Roman Holiday is one of the great classic black and white romances, though I feel like you don’t hear about it as much these days. It was Audrey Hepburn’s first starring role; Gregory Peck famously insisted they be billed on equal footing, despite her inexperience, because he was convinced she was going places. It also has a rather unusual ending, which I will have to spoil, but I also happen to think its one of those stories that is even better when you know where it’s headed. Still, consider this your spoiler alert.
Audrey Hepburn plays Princess Ann, a young royal from an unnamed country. She is on a goodwill tour through Europe. After a newsreel establishes this, we see her entrance at a ball. As she makes as if to sit down on a dais, a glance and subtle shake of the head from an attending official stops her. She greets a whole line of guests, standing, while a camera shows us that under her gown, she is slipping her feet out of her shoes and stretching her aching toes.
This is one of the best character introductions I’ve ever seen.
Later, we see her in a white nightgown, talking over tomorrow’s schedule with her lady-in-waiting, or rather listening to her lady-in-waiting tell her exactly how the day will go. Not only is the day timed to the minute, but outside forces have already determined what Ann will accept, what she will refuse, which answers and speeches she will give. Ann’s life is controlled down to the last word. Nowadays, the princess who is frustrated with her life is a cliche, and usually one that creates an instantaneously unlikable character, but in this case we really do empathize with Ann. She is being childish, but she’s also being treated like a child, and when she isn’t infantilized she is objectified. Those around her use her as a publicity prop of her entire nation, to be beautified and photographed, shown off like an antique doll. When she begins screaming at everyone in sight, we understand. Her fit becomes so bad a doctor is called in to sedate her, but before the drug takes full affect she sneaks out.
Next we meet the other protagonist, journalist Joe Bradley, losing at poker. On his way home, he finds Ann stoned on the streets. When he can’t figure out where she lives (he doesn’t exactly buy that she lives in a palace) he takes her to crash on his couch. This act of somewhat reluctant kindness is important. It establishes him as a good person at heart, if a bit pragmatic.
Joe wakes up late for a press conference with the princess. He rushes to work, only to discover the interview was cancelled due the princess’s “sudden illness,” which is of course a cover story that the royal family has concocted. Its then that he takes a good look at a picture of her, and realizes what he has back in his apartment. He has the biggest story of his life right in front of him.
When Ann wakes up, her first instinct is to head home, but Joe convinces her to take a day for herself. Meanwhile, he calls his photographer friend, Irving, to tag along and get some pictures. Ann goes by Anya Smith, and the men quickly take to calling her Smitty, which seems to delight her.
The bulk of the movie is spent watching the three of them have fun together. The balance of characterization is very delicate. Joe is taking advantage of Ann, who in turn is rebelling, but both of them are still likable people. This is down to a combination of their introductions and the skill of their actors. Ann acts impulsively and gets into a bit of trouble, but she is consistently friendly and polite. She means nobody any harm; she’s just letting off some steam. Joe, meanwhile, is planning to take serious advantage of her, but we can see that he is growing attached beyond what’s required for his game.
The day is something of a date, but it also feels at times like Ann is trying to cram an entire adolescence into one day. She cuts her hair, eats street food, smokes, takes a dare, rides a motorcycle, makes friends her family wouldn’t approve of and wishes that can never come true. She gets her first look at who she is when she isn’t being constantly groomed and edited.
At a dance, her family’s secret service catch up to her. When she refuses to leave, Joe and Irving help her fight them off. While initially she seems like the damsel, pretty quickly she finds her inner badass.
After their escape, Ann and Joe finally turn this movie from a fun romp with some romantic vibes to an honest romance. They kiss and return to his apartment, talking as if both of them are considering running off together. However, reality sets in and Ann chooses to return to the palace.
When Ann comes back, her bearing has completely changed. She stands tall, and there is strength in her voice. Although her position has been resumed, her role has changed. The press conference she and Joe both missed is rescheduled, and she sees him in the audience. She partially keeps to the script her lady-in-waiting has given her, but also expresses her own opinions, while subtly asking Joe if he will keep her story private. He confirms that he will, and Irving signals his agreement by giving her all the photos she took, to keep as mementos. At the end, they part ways, but Joe and Ann both have bittersweet smiles on their faces.
When I was a kid, I hated this ending, because I thought all love stories should end with the two staying together forever. Now, of course, that’s precisely what I love about it. Most people have some love stories that didn’t last, and while a few can truly consider their exes missteps, we can often also see them as times of learning, or stops on a long journey that we will always cherish, even if we had to move on. In addition to having a good deal of escapist fun, Roman Holiday tells a truth that many of us can relate to. Love isn’t always about finding your soulmate. Sometimes it’s about finding yourself.