When Roman Holiday was released, 70 summers ago, the monarchy was having a fashionable moment. Two months before, the world had watched the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, a relatively young, glamorous face for a fusty institution: the first such event to be globally televised, it made the very principle of royalty seem less like the realm of ancient history. I say “relatively”: the frilly pomp and ceremony of English royalty can’t have been much sexier in 1953 than it was in 2023, though at least they didn’t have official broad-bean quiche to contend with.
There was certainly ample scope for Hollywood to prettify the notion a bit, which is where Roman Holiday proved most fortuitously timed. A romantic comedy that set a quasi-fantasy template for the genre that has endured to the modern era – take Notting Hill, a veritable homage – it played on a mid-century fascination with real-world princesses, with all the duller formalities taken out. Its protagonist, crown princess Ann, is a blank slate on to which any number of princessy ideals could be projected: she’s beautiful, gracious and charismatic, with an all-purpose Euro glamour that can’t be tied to any specific identity, since the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo had elected to make her from a vague imaginary nation. Beside her, England’s young new queen looked positively, rain-soddenly drab.
Who wouldn’t, however, next to Audrey Hepburn? Twenty-three at the time of filming, and making her Hollywood debut after a handful of minor parts across the pond, the Dutch-British ingenue was the industry’s own coronation candidate: a star who didn’t look, sound or even move quite like her contemporaries, suited to the part of idealised continental royalty down to her distinctive hybrid accent and ripe, rounded diction.
“And introducing Audrey Hepburn,” state the film’s opening credits, effectively announcing Roman Holiday’s mission statement, its reason for being. The film may be a sweet, attractive diversion on its own terms, but it’s galvanised by this sense of purpose, this determination to mint an icon right before your eyes. Even Vivien Leigh had a couple of leading credits before Gone With the Wind made her anew; Julia Roberts was an Oscar nominee before Pretty Woman sent her supernova. Rare are the films that this effectively construct a movie star from virtual scratch, setting an image and persona to last an entire career: Roman Holiday is one.
It wasn’t quite intended to be that way. Ready-made stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons were pencilled in as Princess Ann before scheduling clashes sent the director, William Wyler, in search of fresher faces. It’s easy enough to see Taylor meeting the part’s winsome brief, but rather harder to imagine it being a career-defining role for her. Familiarly conceived as the film may be in many departments, Roman Holiday thrives on the thrill of the new – both within its narrative, as its runaway princess experiences the liberties of civilian life for the first time, and in the gaze of the camera, as it discovers and explores Hepburn’s face, finding its best angles amid infinite good ones. You can see why Gregory Peck – himself a younger, fresher hire than initially planned, having inherited the part after Cary Grant turned it down – agreed to drop his contractual solo star billing, in order to elevate hers. He’s perfectly suave as Joe, the American journo who gives Ann a brief taste of the common good life, but any true movie star knows when they’ve lost the spotlight.
If anything, Peck accepts a humble third place, behind Hepburn and the eponymous Italian capital, shot by Wyler and the cinematographers Franz Planer and Henri Alekan with much the same rapt generosity they apply to their leading lady. True to its title, Roman Holiday was shot wholly in Rome – predominantly on location, with some interiors at Cinecittà studios – at a time when it was a relative rarity for Hollywood productions, least of all modestly scaled comedies, to venture beyond Tinseltown backlots.
The expense of the gambit dictated that the film be shot in black-and-white rather than Wyler’s preferred Technicolor, which was the kind of practical limitation that proves creatively beneficial. Even as the film presents a touristic vision of the Eternal City, it doesn’t feel saturated and over-beautified: instead, the city view here is fleet, crisp, cool, with just a toenail in the aesthetic waters of Italian neo-realism, albeit with any semblance of grit or poverty scrubbed out of the frame. Yet compare it to Three Coins in the Fountain – an iridescently full-colour, Rome-set romantic trifle that Hollywood churned out the following year, to smashing box office success – and Wyler’s film feels altogether more chicly modern, even as it checks off the same sights and wish-fulfilment tropes.
For the truth of it is that there isn’t an awful lot to Roman Holiday, beyond its vast X-factor charms of faces and places. Trumbo, then blacklisted, may have won an Oscar for his original story – accepted then by Ian McLellan Hunter, his front – but the romance is a slender one, dictated more by circumstance than plausible soul connection; its not-quite-happy ending lends it some bittersweet heft, but it’s hardly Brief Encounter, in part because Ann and Joe’s characters are as cursory and archetypal as their names.
But it’s Hepburn’s natural, half-smiling melancholy that makes Ann’s final rejection of romance for a royal life of empty political gestures and spirit-crushing meet-and-greets – an acceptance of reality in a story otherwise built as a fairytale – ultimately rather moving, even as richer characters awaited her. (Breakfast at Tiffany’s became the film that would seal her star persona for all eternity; The Nun’s Story and Wait Until Dark the ones where she does the most hard-graft acting.) Acting Oscars are often awarded on the strength of the part rather than the specific actor’s more innate, idiosyncratic qualities, which is one reason why biopics are such a drearily standard route to victory. Hepburn’s best actress win for Roman Holiday is an exception: few Oscars have been awarded on such role-elevating force of personality, image and expression. Hollywood needed a princess, and found her – of course she got the crown into the bargain.