In Nathan Rabin vs. The IMDb Top 250, Nathan Rabin uses a random number generator to select one of the 250 best films of all time as chosen by the popular cinematic database, and then determines whether the individual ranking of any specific film seems high, low, or just right. (Note: To maintain a consistent list ranking, we are using the list as it appeared on September 15, 2014.)
Movie: Roman Holiday
Director: William Wyler
Year of Release: 1953
IMDB Top 250 Ranking: 233
Are there three more magical words in the cinematic vocabulary than “introducing Audrey Hepburn?” As our own Noel Murray wrote in his wonderful Career View on the actress, the film was preceded by lesser efforts like Secret People and Monte Carlo Baby. But Roman Holiday should have been Hepburn’s debut. It marked her coronation as a movie star of the highest order.
Roman Holiday made such an indelible impression on the general public that when they imagine an elegant, graceful princess, it’s likely the image of Hepburn’s Princess Ann springs to mind as readily as real-life princesses like Princess Diana or Princess Grace of Monaco. This was the film that would introduce the Hepburn the world never stop falling in love with: beautiful, winsome, blessed with remarkable gifts she’s all too eager to shrug off, and imbued with a small streak of mischief that keeps her from being too perfect. She’s the woman every woman wants to be and every man wants to marry, the people’s princess, a beauty with both a spark of the divine and a common touch.
The irresistible fantasy of Roman Holiday is that as much as we’d like to have at least a fraction of Ann’s grace and beauty, she would happily give up the gilded cage of royalty for a chance to live in our loud, crass, vulgar little world. It’s a different kind of princess story, one where the princess would rather wear pajamas and drink Coca-Cola and mingle with the common people than endure another dreadful ball where she’s expected to be gracious and lovely to a series of ancient visiting dignitaries, many of whom seem to have died several years before the film opens but don’t know it yet.
So Princess Ann decides to go AWOL from her glamorous but empty life by escaping her handlers and coming into contact with cynical reporter Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) and his beatnik sidekick Eddie Albert (Irving Radovich, in one of the few non-embarrassing depictions of the Beat scene in American film). Bradley sees in this freedom-chasing gamine the story and payday of a lifetime, but he can’t help but fall for this monarch giddy from her first intoxicating taste of the freedom of the common people.
The enduring appeal of Roman Holiday is that it allows us to see Rome through Ann’s naive and adoring eyes. It makes the commonplace radiant; for a woman forced to play a tedious role by society since she was old enough to talk, there is incredible joy and freedom in eating a gelato or haggling at a market or riding on a scooter. Rome is a big part of the film’s appeal. Roman Holiday would be a much different film if Ann decided to leave her royal heritage behind in the suburbs of New Jersey or Clearwater, Florida. No, Roman Holiday needs Rome almost as much as it needs Hepburn. It requires a city worthy of the glamour and beauty of its star, a city with an allure all its own. Director William Wyler makes brilliant use of his locations: There’s a reason the opening credits boast that the film was shot entirely on location in Rome. There’s a depth and a richness to the images that would have been impossible if the film had been shot on a backlot in Culver City.
So while Roman Holiday is fun and romantic and effortlessly glamorous, there’s an innate melancholy in that Ann’s holiday will inevitably have to end, as will her carefree days goofing around with a man she is rapidly falling in love with and his koo-koo-crazy beatnik sidekick. And when it does her curious, fishbowl existence of royal drudgery will return.
Wyler shoots the gates Ann must return to after her flirty fling like prison gates. She is a captive once more, and if there was ever any doubt that Hepburn was a great actress, and not just the most charming woman ever to grace a movie screen, it’s extinguished by the heartbreakingly sad smile she musters up as she greets the assembled press at the end of the film, ending with her beloved Joe, and contemplates the life she might have led were she not so burdened by responsibility. The film deserves credit for eschewing a happy ending for a bittersweet one and letting these two star-crossed lovers drift out of each others lives just as they drifted into them.
Too high or too low: Too low
1. The Best Years Of Our Lives
2. Some Like It Hot
3. Blade Runner
4. North By Northwest
5. In The Mood For Love
8. The Silence Of The Lambs
9. Roman Holiday
10. All About Eve
12. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid
13. Requiem For A Dream
14. Hotel Rwanda
16. Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl
17. The Truman Show
18. Blood Diamond
19. Slumdog Millionaire