Blindsided

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.

Audiences had every right to expect a happy ending from this poster art for the romantic comedy, Roman Holiday.

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.

Audrey and leading man Gregory Peck on the Spanish Steps.

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.

Standing next to Joe (Gregory Peck), Irving (Eddie Albert) is about to abide by the Guy Code and hand an envelope of “commemorative photos” to Princess Ann.

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.

The bittersweet ending Roman Holiday: Joe Bradley walks away alone.

6 comments

  1. I’m 53 and watched Roman Holiday for the first time a few months ago. It’s rare for a Hollywood actress to pull on my heartstrings but Audrey did it. She was believable as a princess. Perhaps I’m a fool but Audrey seems down to earth and lovable with a beautiful core of being.  My favorite part of the movie is the smoking of her first cigarette. The look Audrey and Peck give each other after she says it’s her first time is priceless. She handled that first smoke pretty well.  Will get your book soon, Dale Hallett Sent via the Samsung Galaxy, an AT&T 4G LTE smartphone

  2. Hi Mr. Matzen,
    I finished reading your book “Dutch Girl” just a little while ago and I wanted to say that I found it to be very informative. It certainly made me look at Audrey Hepburn in a whole new light and as I was reading it, I could hardly wait to reach the next chapter. I think you did a great job with trying to acquaint the reader with the subject of your biography while also discussing history. Like some people was aware of the story of Corey Tenboon but was unfamiliar with the rest of the Netherlands WW2 history. Overall, the book was well worth reading and having learned about Audrey I really like her as a person.
    I did have a couple of questions about the book I was hoping you might be able to answer? In the book’s early chapters, you talked a lot about how as a little girl Audrey didn’t necessarily like the way she looked. You even said she was a little chubby as a child. This may be a silly question but is there any real evidence that she was overweight as a kid or was this simply “baby fat” (this was the interpretation that I got). I was surprised that more wasn’t in the book about how significant or insignificant to the German war effort Audrey’s Father was. Could his spying have been meaningful in anyway or did he get captured before he could contribute anything? I was a little confused by the part of the book where it said that when the family was sheltering in their bombed-out house Audrey gave food up for Ella. I think most parents would think that it should be Ella who should have been trying to save food for her daughter not the other way round. Afterall, Ella was an adult woman with more natural fat to start with rather then a developing teenager. During the worst of the fighting the family didn’t take baths at all or did they occasionally go bathe in a stream or pond? Was Audrey or her family involved in FBI director Hoover disposal of the WW2 records implicating Ella? If so, would there be legal ramifications if this was discovered during Audrey’s lifetime?
    Again, in total, I thought you wrote an awesome and very cool book which I enjoyed reading. If there was anything I would change it would just be that I thought at times the tone of the book was a little sad/pessimistic. Your book does a wonderful job illustrating that Audrey was more then just a “Barbie” (though let’s be honest she was that also). However, at times your writing seemed to dwell on the sad times in Audrey’s life. Certainly, WW2 left scars on anyone who experienced it firsthand, but I think Audrey had many fun and good parts to her existence that feel left out of the book somewhat. Audrey seemed to be a quite lovable person that was much more then someone traumatized by her wartime experience and I wish that had come across more.
    I was really surprised that given Audrey’s unfortunate habit of chain smoking that the book didn’t discuss the relationship between this and her eventual illness. I also had a hard time understand the explanation of what exactly it was that happened to her. It sounded like you were saying that her appendix ruptured but if that were the case that is a curable ailment. If I understand correctly a cancerous nodule ruptured on her appendix that leaked out some fluid? The part that was difficult to understand was if you meant that this fluid was cancerous and thus spread to other organs? If it was just a build up of fluid wouldn’t this condition be easily treatable by draining it? Interestingly, during my own research I found out that a rare type of ovarian cancer that is almost always found exclusively in smokers is often mis-diagnosed as the cancer listed as Audrey’s. It would be interesting to investigate this further because it would make sense if it was actually this particular cancer that Audrey had especially because its more common then what she was actually diagnosed with.
    I also thought the ending of the book was just a little anti-climactic. I think maybe it could have ended on a slightly sunnier note. Audry’s life teaches many lessons but I think the most important one is that something good can come from something bad. Her parents were not saintly (to put it politely) but yet she would go on to provide so much joy and beauty to millions around the globe. I can only wonder what Audrey would think if she knew that all her wartime experinces had been written down for the public !
    Finally, I want to ask if you were concerned that your work would be well received by the public? Were you ever concerned that in this politicaly correct time we live in that the public would “cancel” Audry Hepburn because of her parent’s views on the Nazi’s?

    Your reader,

    – Micah

    1. Wow, Micah, your critique of Dutch Girl is heartfelt and you ask interesting questions. To answer them: 1) Audrey never cared for her own looks and saw only her flaws. Yes, she had baby fat and it did go away, but then after the war, it came back periodically when her eating got out of hand. 2) I’m sure the van Heemstras found a way to wash themselves, but the details have been lost to history. 3) There’s no way of knowing what happened to Ella’s FBI file; I speculated based on pretty decent circumstantial evidence. 4) Not being a physician, I did my best to capture in layman’s terms the rare type of cancer that took her life. 5) Yes, I am always concerned how my work will be received, but no, I didn’t believe Audrey would be criticized because of her parents’ beliefs–quite the contrary, I thought she would be applauded for condemning them.

      1. Hi Mr. Matzen,
        I just wanted to ensure that my comments on your book weren’t understood as a takedown of the material. That wasn’t my intention at all! I enjoyed reading the book, and I learned a lot. I would say it should be required reading for anyone interested in biographical info on Audrey.

  3. For anyone who read “Dutch Girl” and is still curious about Audrey, I highly recommend Robert’s follow-up work, “Warrior”. It goes into detail about her dietary habits, her health and final illness, as well as her politics (as opposed to her parents’ politics). As for how the Van Heemstras bathed during the worst combat of WWII, how did anyone? Probably any way they could.

    1. Hi Sharon,
      I just bought the “Warrior” book I also plan to read Donald Spoto’s book “Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn” as well.

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