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 reportedly 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 adaptation, 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.