Wednesday, September 25, 2019

When in Rome

(Another in a series of repurposed film reviews from 2016. tl;dr version: On a state visit to Rome a bored and exhausted European princess escapes from her handlers and stumbles into the keeping of an opportunistic American reporter, who sees in her the newspaper story that will make his career, provided he is prepared to be caddish about it. Aw, hell, who are we kidding? It’s Gregory freaking Peck, and you know that he’ll do the right thing in the end because, after all, he falls in love with Audrey Hepburn. So, beginning with this picture, have a couple of generations of moviegoers. Photographed in creamy black & white on location in the Eternal City, Roman Holiday might have been a mere piece of fluff in lesser hands, but a magical confluence of director, screenplay and cast makes it, on the contrary, a piece of fluff for the ages.)

Even the casual fiilmgoer will have noticed from time to time a convention in movie title sequences that goes something like this:

[Really Big-Name Star]
(and sometimes)
[Equally or Almost as Big-Name Star]
[Movie Title]
[Actor Name]
Actor Name]
[Actor Name]
(and sometimes)
[And Another Big-Name Star]
[Character Name]

The Hollywood film industry is one of the more rank-conscious fields of human endeavor, and for many, many decades the placement of an actor’s name before the film title was a signifier of very high status indeed. Gregory Peck was nominated for an Academy Award in his second film, in 1944, and by his nineteenth, Roman Holiday, he was an A-list star routinely granted the coveted top-o’-the-title slot in the credit sequence. Audrey Hepburn, by contrast, was just starting out in 1953—she’d had what amounted to a couple of walk-on parts before she was cast, largely on the strength of her stage performance as the title character in Gigi on Broadway the previous year, as the female lead opposite Peck. Because she was virtually unknown to the moviegoing public, the most she might ordinarily have expected would have been an “and Introducing Audrey Hepburn,” which was the sort of token recognition studios were in the practice of giving first-time actresses whom they hoped might become better-known over time. Peck, however, before the film’s release, went to the studio chiefs and said in effect, “Look, you know and I know that Audrey’s going to bring home the Best Actress Oscar for this, and the rest of us are going to look like complete clowns if her name isn’t above the title.” And so, rare for a fledgling starlet, her name appeared up front. The studio never regretted it.

Some have said that the movie’s Princess Anne was the role that the actress was born to play. What they meant was that Audrey Hepburn was the role Audrey Hepburn was born to play, and she incontestably did so to perfection, although this also limited from early on the range of roles she’d be offered, and perhaps she never did reach her full potential with so many gamine roles stacked up waiting for her to perform them: lazy directors just wanted her to be herself, or at least her image.

This mid-century fairy tale begins, as so many fairy tales will, with a princess: “Princess Anne” is touring the capitals of Europe on behalf of her unnamed country (presumably not the United Kingdom, since London is one of the capitals she is depicted visiting in newsreel footage), and her entourage has tightly scheduled every waking hour for her. She’s getting bored, tired and cranky. Sure, first-world problems and all that, but after all, being a princess in European royalty has been known, even in living memory, to be a bit of a drag, with the princesses in question being treated variously as trade goods and as brood mares in the service of dynastic succession. It’s not all musical numbers and singing animals, let me tell you. Anyway, after she pitches a mild tantrum, Anne’s handlers stuff her full of tranquilizers to calm her down. These appear instead to have the unanticipated effect of parting the princess from a normal person’s fear of falling from a great height, and she nimbly escapes from an upper floor on the embassy grounds and onto the streets of Rome (smuggling herself to freedom disguised as a load of soiled laundry inside a delivery van, if I recall aright) before she passes out. If she tried such a stunt today, of course, Audrey/Anne would likely find herself in a Tunisian brothel when she came to, but this is a fairy tale, remember, so instead she doesn’t completely lose consciousness until she has first run into stand-up guy Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a lazy reporter for an American wire service who, initially unaware of Anne’s royal identity, reluctantly takes her to his small apartment, where nothing untoward happens. He draws the line at giving up his narrow bed, and makes the girl sleep on the divan—there are limits to knight-errantry!—but before she revives in the morning he has checked in briefly at work, where he realizes to whom he has extended his hospitality. He rushes back to his flat and moves the sleeping princess onto the bed so that she won’t know that she only rated the divan. A favorite scene, early on: Anne, still a bit groggy from the drug, wakes up in Joe’s apartment, in Joe’s bed and in…”Are these your pyjamas?” “Umm-hmmm.” A look of panic crosses her features, and her hands dart under the covers. Joe, drily: “Lose something?” Anne (with visible relief): “No.” That was pretty racy stuff for 1953.

There follows an enchanted interlude of cross-purposes as Joe, his photographer pal Irving, and the princess tool around Rome, visions of Pulitzer prizes dancing in the men’s heads, with Irving surreptitiously snapping photographs of the royal, who is innocently unaware that her incognito has been compromised, or that she is being squired around the city by a couple of jackals of the press. Meanwhile, of course, everyone’s in a panic back at the embassy, and badass-looking truant officers are flown in from home to track down the country’s delinquent princess. Anne has only a few hours out from under her professional responsibilities (“I’m in public relations,” she tells Joe at one point), but Joe and Irving help her make the most of them and ultimately cannot bring themselves to betray her trust.

Certain films appear to have been made under a supremely favorable alignment of the stars: there’s a reason that Casablanca (the cast and crew of which didn’t realize they were working for the ages) is beloved today. Carol Reed’s The Third Man is, albeit on a higher level of artistry, another one that clicks on all cylinders, and I submit that it’s tough to conceive how Roman Holiday could have been any better than it was. Gregory Peck used to joke that for years it was certain that any role he was considered for had first been offered to Cary Grant. So it was with Roman Holiday, and you know what? It wouldn’t have worked as well. True, Peck had to stretch a bit to portray his character’s raffishness, which Grant could have communicated in his sleep, but by the same token it’s hard to imagine Grant matching Peck’s bedrock solidity and decency: there would inevitably have been a knowing smirk to spoil the illusion. The producers wanted Elizabeth Taylor to play the princess: I do not think that the film would be remembered today had they got their way.

Fortunately, posterity has been delivered a perfect movie, shot on location(!) in Rome(!!), a romantic comedy overlaid with a poignant fable of of duty, escape, responsibility, renunciation and decency, in which a princess sacrifices freedom and perhaps love for the obligations laid upon her, conjoined with vast privilege, by rank and birth, and an ambitious reporter foregoes professional success and a nice bundle of cash as chivalry summons him to the better angels of his nature. And to return for a moment to the subject of movie credits, the screenplay was written by one Dalton Trumbo, a gifted victim of the Hollywood “blacklist” whom no one in 1953 would hire because of his supposed communist affiliations. Upon the original release the script was credited to another writer, a common practice at the time, and won an Oscar for best screenplay, which Trumbo of course could not acknowledge or accept. His name was finally restored to the credits in the 1990s, and the Academy at last gave him that Oscar, a gesture he would doubtless have appreciated had he not been, like, dead for a couple of decades by then.

No comments: