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.

TEN THINGS I REALLY BELIEVE

No, really…

(1) I am the reincarnation of Charles Hardin Holley.

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This was revealed to me some time ago and normally I wouldn’t buy it with a three-dollar bill. But the burning bush was very convincing.

(2) Raymond Chandler’s plots were great.

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I mean, just because you don’t know whether the Spirit of Carmen Sternwood, Los Angeles or the American Dream killed the chauffeur…

(3) Not unrelated: Nearly all great prose fiction to date was produced by the Victorians…..

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or the Pulps…

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That’s Mister James and Mister Hammett to you!

(4) The truest definition of rock and roll is as a musically and culturally aspirational train that left the station the first time Antoine Domino’s left hand, a piano and a recording device were put in a room together.

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(5) The second truest definition of rock and roll is as a corrosively nihilistic trainwreck that, unfortunately, did not simply end the day this sad young man, in what an entire collapsed culture had by then taught him was an act of courage, blew his brains out.

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(6) Not unrelated: “America” is now in the past tense. Sorry, folks, it was an idea whose time had not yet come after all. No pictures available. But there is news at 11:00….Every night!

(7) I don’t believe there was/is such a thing as “The Great American Novel,” but if forced to both convert and choose, my top three contenders in the stretch would be The Deerslayer, The Long Goodbye and True Grit, with The Man in the High Castle coming up on the outside and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes sneaking up on the rail.

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True confession: I’ve read most of the crit-approved contenders, but I’ve been saving Moby Dick for either old age or “next month” for about thirty years now.

(8) The most abused quotation in the history of quotations is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “There are no second acts in American lives.” I went into the reasons here.

(9) Not unrelated: The greatest line in American fiction was uttered in a movie called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which also happens to contain the second most abused quotation in the history of quotations (“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”) That one gets all the ink, perhaps to keep us from thinking too hard about this:

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“Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden….Aren’t you proud?”

Well, aren’t we?

(10) If it turns out this is all we were, we did have some things to be proud of…

…so saith the burning bush.

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Seventh Maxim)

A quote–on Howard Hawks, as it happens, the irrelevance of which is parsed below:

A filmmaker of such varied skills also affected the outcome of a game played by my friends and me while waiting for our Film 101 course to start. We’d ask: “What was the best private eye movie ever made?” and “What was the best gangster film?” And so on till we had covered every genre from westerns to science fiction to screwball comedy. Then we’d vote and total up the score. The final list usually included these titles:

Best gangster film: “The Godfather,” “The Godfather II,” “Scarface” (the original).

Best private eye film: “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep.”

Best western: “Red River,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Rio Bravo.”

Best screwball comedy: “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Lady Eve.”

Best comedy: “Duck Soup,” “His Girl Friday,” “A Night at the Opera.”

Best science fiction: “The Thing” (the original). (We could never decide if “2001” qualified.)

Six categories, 13 titles; six of the films belong to Hawks, who also directed our list’s fourth-best Hollywood musical, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

(Source: Allen Barra, “Deep Shallow Enigma” Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1997)

Now, this is nothing to do with Howard Hawks* or movies generally because I’d say the same about any list a bunch of college kids came up with regarding pretty much any subject.

But, please, critics everywhere–including those who don’t share pure delusions like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” being the “fourth-best Hollywood musical,”** or Barra’s “six categories” covering “every genre,”***–do remember this, the Seventh Maxim:

“What happens in college should stay in college.”

*(Another silly game people like to play is the “What movie can you sit down and watch any time?” Mine is El Dorado. Like I say, this isn’t about Howard Hawks.)

**(Though I do love it and actually prefer it to “Singin’ In the Rain,” which is regarded as the best by general consensus. But fourth best?….Uh, no.)

***(Barra’s categories are pretty much the ones regarded as important by collegiate sensibilities. Especially male collegiate sensibilities which tend to automatically reduce everything to the level of sports statistics. As someone who used to be trotted out in the pre-internet age if somebody wanted, say, to know who won the World Series in 1912 or the American League batting title in 1926, believe me, I know. Among the categories Barra and his friends left out: Horror, Women’s Pictures, Swashbucklers, Social Melodramas, Epics (Biblical and otherwise), Thrillers, Noir and War Movies. Not to mention that, as with other art forms, really great movies tend to defy genre anyway. Which is doubtless why, for instance, that most transcendent of all collegiate movies Citizen Kane is conveniently missing.)