Watching Roman Holiday this past Friday evening, I was blindsided. I hadn’t seen this picture since the release of Dutch Girl, and for me the experience was much like rounding a corner on a city street and running into a long-lost friend. Here was young Audrey just seven years removed from the wartime Audrey I had sat with for three years, in whose footsteps I had walked in the Netherlands. That was the first and strangest experience the other evening—seeing this Audrey put me in a time warp and in my mind flashed scenes of the war from Dutch Girl and then memories from the ceremony in Velp in September 2019 when Audrey’s son Luca Dotti and I attended the unveiling of a historical marker and statue of Audrey at the site of her wartime home. I came out of the viewing of Roman Holiday thinking to myself, I’ve had an interesting life intersecting with interesting lives.
Other things really hit me during what must have been my fourth or fifth viewing of this classic picture.
I thought about Audrey during a long, demanding location shoot in Rome, her first interaction with a city that seems on celluloid to be friendly and welcoming. She wanders the streets alone, a princess nobody recognizes, and people are nice to her and she is nice to people. A couple of ironies hit me—of all the places in the world, she would end up living here in Rome with her second husband. And maybe because of the profound experience of making this first Hollywood film here, she naturally assumed she was already a member of the club, citizens of Rome. But real life, real Rome, would be cruel to Audrey. The marriage became an unhappy one, and as documented in my book Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, Romans never warmed to a movie star turned wife and mother.
Audrey’s inner circle as well as Luca revealed that she was treated badly by the locals. Her friend, writer Anna Cataldi of Milan, told me, “People in Rome, they were not nice to Audrey. They were absolutely not nice. She needed desperately to have friends and warmth. People were awful to her.” Luca said, “I believe that, for certain Roman social circles, the fact that she was too much a housewife, too ‘square,’ took its toll more than her celebrity.” He described the city as a sea of clannish neighborhoods with no appetite for outsiders.
I’ve never asked Luca, who lives in Rome, if he talked with his mother about various spots in the city where Roman Holiday was shot. If it were my mom, I might just be a little haunted by the Spanish Steps where Anya sat eating gelato, or the other familiar locations where ingenuous Audrey Hepburn made her first important picture. Luca sometimes checks in on this blog so maybe he’ll provide the answer.
A couple of other aspects of Roman Holiday struck me this time. One was the “guy code” on full display. When a princess on the lam falls into their lap, press men Joe and Irving are out to get a hot story, complete with pictures. But when Joe falls in love with said princess, his principles intervene and he can’t cash in, which would betray her. Fair enough. But the guy code comes into play when Joe leaves it up to Irving whether he sells the Pulitzer-level photos he had taken of Ann’s Roman adventures. And for Irving there’s no decision. He does the honorable thing and foregoes the money and fame that would surely result and instead, gives the photos to the princess. Irving isn’t in love with her, his friend is, but that’s good enough for Irving. Boom—guy code. I honestly don’t know how many Irvings remain in the world today, this narcissistic gladiatorial arena of TikTok and Instagram where the number of clicks and the number of followers have become the raison d’être of…everyone? Surely not, but it seems that way sometimes.
The story itself impressed me on this viewing for the fact that boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and girl eschews a happy life with boy because of a commitment to duty and country. It’s such a bittersweet twist and not what one would expect walking into the theater in 1953 to watch a romantic comedy. The ending is downright somber as Gregory Peck walks away with hands in pockets, alone and heartbroken. They have both done the noble thing, which may have been expected in 1953 but not so much today (see previous paragraph). This conclusion packs a punch because of its real-life aspect; so often, great love stories don’t result in the predictable happy ending, with 50 years of marital bliss. It doesn’t make such romances less real, valid, or momentous.
One final irony that hit me this time: Ann’s coming of age, represented by her voluntary return to royal duty after a 24-hour escape and holiday, sees her take control of her personal space from “the Countess,” her stone-faced lady in waiting. At this time in her life, Audrey was beginning a lifetime project of taking control of her personal space from “the baroness,” Audrey’s mother, Ella, Baroness van Heemstra. So very many ironies in this aspect of the story. Ella’s younger sister Marianne, Baroness van Heemstra (Audrey’s aunt), served as lady in waiting to Princess Juliana of the Netherlands before and during the war. Indeed, Audrey had grown up amidst a noble Dutch family set apart from the common people, which gave a young actress character insights to offset a decided lack of acting experience. In that regard, 23-year-old Audrey Hepburn served as a technical advisor on the production of her own first major motion picture.
When in the final sequence Princess Ann demands that the Countess retire from the royal chamber, it made me smile—in her lifetime Audrey would never experience such a symbolic moment with her own oppressor. Yes, the tables would turn late in Ella’s life when she became ill and dependent on her daughter’s good graces, but Audrey would remain oppressed and bitter until her own passing. Never did she dare to say, “You may retire, Baroness.”
I have no problem admitting I cried my eyes out at the ending this time, probably more than at any past viewing, because of all the intersections, emotions, realizations, and memories. I didn’t see any of it coming; I just sat down to watch a romantic comedy on a typical Friday evening.