Enough time has passed that many filmgoers today have only barely heard of one of the biggest starts of the middle of the last century, and one of the most sparkling and engaging presences in all film history. There was no one like Audrey Hepburn, and I was reminded of her unique appeal and talents in seeing two of her greatest films.
Roman Holiday (1953) of course, was Hepburn’s first lead and first American film, and it won her the Oscar for Best Actress. The competition wasn’t particular stiff that year, but nothing stood out like Hepburn, exploding on the scene from apparently nowhere. She was charming, delightful, funny, and when necessary, regal. The film, also starring Gregory Peck and directed by the great director William Wyler, stands up in more ways than her performance. It won the Oscar for Best Writing/Motion Picture Story, which was written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo (that’s another story) and for Edith Head’s costumes. But it was also nominated for seven other Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Eddie Albert for Supporting Actor Eddie Albert, for a performance that may well have been his best. It’s a little slow by today’s standards, but the story moves along, buoyed especially by that then-fresh screen presence.
The film is also known for its locations all over Rome, and for one scene of unplanned laughter that made Hepburn an overnight star in the same way that Pretty Woman made Julia Roberts a star nearly 40 years later when Richard Gere snapped a jewelry case on her fingers.
Peck was a good 13 years older than Hepburn, but the romance is believable (though the film skirts some of the edges of the Production Code). Some of Hepburn’s early scenes seem a bit overplayed, but for most of the film she is a revelation. It must have been shocking to see a virtual unknown, looking unlike any other female star of the time (think Marilyn Monroe for contrast), completely owning a major film opposite one of the biggest male stars of the time.
[Spoiler alert.] One of the surprises when I first saw it years ago was the ending. When I was young, I was disappointed. Now it makes complete sense, and any other ending would have been illogical.
One of the best topics in my film class is the topic of stardom, and what makes a star. There are certain stories of star build-up in film history, and descriptions of certain attributes that critics try (in vain, I believe) to attach to stars to attempt to understand what makes a star. My take is that it is very often individual in nature as well as a mystery. But for those who believe they know a star when they see one, Roman Holiday is a delightful necessity.
The Nun’s Story is as different from Roman Holiday as was possible in Hollywood of the ‘50s. It’s completely serious and anything but light, and has the scope of the great epics of that time. It’s based on the true story of a Belgian nun who leaves her old life for the convent and faces great challenges internally and in her various assignments. The most time is spent with her in the Belgian Congo (on location), especially with Dr. Fortunai (Peter Finch), a brilliant and atheistic doctor with keen insight and a sharp tongue. Hepburn’s Sister Luke is every bit his equal in intelligence and quick wit, and the verbal jousting between them is the highlight of the film, though the subtle sexual tension between the two is considered to be a screenwriter’s invention.
The film is largely forgotten today, and at two-and-a-half hours and with a v-e-r-y slow first half, can be a challenge to modern moviegoers. But at the time, it was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director (Fred Zinnemann, of High Noon, From Here to Eternity and A Man for All Seasons), and Best Actress for Hepburn. It ended up with none, though the picture and Hepburn won the New York Film Critics Circle Awards in their categories. Hepburn expanded her already sizable reputation as an actress with this performance, one that dug deep and bore no resemblance to her more romantic work earlier in the decade. Ironically, the film was thought to be a poor financial risk, and it was only when Hepburn expressed interest that the film was able to be produced. It turned out to be a great success.
That slow first half is going to prove the downfall of many who try to see the film. But it is a classic example of either asking a film to entertain you, or allowing yourself to give yourself over to a film and let it draw you in. The first half contains many scenes of life as a novitiate and later, a nun. The pacing is glacial by today’s standards, but it is a demonstration of a different kind of life, with different values and different challenges. It also functions as the context in which to view the rest of the film. Considering what comes after, it is well worth the experience.
Aside from Hepburn and Finch, both doing excellent work, the film features Dean Jagger and five powerhouse actresses: Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Mildred Dunnock, Beatrice Straight, and Patricia Collinge. That’s what is known as an embarrassment of riches.
When it comes to Hepburn, what can one recommend first? The classic suspense thriller with that gut-grabbing moment, Wait Until Dark? Or the romantic triangle of Sabrina? The cool play-by-play with Cary Grant in Charade? Or the influential Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where Hepburn plays against whatever “type” means. And that doesn’t even cover My Fair Lady, Two for the Road, or War and Peace.
Her first, Roman Holiday, is the best introduction for those unfamiliar with her work. The viewer can taste something of the experience the world had in seeing her for the first time. After that, try The Nun’s Story for something completely different, and then having seen her range, enjoy as many of the others as you can find.