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.

Photo: Warner Bros
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Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated

Judging the actual speaking and acting the from teen icon.

When it was announced that Harry Styles had been cast in Dunkirk, most people assumed it was a Drew Barrymore in Scream sort of deal. A big name, who would be plastered over the posters, front and centre at promotional interviews, but given a barely-speaking part and probably killed off in the first five minutes. Not so! Not only does he not die early on, Harry has a very significant amount of time on screen in Dunkirk, and even more surprisingly, a lot of that time involves actual speaking and acting from the teen icon. In this action-heavy, dialogue-sparse film, he has more lines than most.

Of course, the most normal human response to this revelation is to list every single time he speaks in the film and evaluate every moment on a line-by-line basis. So here it is. Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated by a very impartial Harry Styles fan. Let’s go.

Obviously, this contains spoilers for Dunkirk.

“What’s wrong with your friend?”

It’s the first line, but it’s a goody. So nonchalant; so effortless; breezily accompanied by a mouthful of toast and jam. Curious, friendly – but with dangerous edge. A lurking threat. A shiver of accusation. This sets up Alex as a normal, if self-assured, bloke who also wants to be sure you’re not about to get him killed. A very strong debut – the kind of line that, if you didn’t know better, would make you think, “Hm, who’s this charismatic young guy”?

A cheer.

Solid 8/10 cheer, believe this guy has cheered before.

“You can’t leave us! Make some room!”

It’s only been ten minutes, but things have really kicked up a notch. Raspy, panicked, desperate, this line left my heart jumping for my poor sodden son. A triumph, and certainly one of Harry’s best lines.

“Hey!”

Here, Alex yells “Hey!” to get the attention of other soldiers, which turns into louder, repeated cries for their attention. I can find little wrong with this “Hey”, and indeed later “Hey”s, but I would not nominate it for an Oscar. This “Hey” is just fine.

“What’s that way?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know what is that way. (It’s a boat.) 7/10.

“S’grounded!”

Alex has delivered the last three shouts with exactly the same intonation. This is good because normal people do not opt for variance in tone when desperately yelling at each other across the beach. I also appreciate the lack of enunciation here. Great work, Harry.

“’ow long’s that?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know how long it will take for the tide to come in. (It’s about three hours.) 7/10.

“Poke yer head out, see if the water’s come in”

Alex is ramping things up a notch – this is authoritative, even challenging. Excellent pronunciation of “aht”, more great slurring.

“Talkative sod, aren’t ya?”

A big line, important for the growing hints that Alex is mistrustful of the silent soldier in their group. And yet not Harry’s absolute best. A little too much forced vowel for me.

“For fuck’s sake!”

Oh my God, we’re here now boys. It’s begun. The water’s not come in. Forget the high-explosive, Alex has only gone and dropped a bloody F-bomb, and Harry’s performance is actually stressful. What an about-turn. Delivered with spitting fury; the “for”, if there at all, almost inaudible; a dropped box clanging to the ground for extra impact. We know that Harry ad-libbed this (and a later) F-word, and this spontaneous approach is working. A truly superb go at doing some swearing. 10/10.

“Yeah but ’ow long?”

I would describe this delivery as “pained”. A little groan of fear hangs in the back. This is, as they say, the good shit.

“Why’d you leave your boat?”

This whispered anger suits Harry.

Some extreme shushing.

Definitely would shush.

“We have to plug it!”

Alex’s heart doesn’t seem really in plugging the bullet holes in the boat, despite the surface-level urgency of this delivery, probably because he doesn’t want to get shot. Nuance. I like it.

“Somebody needs to get off.”

A mic drop of a line, delivered with determined focus.

“I don’t need a volunteer. I know someone who ough’a get off.”

The way his cadence falls and his voice falters when as he reaches the word volunteer. It’s a sad, resigned, type of fear, the type of fear we expect from Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley. Harry’s dropping clues that Alex doesn’t really want to be shoving anyone off a boat to their deaths. But then Alex steels himself, really packing a punch over that “ough’a”.

“This one. He’s a German spy.”

The momentum is building, Alex’s voice is getting breathier and breathier, panic is fluttering in his voice now. I’m living for each and every second of this, like a proud mother with a camcorder. You’re doing amazing, sweetie.

“He’s a focking Jerry!”

Go on my son! Harry’s voice is so high only dogs can hear him now. The mix of fear and aggression is genuinely convincing here, and more than ever it feels clear that you’re practically watching a group of schoolboys with guns scared out of their minds, desperate to go home, who might shoot each other dead at any second. This is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Harry’s performance.

“Have you noticed he hasn’t said a word? ’Cause I ’ave. Won’t speak English: if he does it’s in an accent’s thicker than sauerkraut sauce.”

This is, objectively, the silliest line in this film and maybe any film, ever, and I love it. Never before have the words “sauerkraut sauce” been uttered as a simile, or as a threat, and here, they are both. Inexplicably, it sort of works through Harry’s high-pitched voice and gritted teeth. My personal highlight of the entire movie.

“Tell me.”

Alex is going full antagonist. Whispered, aggressive, threatening. It is safe to say I am dead and deceased.

“Tell me, ‘Gibson’”.

Ugh, now with an added layer of mockery. I am dead, but also please kill me.

“A frog! A bloody frog! A cowardly, little queue-jumping frog. Who’s Gibson, eh? Some naked, dead Englishman lying out in that sand?”

Brexit Harry Styles is furious, and his accent is going a bit all over the place as a result.

“Maybe he killed him.”

Just-about-believably paranoid.

“How do we know?”

This is too close to the delivery Harry uses in this vine for me to take seriously, I’m deeply sorry about that.

“Well, we know who’s getting off.”

I believe that Alex does, in fact, know who is getting off. (It’s the French guy.) 7/10.

“Better ’im than me.”

I agree!!!!!

“Somebody’s gotta get off, so the rest of us can live.”

Empassioned, persuasive, fervent. When glimpsed in trailers, this moment made me think Alex would be sacrificing himself to save others. Not so! He just really, really wants to live. A stellar line, executed very well.

“Do you wanna volunteer?”

Good emoting. I believe the emotion used here is “disbelief”.

“Then this is the price!”

I believe the emotion used here is “desperation”.

“He’s dead, mate.”

So blunt, delivered with an awkward pity. A stand-out moment thanks to my high quality son Harold.

“We let you all down, didn’t we.”

Dahhn. Harry lets us know this is not even a question in Alex’s mind, its a fact. Poor depressed little Alex.

“That old bloke wouldn’t even look us in the eye.”

The weird thing (irony? joke?) here is that the old bloke is actually blind, not refusing to look them in the eye. Slightly bizarre, but Harry rolls with it with this relaxed approach to the word “bloke”.

“Hey! Where are we!”

Good God I love this rousing line. The bell chiming in the background, the violins stirring. There is something curiously British about this line. Something so, “‘What’s to-day?’ cried Scrooge”. Here, Harry is doing what he did best in the early one direction days - being a normal lad from a normal town whose life was made extraordinary even though he’s just, like, so totally normal.

“What station!”

I take it back, THIS is probably my favourite line of the whole movie. Purely because it sounds exactly like Harry Edward Styles on an average day, going about his business, asking what station he’s at. Alex who?

“Grab me one o’ them papers! Go on!”

Now, this, I love. Newcastle brown in hand, f’s dropped, a “go on” barely lacking a “my son”. Put a flat cap on the lad and hand him a chimney sweeping broom - we are in deliciously caricatured Brit territory.

“I can’t bear it. They’ll be spitting at us in the streets, if they’re not locked up waiting for the invasion.”

How rapidly joy turns to ashes in our mouths. One second so elated, with the nostalgic scent of home quivering in his nostrils, Alex is now feeling extremely sorry for himself (fair enough, to be honest). A fine “sad voice” here.

“I can’t look.”

The “sad voice” continues.

“Wha’??”

Hahahahahaha. Yes.

And with this very confused noise Harry Styles closes his debut film performance, which I would describe as extremely solid. Even if I am fuming that he didn’t get to die, beautifully, and at length. Well done Harold.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.