Saturday, August 29, 2020

The great beauty


Directed by William Wyler
Written by Dalton Trumbo and John Dighton

Spoiler alert: moderate

In keeping with his tradition of acquiring or at least getting within spitting distance of as many Academy Awards as possible, William Wyler's iconic 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday was nominated for a whole damn slate of them—a downright enormous number of them, considering what a largely trifling exercise it is.  Those nominations included an Oscar For Excellence In Women's Hotness—sorry, "Best Actress"—for Audrey Hepburn in her American debut, as well as an Oscar For Outstanding Achievement In Travelogue Footage (Black-and-White)—excuse me again, I meant "Cinematography"—for Henri Alekan and Franz Planer's location shooting in Rome; and if it sounds like I've decided to be insufferably condescending to a classic that remains beloved by a great many people, I apologize, because I don't want you to get me wrong.  These nominations line up flawlessly with Wyler's goals for the project, and I have to assume that he'd find the recognition that he'd achieved them gratifying, even if someone did have the gall to refer to their categories by joke names.  (Wyler also snagged Best Director and Best Picture nominations, but then, by 1953, this was almost an obligation.)

In any event, Roman Holiday didn't actually win most of what it was nominated for.  It was beaten in most categories by From Here To Eternity (and not always deservedly, though what the hell business Roman Holiday's Best Featured Extra Supporting Actor nominee Eddie Albert even had being there is a deep mystery).  Ultimately, its wins came down to just the three: Dalton Trumbo's win in the now-defunct category of "Best Story" (awarded at the time, of course, to his cut-out, William McLellan Hunter, thanks to Trumbo's blacklist status); Hepburn's win for her aforementioned hotness; and Edith Head's win for black-and-white costume design, which I think we can reasonably describe as an extension of Hepburn's charisma, anyway, inasmuch as they are certainly no more blatantly "Oscarworthy" costumes than Hepburn's acting represents a blatantly "Oscarworthy" performance, and frankly less, amounting to a pretty royal gown or two for Hepburn and a set of street clothes that fit her.  On the other hand, it's rather nice to remember that it's possible that something this pleasantly meandering, and this lower-case and upper-case romantic, can be nominated at all—even if, as surely then as now, it was never all that likely to actually beat The Sweeping War Tragedy (that is, Eternity), or The Serious Western (these days, Shane is probably considered the real "Best Picture" of 1953's nominees), or The Shakespeare Adaptation With A Big Star (Julius Caesar), or even The Stolid Period Piece (The Robe, and I think it's worth pointing out, the 26th Academy Awards must be the most Rome-centric in the ceremony's history—like, it'd be mildly remarkable if three-fifths of the nominees all took place in Los Angeles).  Meanwhile, I wouldn't necessarily say that Roman Holiday is devoid of substance completely, even if its very foremost ambition was just to show off a beautiful young woman enjoying herself in a beautiful old city.

Roman Holiday is, in a sense, a modern fairy tale, concerning itself with the teenaged princess (Hepburn) who ran away.  That princess's name is Ann (patterned, it's said, on Britain's Princess Margaret, Elizabeth II's sister, though Roman Holiday never identifies her country, and as we only learn what it's not—specifically not the United Kingdom—we can assume that it's a comparatively minor piece of European real estate, more akin to Denmark or Hepburn's birthplace, Belgium).  Ann has been sent off on a tour of the continent, starting in London, and presently wending its way into Rome.  So far, it has been the most abominable bore: an endless litany of formal events in uncomfortable formal attire, meeting strangers and spouting bland platitudes about policies she has no role in shaping, just an utter fucking drag.  Preferring to go where the people are and be part of their world, and all that, Ann absconds from her embassy in the night—no mean feat, considering they've dosed her with a tranquilizer (!) to ensure she's rested for the next day's equally-busy and equally-dull schedule—but by the time she gets clear, she's somewhere between stoned and actually unconscious.  Fortuitously, she's found by an American journalist, Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), who, with heaving sighs of inconvenience, gives the passed-out young woman shelter in his apartment—of course, as he discovers the next day, Princess Ann has disappeared, causing great panic for her people and presenting, for an enterprising reporter who manages to find out what she's doing, a very valuable scoop.  Indeed, Joe recognizes an even meatier opportunity, to expand Ann's scandal even further; and, through a little bit of hook and crook, makes himself available to play the role of accommodating host to the "tourist" who, upon awaking, introduces herself to him as "Anya Smith."

And then, at some point, they fall in love—inaugurating Hepburn's career-spanning tendency to be paired with significantly older leading men who aren't always super-sure what to do with a woman who stayed 19 for almost two decades—though it's disagreeably smudgy as to when or even why this happens.  It's the biggest problem Roman Holiday faces, and certainly keeps it from justifying its status as one of the great romances, even if a whole lot of it otherwise works very well.  It would be easy, as is my wont, to just blame Peck for this, and the fact that Roman Holiday's impressive list of Oscar nominations does not include a Best Actor nod suggests that plenty of people in 1953 agreed with me, to the point that I don't know if you can call it a "snub," since that connotes some level of injustice.  Wyler and Paramount had first sought, naturally enough, Cary Grant ("comically unethical reporter"? c'mon, why wouldn't he be their first choice?).  The official line is that 49 year old Grant declined because he was uncomfortable with the age difference.  This is self-evident bullshit: it gets pointed out that he didn't seem to mind being paired with her in Charade, but honestly, she was 34 then, and that wouldn't put the lie to it; instead, I'll just say Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn were born in the same year, and Grant wasn't three years younger for To Catch a Thief, which also demanded a whole lot more borderline-smutty sexual arousal out of Kelly than Roman Holiday did out of Hepburn.  Other reports suggest Grant simply did not like the part—he thought it would be overshadowed by the princess, which turned out to be entirely correct—and I wonder if he just didn't like the screenplay.

Because, frankly, it's not fair to pick on Peck.  He's alright here, even, about as loose as I imagine he could get, in part because he was a solid enough actor to recognize that the role of slimy reporter running a con wouldn't profit from his tendencies towards "stiff-necked square"—and though those tendencies still bleed through, he spins them toward something more akin to "journalist on the edge who doesn't play by the rules."  But if Joe's business with the princess brings out the selfish, farce-inflected fun Peck was apparently still capable of (and though it's more a mood piece, it's a fairly successful comedy), by the same token, Joe's just about all business, and it robs Roman Holiday a bit of a vital component: emotional continuity.  There's not really much evidence that Joe's softened toward "Anya," or has even much noticed she's an attractive woman, until the script absolutely demands he do both, and while that's very much down to Peck's casting—I wouldn't say Roman Holiday would be definitively superior with Grant, and it's arguably a coin-flip whether Grant's Joe would've been more charming or more of a jerk—it's rather more a combined oversight from Trumbo and John Dighton's script and Wyler's direction, probably made under the assumption that the mix of Hepburn's obvious appeal, the grand setting they'd established, and the romantic scenario they'd outlined would, taken together, all be quite overwhelming enough, sufficient to do the job whether there was any really intoxicating chemistry between Hepburn and her male lead or not.

In fairness, they weren't wrong.  Joe and his occasionally-seen photographer colleague Irving (that's Eddie Albert) are pretty much both supporting roles.  (Albert's bizarrely Oscar-nominated role, in fact, amounts to barely anything more than three or four pratfalls in pursuit of some mostly-theoretical physical comedy.)  The stars are Hepburn and Rome.

And so Roman Holiday's middle section is terrifically pleasant stuff (once we get to it, anyway, as I daresay it takes an unnecessary amount of time to properly start: I like all of Ann's scenes with her handlers, but we're subjected to a very draggy ten minutes between Joe leaving Ann in the morning and finally coming back to begin his scheme).  What we wind up with, eventually, is an impressionistic journey through Rome's time-lost grandeur, ranging from the monuments of its antiquity right up to the now-healing scars of the Second World War.  Wyler had to fight to get Paramount to pay for the location shooting, and in a film that seems to have come together in nearly every other respect by accident, the one single thing about it that was done totally on purpose turned out to be one of the most important: it's impossible to imagine Roman Holiday working as well as it does, or maybe even at all, with stages and stock footage and (ick) rear projection.  The compromise was cheaper black-and-white photography—which, from the distance of 67 years, feels like the right choice, too, even if it wasn't a "choice."  Alongside Robert Swink's often-floaty editing, it imposes a silvery, fantastic sheen upon the Eternal City, a certain stately feeling of unreality.  (I'm especially impressed by the interior shooting, which, in the absence of color, turns the overdetailed Baroque ornamentation of old Italian buildings into something disorienting and abstract.)  It transforms a very real, very physical Rome into a dream as lovely as any soundstage could be, but a dream you could only have at the cost of soon having to wake up.

The most important thing about Roman Holiday, however, wasn't initially on purpose at all.  That it became a vehicle to demonstrate Hepburn's enormous star power was a wonderful accident of fate—it almost got made with Elizabeth Taylor, then Jean Simmons, and only at this extreme did Wyler, enchanted by a screen test Hepburn did, decide to cast the virtually-unknown British actress.  The conviction that they'd discovered someone special grew over the course of production; Peck, in a display of what is often described as generosity but in hindsight seems more like bowing to fate, asked that she get the same top billing as he, waiving his contractual right to have his name alone on the marquee line.  And Hepburn is giving extraordinary movie star here, not just because she's beautiful—though hers was a beauty that commanded the screen like perhaps no one else in film history, and Hepburn, Wyler, and Hepburn's hair and make-up designers certainly emphasize both her beauty and the uniqueness of that beauty.  (Wyler referred to her look as "Martian."  He meant it as a compliment.)  Rather, it's that she already comes off remarkably fully-formed as a screen personality, and this daughter of an aristocrat, who became the fatherless daughter of a housekeeper over the course of World War II, this would-be prima ballerina whose physical privations had ruined her body's ability to compete—and, truly, the only reason I can think of that there's never been a major Audrey Hepburn biopic is that no actress wants to invite the comparison—explodes with the joy of yearning fulfilled as she cavorts across Rome with her dubious companion, the princess who gets to be, at last, a person.

It is not, on the other hand, a remarkably deep or nuanced performance, and not necessarily predictive of the technical precision Hepburn would be capable of.  The film basically demands just three largely-unmodulated emotional states, and even those are carefully segregated from one another, one per act.  And it has its hiccups, though these are perhaps as screenplay-based with Hepburn as they are with Peck.  (I know she's young, but the business with "the Mouth of Truth" suggests a maturity level for Ann more around the age of nine.)  And much like her co-star, one's probably doing the work on her behalf to assume that, because this is a romance, Ann has so much as thought about kissing Joe, before the screenplay dictates that Joe kisses her.

But as far as "ingenue exposed for the first time to a great big world of hope and possibility," it's hard to say Hepburn's not fairly perfect at playing a mirror to herself.  With her, then, Roman Holiday's general shagginess becomes a strength, reflecting youth's energetic aimlessness and its inability to live beyond the present—until, that is, it hits youth's limits, and if there is actual greatness in Roman Holiday, it's in its final twenty or so minutes, a coming-of-age brutally accelerated to take essentially just a single scene.  It is a fairy tale, but also aware that fairy tales aren't real.  Considering how long it wallows in frivolity, and considering how not-quite-there the romantic rapport is, it can be surprising to realize how deeply it's actually gotten its hooks into you anyway (it helps that unhappiness and brooding play more to Peck's strengths, and obviously you can't not want Hepburn to be happy).  It's maybe even more surprising, since what happens is in no sense actually a surprise—I can't imagine one single viewer has ever failed to predict Roman Holiday's inevitable conclusion, and I spent the whole middle thinking "yes, that will be a good ending," only failing to realize that in its brittle perfection (dignified, staid, and without a single tear shared), this holiday's end could genuinely distress me.  It's unfortunate, but speaks to something true, that Roman Holiday finally finds depth in its shallow pleasures simply by reminding us they don't last.  Not even in the Eternal City.

Score: 7/10

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