Tuesday, August 27, 2013

An Offbeat Love Story

Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn): I've never been alone with a man before, even with my dress on. With my dress off, it's MOST unusual.

I have written here before that I consider Audrey Hepburn one of the most beautiful actresses ever to appear on the big screen.

The movie for which she won her only Best Actress Oscar — William Wyler's "Roman Holiday" — was released on this date in 1953. It wasn't her first appearance in a movie; it wasn't even her first lead role.

But, in a career that included several great performances, this one stands out, even today, more than two decades after Hepburn's death.

It isn't because Gregory Peck was her co–star. She appeared with many of the top leading men of her day.

It isn't because she won an Oscar — she was nominated four other times but lost each time.

So what was it about "Roman Holiday" that made it Hepburn's defining role in the opinions of so many?

In large part, I have to think it was because Hepburn was at her most charming and most naive in "Roman Holiday" — although I personally think of "Wait Until Dark," in which she played a very different kind of role, whenever I hear her name, not "Roman Holiday."

Still, she always seemed delicate, no matter the role she was playing. She was that kind of female, sort of frail (but not in an old lady kind of way, more in the helpless female, damsel in distress kind of way, thin and willowy) and I often think that was what made her — and Grace Kelly — stand out in an era that was dominated by shapely, well–endowed bombshells.

But I can't rule out the incredible setting of Rome for the movie, either.

In the 21st century, the public has grown accustomed to the idea that a movie will be filmed on location, no matter how exotic or remote it may be, but I gather from what I have read that, unless a movie was filmed domestically, that was a rare occurrence 60 years ago.

Nevertheless, most of "Roman Holiday" was, indeed, filmed in Rome, and it is hard to imagine anyone putting the city to better use as a movie set than Wyler did.

And that, in turn, seemed to get the best out of the cast.

Hepburn, of course, played a very appealing character, a young princess who craved fun and anonymity. Peck, of course, was always magnetic but rarely was he as charismatic as he was in "Roman Holiday," playing a reporter who wants to scoop the competition but falls under Hepburn's spell.

And then there was Eddie Albert — the same Eddie Albert who entertained TV audiences a decade later as the lawyer–turned–farmer Oliver Wendell Douglas in Green Acres. Many folks of my generation may not know until they see "Roman Holiday" that Albert had a career on the big screen.

But the truth is that he made lots of movies before and after "Roman Holiday." Some were quite good; most were average at best. But none was as good.

How good? The American Film Institute rates it #4 among all romantic comedies.

But a few more words about Albert ...

He received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Frank Sinatra for "From Here to Eternity." Frankly, that was a pretty tough category that year. Just being nominated really was an honor. I know that is a cliche, but it is true.

I always thought his character, a photographer named Irving who never lost sight of the career implications of his association with the princess (unlike Peck's character), kept the story grounded in reality. For example, when Peck started wavering on whether to profit from the opportunity to sell a candid story (with photos) about the AWOL princess, Irving reminded him that "[i]t's always open season on princesses."

Irving's presence was a much–needed reality check — not to mention a breath of fresh air — that elevated the tale to something more than an offbeat love story.