Este post foi escrito para a série Hit Me With Your Best Shot do blogue The Film Experience de NathanielR, sendo que é aqui apresentado em inglês, ao invés do que é usual neste blogue.
This double feature episode of Hit Me With Your Best Shot is meant to be, I believe, a sort of celebration of Gregory Peck, today being his centennial. I must confess I’m not a particularly ardent fan of Mr. Peck as an actor, with some special exceptions (one of which is in this double-feature). To me, he belongs with Gary Cooper in the list of Old Hollywood stars who were as astonishingly handsome as they were dull. Also like Cooper, despite his often tedious acting, Gregory Peck had an undeniable star quality that permitted him to have a strong onscreen presence, even when he seems to be impersonating a sermonizing cardboard picture.
Having already established my agnosticism regarding Gregory Peck, the actor, I must confess I was thrilled with this week’s assignment, for it gave me the opportunity to revisit one of Hollywood’s most frothy and endearingly silly fairy tales, Roman Holiday, the story of a European princess that during a visit to the Italian capital, escapes for a day of adventure in the city, accompanied by a mysterious man, Joe, that rescued her from a night slept on the streets.
While I can objectively recognize the problems of the film, with its exoticization or complete ignorance of the Italian population, its weird central romantic relationship, its clichéd story that bears no resemblance to any sort of reality any human has ever lived in, some peculiarly rough editing choices, and a sort of mindless romanticism that can be easily grating, I just love it.
To me, Roman Holiday, in all of its touristy postcard glory, is the pinnacle of Hollywood escapism in the 1950s, and I can’t help falling into its simplistic love spell every time I watch it. Despite this love, I have to point out that, regardless of his charm, Gregory Peck is not one of the main reasons I’m so helpless to the film’s romantic allure. If we’re speaking of actors, Miss Audrey Hepburn’s debut Hollywood performance, for which she won an Academy Award, is much more to blame for my love. Do I think she deserved an Oscar for what is one of the most bidimensional efforts ever rewarded with that particular Best Actress statuette? No. Do I love her in it? Yes.
It’s, in a way, the perfect introduction for Hepburn. Princess Ann is a role that showcases her youthful, almost childish, naiveté with moments of chilly elegance, all while allowing the filmmakers to alternately use her as a mannequin for fashionable ensembles or a little burst of uncomplicated joyful energy, with almost no shadow of psychological complexity or complication. Trust me, that this is not a backhanded way of complementing her, for I dearly admire Audrey Hepburn, and not just as a movie star (I defy anyone to watch The Nun’s Story and still believe she had no acting chops).
With all of that said, let’s take look at some of my runner-up choices:
While it was not unheard of to shoot a big studio picture on location, William Wyler’s decision to shoot Roman Holiday in the titular city itself, was quite unusual. As a consequence of this directorial choice, the film has a unique look mixing Hollywood romanticism with a strangely authentic sense of place and time. The specific city of Rome was, at the time, the great capital of cinematic realism, with the city being the background, and almost the protagonist, of many Italian masterpieces of neorealism. To see such a place being used as a setting for one of the frothiest and most joyfully inconsequential of all Hollywood romantic stories, is decidedly weird. In many scenes, we see our protagonists walking around the city, acting out the fairy tale pageantry of Dalton Trumbo’s script, while, in the background, Rome’s life goes on, with a disquieting sense of authenticity that is in direct conflict with the escapist artifice in the narrative foreground. In these runner-up shots, that strange relationship is quite inescapable, and while I agree that this stylistic conflict doesn’t always work in benefit of the film, it’s still fascinating to observe.
But none of those shots was my pick for best. This is my best choice:
Roman Holiday is an innocuous but decidedly charming experience, and, despite being monumentally sweet, it manages to avoid being sickly in its saccharinity. The injection of healthy melancholia by the finale is what's most to blame for that tonal balance. Ann may have had a joyous adventure through the streets of Rome the day before, but, come daylight, she’s once again the monarchical symbol that must adhere to strict codes of conduct. The finale sees the unmasking of her romantic interest’s subterfuges, for he was a reporter trying to witness the princess’s dalliances, but, unlike what we may have expected, Wyler, Trumbo and Hepburn, don’t offer us any easy melodrama or unnecessary paroxysms. Like its leading actress’s star persona, the film’s ending is characterized by a general air of elegant restraint and simple beauty.
Throughout the scene, Wyler puts much emphasis on the actor’s faces, often cutting between close-ups of the protagonists and the ornate majesty of the space where this press conference is being held. After answering a few questions, our princess insists on greeting some of the journalists, devising one last interaction with Joe, in a moment that is brimming with unexpressed feelings covered up with the façade of simple inconsequential pleasantries. My pick for best shot shows us, Ann’s last moments with her unexpected friends and their departure from her life. Duty calls, and life must go on.
Wyler’s camera beautifully starts the moment with a movement that frames Ann’s progression through the line of reporters, with Joe as the end point of such an exercise. Despite that, after she has reached him, and has had her last words with the man, the camera moves once more, leaving the enamored journalist and progressing through the line of journalists, visually positioning the beautiful day of Ann’s roman holiday as something to be kept in the past, if joyfully remembered in private. With an incredibly simple camera move, Wyler transmits an almost poetic sense of finality to the film’s main relationship, creating a moment that’s as simple as it is delicate in its handling of the emotional climax of Ann’s story arc.
There’s also the matter of costuming (for which Edith Head won one of her Academy Awards). We must keep in mind that, in her time, Audrey Hepburn represented a new sort of femininity, a new vision of Hollywood glamour, a streamlined, gangly limbed one with a gamin haircut and respectable poise and demeanor. In the Dior-esque, and fussily embellished, royal attire, Hepburn looks disquietingly unnatural. Both for the character, and the actress, this style is an inorganic extension of her own image. We must keep in mind, Hepburn, even in the peak of her stardom, was always a sort of minimalist when it came to fashion, a personal style that met its perfect cinematic translation in the glamourous simplicity of Givenchy’s creations for Sabrina, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and other of Hepburn’s most iconic screen appearances. Here, though, that lack of synchronicity between actress and costume, character and ceremonial princess uniform, is perfect for the moment and the film.
Also, despite being, in my mind, a great showcase for Head’s costumes, Hepburn’s screen presence and Wyler’s direction, this shot also features the reason for this week’s focus on Roman Holiday and To Kill a Mockingbird, one Mr, Gregory Peck, at the peak of his romantic leading man charms (which may not be saying much, but still).