Royal Meets Reality: Roman Holiday



We all watch movies enough to have become familiar with certain on-screen formulas. The narrative theme of two different worlds colliding is usually shown within the confines of a romance. We’ve all seen the rich girl fall for the poor boy and her dad be determined to keep them apart (“But Daddy I love him!”). Done well, this formula can be fine, but when something with more layers, unpredictability, and depth manages to find its way onto film, that’s special—and Roman Holiday does just that. The plot deftly illustrates a meeting between classes through humor, romance, and emotion.

Released in 1953, Roman Holiday stars Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn and was directed by William Wyler. Eddie Albert also has a supporting role. Peck plays Joe Bradley, an American journalist working for a news service in Rome and hoping to get back to the States. Hepburn (in her first leading role) is Princess Ann, a royal on tour around Europe whose latest stop is the Eternal City.

One night, Ann’s obligations become too much and she gets so upset that she is given sleeping medication. She escapes her handlers, though, and Bradley finds her in a woozy state. He takes care of her without realizing she is the Princess. After missing his assignment the next morning, Bradley discovers who the girl is and plans to get an exclusive scoop by letting her pretend to be a normal woman visiting Rome and following along the whole way. The two must carefully reconsider what they’re doing, however, when they fall in love.

Though the audience is never told her last name or the specific country she hails from, Ann is established from the beginning as someone born to status in life, who has never known anything else. An early scene demonstrates just how tedious her life must sometimes be when she is a guest at a ball and must greet every attendee. It is clear she yearns for just one moment that isn’t scheduled for her and to experience the little things the rest of us take for granted. Like pajamas instead of a fancy nightgown.

During her day out with Joe, she does simple things that others might not find so special. She gets a haircut, has some gelato, and sees tourist hot spots like the Spanish Steps and the Wall of Wishes. Ann may be used to a rarefied world but it clearly is missing some things. Hepburn gives a wonderful performance, and it’s no wonder she was nominated for and won the Academy Award for Best Actress. The scenes where Ann is under the influence of the sedative are quite funny. Hepburn effortlessly captivates throughout.

Joe Bradley’s situation is quite different. He has debts and struggles with money. His apartment is very small (but has a beautiful balcony) and he wants to get back to America. He knows Rome and how to move around a major cosmopolitan city in a way Ann has never had to despite all of her travels. Joe also faces the prospect of making mistakes in his job that Ann wouldn’t be familiar with. After all, it’s not like she can be fired. When it hits him that he has unique access to a public figure, Joe’s reporter instincts kick in. He intends to make to most of it. He even calls in his friend and photographer Irving (played by Albert) to covertly document the Princess during her runaway adventure. If Ann’s world is rarefied, Joe’s is resolutely real.

The romance between Joe and Ann forms and builds slowly as they spend more time together. Neither one is telling the other the truth about what they do for a living but their interactions are otherwise honest. Ann can’t fake her enthusiasm for the novelty of the new things happening to her; Joe can’t help being enchanted. Even at the end of Ann’s day off, when Joe drives her back to her upscale accommodations, they don’t talk about who she really is and neither one entertains the possibility they might be able to be together. It is heartbreaking but feels appropriate to the story. It’s more important that Joe was a part of this extraordinary experience for Ann, and they are both changed for life by their time together. The final scene, where Ann greets some of the press to talk about the recent “illness” that kept her absent and Joe is one of them, is full of subtext. Underneath their words, the audience hears they will protect and treasure their Roman holiday.

Romance, humor, and emotion shine through a plot where people from two different classes meet. The foundation of this story may be well-used but the execution of details set it apart and make it classic. There was a recent Hallmark Channel movie set at Christmas with a similar theme (Once Upon a Holiday), but Peck and Hepburn set the standard. Roman Holiday still feels like a fairy tale even without the typical ending. ♥


Rachel Sexton is from Ohio. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. She has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life. Her hobby is editing fan videos.

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