It seems to be a well-known trivia fact today that Gregory Peck, who should have received sole above-the-tile billing for Roman Holiday, insisted that newcomer Audrey Hepburn should be billed above the title, too – because, as he put it, she was sure to win an Oscar for her role and become an international superstar. And the rest is history.
It is certainly not a surprise that Roman Holiday turned little, unknown Audrey Hepburn into one of the most beloved actresses of the 20th century. Her angelic face, her delicate appearance and her completely winning charm were never better used than in the part of Princess Ann, a royal girl from an unknown country who suffers from her duties and escapes her guards one night to experience a day of freedom and fun in the Eternal City. It’s probably one of the most perfect combinations of actress and part in cinema history – it’s a light and charming story that hasn’t any other goal than entertain the audience and the character of Princess Ann is more a plot-device for this purpose than anything else and so it needed an actress who was able to carry the story, fill the part with the sparking personality required but could also add some depth and layers to be believable as a true princess and succeed in the more emotional parts of the movie.
Right from the start, Audrey Hepburn demonstrates all the qualities that made her such an iconic and popular figure. She is able to control the screen but never in a domineering or attention-seeking way – instead, she immediately creates an aura of such poise, grace, elegance and charm that it seems impossible to not be completely absorbed by her personality. It is this personality that adds so much more to the written words on the page – in theory, the character of Princess Ann is incredibly thin, underwritten and unlike anything else that the Oscars or critics would usually praise. But Audrey Hepburn so naturally and, yes, flawlessly, adds this overwhelming amount of likeability, of familiarity but also mystery, of being strangely close while also being so distant, that Princess Ann, for some strange reason, turns into a simply unforgettable creation. From an observing point of view, it’s unmistakable that there is much missing in the character – still, Audrey Hepburn not only fulfills the tasks of the script but she takes the quality of the script so much further that it seems impossible that any other actress could have done the same. But she doesn’t do this by an overwhelming display of talent but solely thanks to her winning personality that could basically even turn a performance where she doesn’t do anything but stand around and smile for two hours into pure gold. So the question is: how much credit can one give Audrey Hepburn for giving a charming and loveable performance thanks to her charming and loveable personality?
The truth is that the character of Princess Ann is both tricky and simple. It demands of an actress to be a ray of light, a bubbly and charming presence – but if this charm comes easily to an actress, like Audrey Hepburn, than there isn’t much else left. The character requires 80% charm and 20% talent and Audrey Hepburn, while incredibly talented, gives consequently a performance that is 80% charm and 20% acting. It comes down to the eternal question: what is Oscar-worthy? Can it only be a tour-de-force that includes suffering, crying and screaming? Can it only be a challenging and difficult role or can it also be a light and charming part – when done right? What is better – a half-good performance in a challenging part or a good performance in an easy part? This performance doesn’t give any clues but there are ways to judge her properly.
So, after having talked so much about Audrey Hepburn’s charm and personality – what about her actual acting? Happily, one can say that she doesn’t do what William Wyler did – while Roman Holiday solely rests on Audrey Hepburn’s charm and smiles, she herself does much more and actually crafts a real person out of the thin writing. She doesn’t only show her glorious smile, she also evokes an unforgettable sadness, the familiar longing for a simpler and happier life that is so often presented in movies that concern themselves with people of royal status. Audrey Hepburn shows the underlying youth and inner fire in her character, a woman who is forced by protocol to be much more mature and grown-up than she actually is. Her look from her bedroom to a party outside, her eyes filled with excitement, envy and sadness, her breakdown in her bed, her longing for joy in a surrounding that doesn’t allow it is wonderfully done – not only believable, entertaining and engaging but also very mature and with the apparent experiment of a real pro in front of the camera. Nothing seems to indicate how new Audrey Hepburn actually was to the business.
It all comes down to the part and the fact, that on the level of difficulty, this role certainly is among the least challenging ever rewarded with a golden statuette. But not only the Oscars fell in love with Audrey Hepburn that year – her win at the New York Film Critics and her Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama (surely a debatable category placement) prove that Audrey Hepburn was simply something so new and different to the cinematic landscape that it seemed impossible to ignore her. Just like Bette Davis almost 20 years earlier, Audrey Hepburn seemed like a revelation – now, almost 60 years later, Roman Holiday seems like a typical Audrey-Hepburn-performance which she has surpassed later in her career with various more challenging and difficult roles.
Luckily for Audrey Hepburn, the later moments of the movie go in a much deeper territory and actually provide her with the scenes needed to turn Ann from nothing into something. Her final scene in Gregory Peck’s apartment is a little heartbreaking moment that Audrey Hepburn used very wisely to show that sadness and misery come just as easily to her as joy and happiness. When she returns to her home and meets the servants and tells them that she only came back because of her duties for her people, Audrey Hepburn shows how much Princess Ann has grown in this one day – even though she was only out to have some fun, she learned more about herself and her responsibilities than in all the years before.
What crowns Audrey Hepburn’s performance is the final press conference. In these few scenes, she again uses her doll-like face in the most expressive way and proves that, if asked to, she could rise to the tasks of more difficult acting. What’s most impressive about her in this scene is the fast amount of emotions she goes through without over- or underdoing it. Audrey Hepburn effectively uses a style of ‘light drama’ that serves this scene the best. Her change from shock to confusion to fear to relief to sadness, mixed with a certain sense of happiness, a feeling of Je-ne-regrette-rien, is simply wonderful to watch in its simplicity. She doesn’t overdo these scenes to show a large amount of suffering in Ann nor does she go for a classic smile-through-tears. Instead, she shows a woman who knows that she cannot change anything about her situation but who knows that, at least for one day, she was able to experience more happiness than in her whole lifetime – and that this one day is memory for her to keep forever. Her delivery of the line “I will cherish this visit here in memory…as long as I live” is heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time and she manages to create a moment that is both devastating and a Happy End at the same time, a logical outcome that seems disappointing but also right.
In a performance that is so easy to enjoy thanks to the light nature of the movie, so easy to love because of Audrey Hepburn’s star power and yet so difficult to praise, Audrey Hepburn does nothing wrong and definitely deserves some kind of award for so effectively combining charm with acting – but the feeling remains that what is so overwhelming in its efficiency and its service to the quality of the movie is at the same time so underwhelming in terms of pure acting. Again, how does one judge a performance where the acting is actually flawless but the role so undemanding? Take away Audrey Hepburn’s charming personality and what actually remains? – a thin and underwritten character and a competent and nice performance, but nothing more. To her credit, Audrey Hepburn never makes the simplicity of Princess Ann noticeable. It’s probably her biggest success that she was able to turn Roman Holiday into such a wonderful movie despite the fact that almost nothing really happens and the whole things seems more like a giant advertisement for the Eternal City. Audrey Hepburn turns nothing into gold in a way no other actress could have had – but then, no other actress had her face and her smile. More than anything, this is a case of excellent casting rather than brilliant acting. Audrey Hepburn may succeed in this part, but there was actually nothing she could do wrong – both because the writing is too undemanding and the part of Princess Ann fitted her so completely that even with a bad performance, her charming personality would still have been satisfying enough.
If only there would have been a more even balance of charm and acting, a more demanding combination like Gwyneth Paltrow showed in Shakespeare in Love or, of course, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Audrey Hepburn may be perfect but this doesn’t change the fact that Princess Ann is a character that is too under-developed and underwritten and so, in the end, she gets