Roman Holiday: Meeting Audrey Hepburn for the very first time

William Wyler's 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday introduced Audrey Hepburn to the world. With the film's re-issue, the power of her first leading role hasn't diminished one bit.

William Wyler’s 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday, which has just been re-released, concerns a dissatisfied young princess (Audrey Hepburn) who chooses while on tour with an unidentified European royal family to go rogue in Rome; there she meets and falls for a dashing journalist (Gregory Peck). Neither cottons on to the other’s identity, at least at first. Much of the jaunty humour arises from our omniscient awareness of who knows what, and at which point. The film never gets tangled up in its complications. Lightness of touch and deftness of plotting are the key.

I went to see Roman Holiday one evening recently, not only because it’s a charming and playful picture but also because the air conditioning at BFI Southbank, where the film is playing, is second to none. I emerged from the cinema after two hours with icicles on my cinephilia. And if you think there is a whiff of philistinism about harbouring such priorities then you have demonstrably not been in the business of trying to keep cool in London during the past three weeks or so.

My fellow audience members were a delight. Had I taken down their names in a notepad I could give them their due credit here, much as one might celebrate Wyler’s unwaveringly interested direction (how he loves his characters!) or Frank Planer and Henri Alakan’s graceful cinematography or Georges Auric’s fond score. I’d love to include the audience in my praise: “Brenda Ferguson and her fiancé Raymond are to be commended for calibrating precisely a reaction to the slapstick scenes which was two parts carefree laughter to two parts knowing groans”—that kind of thing. But I didn’t, so I can say only that I knew it was going to be the perfect audience with which to watch Roman Holiday from the moment a ripple of amused excitement spread through the auditorium at the sight of the following title card in the opening credits: “Introducing Audrey Hepburn.”

Introducing. Can you imagine what it must feel like to be unfamiliar with Audrey Hepburn? Like never having tasted ice-cream or made a snowball or felt the crunch of frost under your feet. (No, you’re not imagining it: all similes, analogies and metaphors will have refreshing properties until the hot weather abates.) Seeing her again here in her first leading role (at the age of 24) has only reinforced my determination not to buy anything from the company which is now using Hepburn’s digitally reanimated body to flog chocolate bars on the say-so of her sons, who maintain that their mother “often spoke about her love of chocolate and how it lifted her spirit.” Rationalising a highly suspect decision after the fact? That’s not for me to say.

The story of Hepburn’s casting in Roman Holiday has passed into legend. Here is the critic Stanley Kaufmann recounting the tale of her screen test in American Film magazine:

Hepburn played a scene from the script, then [Thorold Dickinson, who directed the screen test in London] called ‘Cut!’ but, by prearrangement with the crew, the camera and sound track kept rolling. Hepburn relaxed and spoke conversationally; then saw that everyone was quiet and surmised what was happening, and they caught that reaction, too. (Masquerade, plus two unmaskings.) Wyler saw the test in Rome, and didn’t hesitate.

So you have to use manipulation to get something that natural. By 1964, Kaufmann was judging Hepburn more harshly, accusing her of undervaluing her own freshness, or losing access to it. In his review of My Fair Lady, he wrote:

She has long been accustomed to tailor-made roles and she tries to tailor Liza to herself as she goes. It is one thing for an actress to infuse a role with her personality, quite another to make the role a showcase for a personality. Miss Hepburn often tries to supply what her fans expect.

If Hepburn had few such fans before Roman Holiday, she had plenty after it (not to mention a Best Actress Oscar—her only one, though she was nominated a further four times). No wonder. She has such openness in Roman Holiday. Near the start of the film, she says to a servant who is overseeing her buttoned-up bedtime routine: “Do you know I’ve heard that there are people who sleep with nothing on?” It’s not a chaste remark, exactly, but nor is it a fully sexualised one. It’s somewhere in between. The naughtiness comes not from the image (though there is that) but from her speculative delight. From this seed sprouts the exquisite relish and abandon in her character’s subsequent detour from humdrum reality.

Here’s Kaufmann again:

[O]nce in a rare while our discovery of a star is part of a film’s power: Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, Liv Ullmann in Persona, Hepburn here. (And in almost every such case, re-seeing the film brings a paradoxical double pleasure: familiarity and remembrance of the discovery.) Most of the world’s filmgoers met Hepburn just about when Peck did in the film, the men in the audience tumbling, the women delegating…

Roman Holiday is on release at selected cinemas nationwide.

Hepburn with Gregory Peck on the set of Roman Holiday in 1953. Photograph: BFI.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.