Posted by gregferrara on November 27, 2015
Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events will be hosting a theatrical screening across the country this weekend of the classic from 1953, Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck (see more info here). If you haven’t seen it, this would be the perfect opportunity to take it in, capping a holiday weekend with a big screen presentation of one of the best romantic comedies ever made. That’s right, it’s a romantic comedy and it’s worth seeing. There was a time when rom-coms were done well and this, in fact, was their heyday. But Roman Holiday has more going for it than just that. It also has the good luck of being a movie in which all the right pieces fell into place.
If you haven’t seen Roman Holiday, the story is simple, as any good romantic comedy is, because it’s the characters that make it work. A young princess, Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn), doesn’t want to go through with a royal tour of Rome and escapes from her royal handlers only to be helped by a reporter, Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), who doesn’t even know she’s the princess he’s supposed to be interviewing at a press conference. He figures it out, even though she gives him a phony name, and decides to take her around Rome, with her incognito, and secretly get an exclusive by having his photographer, Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert), record the whole thing without the princess knowing. You may think you can figure out where it goes from there but, as far as these things go, it’s quite surprising (especially the shocking and disturbing scene where Joe loses his hand!) and perhaps the reason it has survived so many years as a durable classic is the very fact that it doesn’t simply fall into every cliche there is to be had, although many rom-com cliches followed from its expert lead. And, of course, the main reason it still holds up so well is that cast. That amazing cast.
We often hear of famous movie roles being offered to actors other than the ones we have come to know and love, and wonder what it would have been like. The same happened for Roman Holiday and, in the case of both leads, the answer seems clear: it would have worked but not quite as well.
First, the role of the princess. It was offered to both Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons and I can say, without reservation, that both would have been more than effective in their portrayals, Simmons more so, but neither possessed that quality that made Audrey Hepburn so perfect for the role. And I do mean perfect. It may seem trite to claim someone was made for a role, but Hepburn, while successful in dozens of other portrayals in her career, was made to play a young, sweet, naive princess in her early twenties and, as the luck of the universe would have it, she was cast in exactly that role at exactly the time she was perfect for it. Yes, she was a fine actress but with the role of the princess in Roman Holiday, more is required than acting. Taylor and Simmons could have acted the role well. Hepburn feels like the role. She feels like the real thing. It was just… just… something she had, something that can’t be measured or quantified.
As for the role of the reporter, it was offered to Cary Grant who turned it down. I’ve read many times that he turned it down because he felt he was too old but I don’t think that’s the case. Not only did he regularly act with actresses much younger than himself, including Audrey herself, years later, in Charade (though, of course, she was now eleven years older), but the role doesn’t require anything that would have stopped Cary from making the audience believe age didn’t matter. It was also said he knew he wouldn’t be the focal point and maybe that has some truth in it but I think the real reason is that Grant simply knew how he came off and understood it wouldn’t work for the story. Here’s what I mean. The story of Roman Holiday works because the princess, who seems lovely and refined, is being shown the town by a distinctly down to earth American reporter. It’s his “matter of fact,” salt of the earth quality that plays off of her refined sweetness so well. Cary Grant would feel like a member of the same royal family that the princess comes from, not her American tour guide. Gregory Peck, on the other hand, was as made for the role as Audrey was for hers. All the qualities Peck possessed meshed perfectly with those of Hepburn’s. It wasn’t just a perfect match of characters in the story but a perfect match of actors on the screen.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Eddie Albert. No one else could have played Irving and I didn’t even know that until I saw Eddie Albert play the part. Had you told me he was perfect as a beat photographer in Rome, before I saw it, I’d have said you were crazy. Afterwards? It’s a stroke of genius.
The movie is directed by the great William Wyler who, to no one’s surprise, guided Audrey to her first and only Oscar for her beautiful performance. It’s a movie that holds up well today and, I daresay, will hold up well a hundred years from now. Treat yourself to a holiday this weekend and see one of the best, most enduring, and most perfectly cast romantic comedies ever, Roman Holiday, presented by Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events.
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