn, might have somehow come out different, knowing all the while such hopes are in vain.

I wonder if it would matter as much–hurt as much–if the social types who provide the narrative engine for Roman Holiday (or any romance, comedic or otherwise) were still recognizable in an Age when the human types barely are.

Whatever the consequences for Civilization, the consequences for story-telling have been devastating. Hard to expect individual stories to resonate when humanity itself has no narrative and, increasingly, no excuse for its own existence except consumption and excitement, the emptiest excuses us humans have so far been able to imagine.

More of everything please. That will sustain us!

Sure it will.

I think one reason Roman Holiday‘s absurdist tone and melancholy ending hit so hard in 1980 (harder as the years went by and I read the teeth-clenching reviews from the old codgers–Stanley Kaufman, David Thomson, the usual suspects–who wondered if you had to have lived through the War to really connect with it), is that I already knew the kind of stories I wanted to write weren’t going to have any agency in the world I was going to have to live in.

Looking back, I’m not surprised I was “clinically depressed” in those days and that Roman Holiday, wonderful as it was and is, only deepened that depression. It’s a bit disorienting to realize, all at once, that the world isn’t going to produce any more Audrey Hepburns, not even in the fantasy world of the movies–that we’re all doomed to live in a time and place where, one way or another, everyone lisps.

LAND OF THE PHARAOHS (And Then There Was Hollywood: Fourth Rumination)

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
D. Howard Hawks

(NOTE: Contains mild spoilers)

Hollywood has never known quite what to do with the feral versions of Siren Sex. No woman who has possessed it in sufficient abundance to make ignoring it impossible has ever sustained major stardom without cloaking it under a serviceable veneer, usually The Comedienne (see Jean Harlow, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe) or The Actress (see Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Angelina Jolie…Monroe died trying to make the leap).

Lately, Jolie and Scarlett Johansson have been able to work a variation, Action Girl, where the Siren quality can be safely subsumed by Special Effects.

Pack enough CGI on the screen and the Sex can blend with the scenery.

Beside all that, you have the long history of women who couldn’t or wouldn’t shape themselves to fit what the world could handle. Hence a long list of actresses whose careers tend to be summed up by the crit-illuminati with some version of why do you suppose they didn’t amount to more, poor things.

Gloria Grahame and Marie Windsor were partially saved from this ignominy by the happy accident of having their prime years coincide with those of film noir. But later shoulda beens–Karen Black, Rosanna Arquette, Ileana Douglas, Rebecca DeMornay, to name only a few of the more obvious–were left stranded in the Brief-Flirtation-With-Stardom-Inevitably-Reduced-to-Working-Actress category.

It’s always been a fine line to walk, but the hard parameters have remained the same from the days of the Hays Code to our current enlightened state of Free Unlimited Porn on the Internet.

Sex, yes.

But please don’t radiate it.

Which brings us to this:

That’s just the black and white version. Of Joan Collins in 1955.

It doesn’t matter if she’s not your type, or that it’s the only still I could find from this Technicolor extravaganza (which the illuminati are universally confident can be dismissed as “camp,” a word they often deploy to dismiss anything they find unsettling….they’re prudes before they’re anything else, no matter how much porn they brag about watching) that comes close to matching the flesh impact Collins has in the film, where, with nothing vulnerable or modern about her, she seems to have been cast as the antithesis of the Hawksian woman.

Of course, she’d have to be something other than modern or vulnerable, given she’s playing someone who had to survive in a time and place where feral sex was one of the few qualities present that is still recognizable (if barely) in our own.

Here’s an attempt to understand it all, from The Guardian, circa 2013:

Khufu has her flogged. “Education is sometimes painful, isn’t it?” he gloats to her afterwards. This is the kind of line that makes a character permanently irredeemable, and the screenwriters (who included Nobel laureate William Faulkner) clearly couldn’t work out how to fix it. So the voiceover just says: “In the succeeding weeks, she became the favourite of the pharaoh. They were married and she became his second wife.” What? How? Why?

It’s nice, of course, that, for now, we live comfortably ensconced in a world where flogging a girl before you marry her is “irredeemable.” But I’m always a little bemused when someone who fusses over Wronged History–dates, places, English accents on Egyptian Pharaohs–because it doesn’t allow the properly educated to either close the distance or keep it at arm’s length (I’m never sure which), can’t bring himself to acknowledge the part that rings true.

Anyone who is really confused about what Pharaoh sees in Joan Collins’ princess–why she might become his favorite once he thinks a good flogging has tamed her–is too stupid to be writing for publication. Anyone who lies about it is….well, you can make up your own mind about those who pretend not to comprehend the obvious, whatever the subject.

But it was Hollywood’s problem before it was The Guardian‘s, and mankind’s long before it was Pharaoh’s.

Yes, Jack Hawkins is badly miscast as an Egyptian. That’s a hole in the movie even Collins can’t quite fill, though she might have with a director who understood feral sex, or a world that ran on it, as something other than perversion (the only time Hawks got the concept across was with Ann Dvorak’s incestuous sister act in Scarface, which was a long way behind him by 1955).

Instead, he–or Hollywood, or Faulkner the Laureate–knew no better than to reduce Collins’ princess to a standard issue shamed harlot in the final scene, when, having been reunited with Pharaoh’s boundless treasure for eternity, she should be in her element and smiling triumph over the peons who think they’ve tricked her.

It’s not a surprise, though.

Failing to punish her for greed, lust and murder in an “unenlightened” world that thrived on all three, would have required real sophistication on someone’s part.

Faced with a character–and an actress–who was nobody’s idea of a Good Wife, Hawks lost his nerve. That, his relatively lackluster hand with crowd scenes (a rather important deficiency in a Sword and Sandals epic filmed on location with the proverbial cast of thousands), and the absence of Yul Brynner, broke his twenty-five year run of commercial and critical success.

Though it lost money, Land of the Pharaohs was hardly a disaster on the first count. And it has gained defenders over the years, including some, like Martin Scorcese and me, who agree on little else. Hawks’ gift for interior scenes and memorable sets is intact and Collins’ performance is a rejection of camp, ferocious enough that it took a quarter-century, middle-age, and the damp squab of real camp on television, for anyone to find any version of it, or her, the least bit acceptable.

I’ll always revisit Land of the Pharaohs.

I’ll always wish it was a little bit better.

I’ll always get at little restless, waiting for the jolt of energy Collins’ entrance gives it and I’ll always marvel at how she sustains it in every scene until the false ending lets her down.

And I’ll always reserve a smile for those who think mankind–and Hollywood–not knowing what to do about Vulgar Sex is the same as having left it all safely behind.

THE LIGHTS GO DOWN (Carrie Fisher, George Michael, Richard Adams, R.I.P.)

The best line anyone will write about Carrie Fisher is in Sheila O’Malley’s lovely tribute at Roger Ebert’s site: “It’s rare to have your father leave your mother for Elizabeth Taylor.”

Fame’s a beast, an especially hungry one if you didn’t ask for it. Star Wars, which must have seemed like a job of work when she signed on, probably derailed any chance she had at fulfilling herself as herself and the performances she gave in Shampoo, When Harry Met Sally, Hannah and Her Sisters, hint at who that might have been, as surely as the biting wit in Postcards From the Edge provides the best glimpse into who she became instead–who she probably had to become to survive.

Her death in proximity to George Michael’s is one of those instructive coincidences. Two fine people  made–and then unmade–by late boomer excess. The kind that kills you at 50, 60, instead of 27.

On the rise, though, they each left a mark beyond mere fame: Fisher was one of the earliest to speak and write openly about addiction, star-childness, bipolarity. According to reports that have circulated here and there over the years, she also kept Alec Guinness engaged on the sets of the only Star Wars movies that will matter in the end (and will matter, in part, because Guinness, under her influence, didn’t totally phone them in). In light of her becoming a legendary script doctor and best selling novelist, rumors will always persist that one reason those early movies are the only ones that have life–that matter as anything more than a cash register–is because she was there to deliver the best lines, uncredited, especially to her own character. Given the quality of dialogue George Lucas has tended to write when left on his own, those rumors will never die.

Michael was one of the few white artists to cross over to the R&B charts in the rock and roll era proper–to take full advantage of the space Elvis had opened up in the fifties. He beat “Blurred Lines” to the punch by thirty years and he did it with better records, many of which he wrote and produced himself. And, for better or worse, there’s no boy in “boy band” without him to provide the template.

All Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, did was whip up an entire universe–and a beautiful, enchanting novel–out of stories he invented to amuse his young daughters. Years later he revealed that the stories had been shaped by his experience–and those of his unit–in Operation Market Garden, the WWII expedition that culminated in the Allied failure at the bridge at Arnhem, which inspired the poet-journalist Cornelius Ryan to give the phrase “A Bridge Too Far” to the English language.

The epic adventure of the rabbits, the Star Wars universe, the rise of the boy band.

Turns out they all had one thing in common and it was the single element you would bet against being the key to such artificial worlds: Travel to whatever faraway land you can find or imagine and it’s the people who matter after all.

Just like Paul Simon said in the song he wrote about the one who was his wife for a while:


Jennifer Aniston has a movie out this week. A couple of years back, when The Switch opened, I rounded up a few typical quotes from the media’s heavy thinkers. And even though We’re the Millers is pretty clearly headed for “hit” status, nothing has really changed.

So…first a few quotes from back then:

“OK, something will go wrong, like Jennifer Aniston will have one too many total flops, but she’s still a member of that club. And she will still manage to … like a star forming in the universe, things will swirl around her and it will suddenly solidify into another vital tasteless rom-com, a little glitter next to the Crab Nebula,” (Rupert Everett, coherent as ever, 12/30/10)

“Overall Jennifer Aniston has been in as many movie flops as hits so Rupert Everett may have a point.” (Joe Dorish, 12/30/10)

The Switch, a new movie in which Jennifer Aniston is impregnated by Jason Bateman and a turkey baster, grossed an abysmal $8.3 million this weekend, good enough for 8th place at the weekend box office, behind the likes of Lottery Ticket and Nanny McPhee Returns. Is this officially the end of Jennifer Aniston’s run as a major movie star? Or was she even one to begin with? The critics are turning against her.

“Marketing genius’s Bill Simmons was the first to put Aniston’s career under the microscope in his column last Friday. Noting that only two of Aniston’s last eleven releases have been solid performers at the box office, Simmons points to the ‘Angelina/Brad/Jennifer love triangle, which is like Brett Favre’s comeback/retirement/comeback routine multiplied by 10, but has been cruising along for twice as long’ as the crucial element to Aniston’s success. She may never have opened a picture on her own, but by staying in the tabloids she guarantees ‘built-in publicity buzz for every crappy movie she promotes.’ Personal strife, according to Simmons, is Aniston’s bread-and-butter. Without it, she would have already faded to the ‘B- and C-list obscurity’ of her former “Friends” co-stars.

“A Mystery For The Ages: Patrick Goldstein of The Los Angeles Times isn’t sure how Aniston’s movie career can be considered over when she never had one in the first place. ‘When it comes to enduring mysteries,’ observes Goldstein, ‘it’s hard to come up with something more mystifying than how Jennifer Aniston became a movie star…She’s made an almost-unbroken string of forgettable movies that have rarely made a lot of money.’

“Critic-Proof At Hollywood Elsewhere, Jeff Wells calls Simmons’ rundown of Aniston’s woes ‘the best piece of analysis I’ve read about any actor’s career in a long time.’ It was even more welcome, Wells suggests, since those inside the industry are plagued by Aniston-fatigue. ‘I could argue that the failure of ‘The Switch’ to make more than $8.3 million at 2010 location ($4125 per screen average) betokens or foretells the gradual collapsing of the Jennifer Aniston brand,’ writes Wells, ‘or I could just let it go. I’m glad that Bill Simmons didn’t.’

(Ray Gustini, The Atlantic 8/23/10)

“Overall Jennifer Aniston’s biggest rival in Hollywood and in real life is Angelina Jolie and without any doubt Angelina Jolie is a bigger celebrity and a bigger box office movie draw.” (Joe Doris, 12/30/10)


Jennifer Aniston’s actual career (not counting animated voice parts, cameos, pre-fame Z-budget appearances, etc.) (NOTE: Also not updated to include the most recent releases by either her or Angelina Jolie as there is not world enough and time…These are the stats as they stood when The Switch was in theaters three years ago):

Aniston–Total Number of movies: 24

Number which made back production budget on domestic box office alone: 17 (including 9 of her last 11….including The Switch)

Number which made an overall profit based on public accounting: 18

Angelina Jolie’s actual career (ditto):

Total Number of movies: 25

Number which made back production budget on domestic box office alone: 5

Number which made an overall l profit based on public accounting: 11

There are probably about ten thousand theories as to why virtually no one questions Angelina Jolie’s status as a “real” movie star even though she:

1) Has turned a profit well less than half the time.

2) Has earned back the production budget a staggeringly low 20 percent of the time on domestic box office (the best measure of whether the American public–which, believe me, is the only one any of these “pundits” remotely care about–actually goes for somebody).

3) Has had numerous major outright flops: At least seven by my count, and while no one can hold her directly responsible for all of them, you ultimately have to take the blame if you’re going to get the credit for the hits. (BTW: I clinically define “major outright flop” as any movie that lost what even Hollywood is likely to consider a whole lotta money.)

4) Has needed the foreign box office to lift her to profitability more than half the paltry number of times she’s managed to achieve it. (Granted foreign money is just as bankable as domestic, but I have a feeling that the “club” Rupert Everett seems to know so little about would rather have it be the gravy than the meatloaf.)

Leaving aside the hallucinatory quote above about the relative “celebrity” status of the two**, there are probably another fifty thousand theories as to why virtually no one (in the media at least) concedes that Jennifer Aniston is–or ever has been–a “real” movie star, even though she:

1) Has turned a profit 75 percent of the time (to Jolie’s 44 percent)

2) Has earned back the hard-core production budget (the number all business people care about first and foremost in every for-profit enterprise ever designed by man) on domestic box office alone 71 percent of the time (to Jolie’s 20 percent) in a career of almost exactly the same length.

3) Has had only one verifiable outright “flop” (i.e., Rock Star) in fifteen years (Note: you could add Wanderlust since, though neither was the sort of colossal flop Jolie has specialized in).

4) Has only once (Rumor Has It) needed the foreign box office to earn back the basic budget on her extremely high percentage of profitable movies (she’s otherwise strictly fallen or risen on domestic box office except for the break even Office Space, which I lifted to the profitable category on the safe assumption that its returns from DVD sales and rentals are somewhere close to obscene. For the record, I gave Jolie a break on several close calls as well and with far less reason.)

Since I haven’t seen my own particular theory laid down anywhere else in the course of my extensive (though by no means exhaustive) research, I’ll just say that this serious disconnect from reality might just possibly have something to do with the kind of movies Aniston makes.

By “kind of movies” I mean the genre (mostly romantic comedy) but also the actual plots.

Those usually involve her choosing a man over a boy (see Picture Perfect or Rumor Has It–where the boy is a fifty-ish Kevin Costner–for prime examples) or, more commonly, forcing a boy to become a man (see The Switch and The Breakup and, subsequently, both Wanderlust and We’re the Millers, not to mention the Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler vehicles).

Or, as she says in Office Space: “Come back when you grow up.”

Since she says some version of this in practically every one of her movies, I don’t think it’s an accident that a media dominated by arrested adolescents to whom these are probably the most frightening words in the English language (with “marketing genius” Bill Simmons being a poster-child example) consistently dumps on the movie star who, on screen at least, keeps insisting they should grow up, while giving a pass to the movie star–once heralded by many serious people as the actress of her generation, a judgment most of them would likely now rather have you forget–who has just as consistently pandered to teen-age fantasies (see Salt, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the Lara Croft franchise, Wanted and Gone in 60 Seconds–a list which, oh by the way, accounts for every one of Jolie’s major American hits.)

Nor is it any way surprising that the schoolboys keep congratulating each other in print on their own tough-mindedness in rebelling against what is actually the prevailing narrative. That’s all very standard stuff.

And I’m not passing a blanket judgment on the movies themselves. I like having my teen-aged fantasies pandered to as much as the next Earthling and Aniston’s rom-coms, while collectively more worthwhile than her critics care to admit, are certainly a deeply mixed bag.

I’m just suggesting that the manner in which a conversation dominated by middle-aged white males clinging to eternal boyhood consistently cooks the books between these two is a convenient window into a certain collective mind-set.

And one more good reason why no one should ever trust the purveyors of said mind-set on this or any other subject.

**–I don’t recall the exact quote, but I heard Adam Sandler, who is at least as big a “celebrity” as Angelina Jolie, give an interview when he was doing the publicity for Just Go With It and he basically said: “If you’re under any illusion about being famous, go stand next to Jen for thirty seconds.”

….And just how Aniston has gotten away with being both Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor is a topic for some other day when I want to contemplate the cheap and gaudy possibility of Camille Paglia’s head exploding.