Roman Holiday was Audrey Hepburn’s first starring role in a film, and was considered to be the true launching of her career. If you’ve seen it, then you understand why. Before filming for Roman Holiday began, Audrey had been cast as the lead in Gigi, a stage adaptation of French writer Colette’s famous short story. Audrey had been cast by no less than Colette herself, which added considerably to the buzz around her. Charmingly, Audrey had said that Colette would regret the decision because she couldn’t act, and Audrey did have to take quite a few lessons before she was deemed stageworthy by the director of the play. She had a high-pitched voice and spoke too fast, and practically ran everywhere instead of walking, crackling with energy. In Roman Holiday you can still see traces of this untamed energy just below the cool exterior of Audrey’s Princess Ann, and this is part of the reason why she’s so incredibly captivating in her first lead role.
Audrey plays the part of a young princess from “a country which shall remain nameless,” presumably in Western Europe. She is on a goodwill tour of Europe to strengthen relationships with other countries and do other dull errands that she could really care less about. This might even have been her first trip away from her unseen parents. She is well guarded, though, by an entourage of older generals and duchesses that seem to be more at home with Ann’s parents than her. The strain of her responsibilities overwhelms her, and she has a small breakdown. She is sedated, but before the shot can take effect, Ann sneaks out of the embassy and is loose on the streets of Rome. Through happenstance she meets Joe Bradley, handsomely played by Gregory Peck. Joe reluctantly takes the drowsy (what he thinks to be drunk) girl back to his small, dingy flat that she mistakes for an elevator to sleep it off. The next morning Joe realizes just who is sleeping on his uncomfortable chaise lounge in his pajamas, and quickly realizes that opportunity is knocking. He makes a bet with his editor that he can get a big scoop on the princess, who has “taken ill,” according to her embassy, and rings his seedy photographer friend Irving (perfectly played by Eddie Albert) to snap some secret pictures of the AWOL princess living it up.
The two men charm Ann — who thinks she’s pulling one over on them by claiming to be a schoolgirl and going by the name of Anya Smith — into confiding in them and telling them about things she’s always wanted to do. Her wants are so tragically simple to ordinary people that it’s easy to gloss over them: when is the last time you really wanted to sit at an outdoor café or walk in the rain? She buys cool sandals to better deal with the mugginess of Rome in the summer and cuts off her long hair in an act of rebellion.
After a wonderful day with Joe and Irving, Ann wants to cap the night with dancing on the Tiber River — which was suggested by none other than the barber who cut her hair. It’s here that she and Joe realize that they’ve become attached to each other, but before anything can happen, reality catches up. She narrowly avoids capture by dark-suited goons from her country, only to realize that she can’t hide forever and must do what is right. I won’t completely give away the ending because it really is something you need to see for yourself, but I must admit to holding my breath long after the film was over. It’s a beautiful story that manages to be realistic in its fantasy, and is the perfect beginning for Audrey’s magical career. This role earned Audrey her first of five Oscar nominations, but was sadly the only film she ever won the award for. Still, it’s easy to see why a spell was cast on the world when this movie was released, and Audrey was the enchantress behind that spell.