Audrey Hepburn’s face and disposition will forever be tied to beauty, grace, and goodness. She wasn’t just radiant as a movie star. Her beauty was always accompanied by kindness and a belief that human beings can be good. Her role in William Wyler’s 1953 classic, “Roman Holiday,” is more than just an introduction to Audrey Hepburn. It’s an ode to grace, gratitude, pleasure, and goodness—all of the qualities Hepburn herself found essential for a creative and productive life.
Any Hepburn fan is familiar with “Roman Holiday” and its delightful plot: a princess (Hepburn) of an unnamed country is on a goodwill tour of Europe, and one of the stops happens to be Rome. Princess Ann (also known as Anya in the film) is young and shows signs of immaturity, fatigue, and annoyance at the tasks she must complete as a member of the royal family. Ann’s handlers are treating her like a child, including the requisite milk and crackers before bedtime. Feeling badgered, Ann has had enough.
After a brief nervous breakdown, the doctor gives her a sedative to help her sleep. But things don’t go as planned. Ann is drawn to the singing and dancing on the Tiber she can hear and see from the embassy’s window. Like a naughty teenager, Ann sneaks out of the beautiful palace, hops on a delivery man’s truck, and enters into the big and overwhelming world of Rome. Unfortunately, the sedative starts to take effect, and Ann falls asleep on the bench, in front of the Colosseum.
Out of nowhere emerges Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), an American journalist working for the American News Service. He’s not quite sure how a young woman, dressed in impeccable clothing, sporting a polished accent, and quoting poetry is apparently drunk, roaming through the streets of Rome. He takes pity on her and lets her sleep in his humble one-room abode.
The plot thickens, as they say, the next morning when Bradley realizes that in his bedroom, wearing his pajamas is none other than Princess Ann—the very princess who was supposed to grant an audience to journalists in Rome, including Joe. Like most journalists, Joe sees this as an opportunity for a great story. He contacts fellow expatriate Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert), who works as a photographer for the American press but who seems to spend more time chasing beautiful Italian women than working his day job.
Joe proposes a plan: spend an entire day with Princess Ann, all the while Irving takes unassuming photographs of Her Highness, using a cigarette lighter that also functions as a camera. Afterwards, publish the photos along with the story. The deal is made with Joe’s editor and boss, Hennessy, who expects the “product” to be developed, written, and delivered.
Ann is unaware of their plan, and what ensues is the most beautiful exploration of joy and gratitude for life ever presented on film. Ann gets a haircut, eats an ice cream, rides a Vespa, buys a pair of sandals, sees many sights, and her wish to dance on the docks of the Tiber is granted as well. But not before the royal secret police tries to capture her and return her to the embassy.
During this entire saga, she and Joe fall in love with each other but both know that she cannot possibly leave the life of duty she has for her country. Joe’s love for Ann trumps any journalistic desire to publish the story, and so he convinces Irving that they simply cannot engage in cheap journalism, exposing the private life of a princess. Because a connection with Ann has been established, she is no longer a subject or a product to be used and thrown away.
In its essence, “Roman Holiday” is a film about human encounter and verve for life. In many ways, Ann is innocent and her own Roman holiday moves her out of the sphere of innocence into the sphere of experience. By the end of the film, when she wisely returns to the embassy, she disrupts the royal routine of her youthfulness: she refuses the milk and crackers. The general scolds her for disappearing and begins to give her a talk about duty and honor. But Ann rightfully stops him: “Your Excellency, I trust you will not find it necessary to use that word again. Were I not completely aware of my duty to my family and to my country, I would not have come back tonight . . . or indeed ever again.”
Everything that Ann experiences has a two-fold element. She is wholly engaged in the present moment, using all of her senses, embracing joy and pleasure even in the simplest of things. At the same time, she is learning to be a whole person, and so with her joy also comes wisdom. But, as we know, a constant companion to wisdom is sorrow, which she certainly experiences at the end.
Yet this is not a sad film. It is a film of contemplation and reflection, of decision making, and above all, of virtue and love. In his book, Leisure: the Basis of Culture, philosopher Josef Pieper writes that “To contemplate . . . to “look” . . . means to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision, and the things seen enter into us, so to speak, without calling for any effort or strain on our part to possess them. There can hardly be any doubt that that, or something like it, is the way we become sensorially aware of a thing.”
We cannot “possess” beauty and this is what both Joe Bradley and Princess Ann have known all along. Their eyes and perception are aligned with reality. Joe’s initial deception is crushed by Ann’s very being. Ultimately, “Roman Holiday” is a celebration of life in all its beauty and complexity, and an invitation for us as well to contemplate and experience our own place in the world. At our core, we are relational beings, and we become more human when our minds and hearts are open to the beauty of earthly sacredness.