Revisiting ‘Roman Holiday’ and Audrey Hepburn’s dazzling Oscar-winning debut

Perfection is a word used too frequently to describe a movie. But in the case of the 1953 romantic comedy “Roman Holiday,” perfection is not hyperbole. Directed by William Wyler and nominated for 10 Academy Awards, “Roman Holiday” is a gem of a fairy tale.

Audrey Hepburn plays Princess Ann, a young sheltered monarch from a European country bored to tears on a goodwill trip who decides to escape her guardians while in Rome. She ends up falling in love with a handsome American reporter (Gregory Peck). He recognizes the princess on the lam and initially befriends her to get her story only to fall for the winsome young woman. Eddie Albert plays Peck’s carefree, womanizing friend who is a photographer.

“Roman Holiday,” which just made its Blu-Ray debut, was a change of pace for Wyler, who was best known for his dramatic work, having already won Oscars for 1942’s “Mrs. Miniver” and 1946’s “The Best Years of Our Lives.” And it certainly showed different side of Peck who was best known for his dramatic work in such films as 1945’s “Spellbound” and 1946’s “The Yearling.” The superstar was hankering to do a comedy.

The film ended up being a fairy tale for Hepburn, who had appeared in small roles in a few films including the beloved 1951 British caper-comedy “The Lavender Hill Mob” and had received strong reviews on Broadway in 1951 in “Gigi.” Not only did she win the Best Actress Oscar for her indelible turn as Princess Ann, Hepburn also took home the Golden Globe, the BAFTA and the New York Film Critics Circle honor. Needless to say, her stardom was born with “Roman Holiday.”

Film historian Leonard Maltin told the L.A. Times in 2013: “Many familiar stars have given great performances. But there are times when being an unknown is an invaluable asset. There is a parallel between the character’s story and Audrey Hepburn. It is not just a fresh, charming performance, it is a fresh, charming performance by someone blossoming into stardom right before your eyes.”

Originally, British actress Jean Simmons was under consideration for the role of Ann. But Wyler, who also insisted “Roman Holiday” be shot entirely in the Eternal City, wanted an unknown for his leading lady. “With anybody familiar, you have to first forget your previous associations with them, shed that baggage before your completely accept and embrace them in this new role,” noted Maltin. “With an unknown, there is no such barrier.”

So how did Hepburn come to play Princess Ann?

While Wyler was doing a pre-production trip to Rome, he stopped in England to look at young actresses. Hepburn was one of them. Wyler was impressed, noting she was “very alert, very smart, very talented and very ambitious.” Because he needed to return to Rome, he asked Throald Dickinson, the director of her 1952 film “Secret People” to shoot a screen test at Pinewood Studios and then let the cameras continue to run without her knowing so he could see Hepburn in a more relaxed state. It worked.

Wyler found her “absolutely delightful. Acting, looks and personality!” He was so taken with the gamine actress, he held up production until she finished with her duties with “Gigi.” The director and Hepburn ended up working two more times together in 1961’s “The Children’s Hour” and 1966’s “How to Steal a Million.”

Not only was Hepburn a legendary actresses, she also was a fashion icon-she was the muse of Givenchy-and she also made a fashion statement thanks to the Oscar-winning designs of Edith Head, especially with her mid-skirt and crisp white blouse and short breezy hair.

The film also earned an Oscar nomination for its exquisite cinematography of Franz Planer and France’s legendary Henri Alekan, best known for his work on Jean Cocteau’s 1946 “Beauty and the Beast” and Wim Wender’s 1987 “Wings of Desire.”

Sadly, “Roman Holiday” fell victim to the Hollywood blacklist. Writer Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, who refused to cooperate with HUAC in 1947 and even spent time in jail, wrote the motion picture story and the screenplay with John Dighton. But because he was blacklisted, he asked his friend screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter, who was later blacklisted, to front for him. So, when the film won for motion picture story, it was Hunter who accepted the honor. Trumbo’s daughter Mitzi told the L.A. Times in 2015 she recalled sitting with her family watching the 1954 Oscar ceremony and seeing “Roman Holiday” win for writing, motion picture story. “It was kind of a wonderous thing,” she noted. “But we couldn’t tell anybody.”

It was nearly 40 years later in 1992 that the academy changed the records to give credit to Trumbo for his achievement. Trumbo’s widow received the posthumous Oscar in 1993; Trumbo died in 1976. Then academy president Robert Rehme said at the presentation ceremony: “Tonight we will be attempting to right history by presenting the Oscar that Mr. Trumbo won. It is our hope that here and now, one more dark chapter in American history can being to be closed.” The WGA restored his screen credit in 2011.

The Paramount Blu-ray is the first physical home entertainment release to have Trumbo’s credits restored on the print and Blu-ray packaging. Newly remastered from a 4K master, “Roman Holiday” looks glorious. Because the camera negative was in such bad shape, though, a dupe negative and fine grain were used. Every frame was reviewed and dust, dirt and damage were removed. And the original mono soundtrack was also remastered.

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