It's hardly official, but it's not a secret either most years, the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress goes to "the new girl." Both the Academy and the moviegoing public loves to fall in love, and Oscar's history is loaded with statuettes for the year's most promising actress. Unfortunately, far too often these award-winners never live up to their initial promise, subject to early success and a bit of knee-jerk infatuation, but soon brushed aside like a high-school crush. Audrey Hepburn, however, was always in a different category. For her first film, 1953's Roman Holiday, she snared the Best Actress hardware, even though she was virtually unknown before the movie's debut. But the numerous accolades she received were not without merit. The daughter of an English businessman and a Dutch socialite, Hepburn's cosmopolitan charm was no fake, nor the unusual sadness that always seemed to linger beneath the surface of her unusual beauty. Living under the German occupation of Holland during World War II, she witnessed Nazi atrocities and supported the local underground. After the war she moved to London, where she studied dance and modeling. She had bit parts in eight films before Roman Holiday, none substantial, and her first big break actually came on the stage in the Broadway production of Gigi. When director William Wyler chose her to be his star in Roman Holiday, everybody involved seem to know a legend was in the making. The Paramount lot buzzed with excitement as Edith Head began fitting her for costumes. And, entirely unusual for the day's studio-driven industry, she was billed above the film's title alongside Gregory Peck. Reportedly this was at Peck's insistence the popular leading man knew he was about to get completely upstaged. Roman Holiday then serves as a perfect introduction to the inimitable Ms. Hepburn, who stars as Ann, the ruling princess of a European country who is on a goodwill tour of the continent, but dislikes everything about her position and the constraints it puts on her. Nearly suffering a nervous breakdown in Rome and injected with sedatives, the downhearted royal makes an unusual bid for freedom, sneaking out of her hotel and wandering the city at night. But soon she's overcome by the sedatives and sleep, only to be found by American journalist Joe Bradley (Peck), who reluctantly takes her back to his lodgings, unaware of her identity. But after he learns that Princess Ann is actually in his care and getting his boss to promise him $5,000 for an exclusive interview Joe recruits his photographer buddy Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert) to help him show the wayward royal the town, and dig up a story the young, sheltered girl doesn't even know exists.
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Roman Holiday was a mainstream success upon its much-ballyhooed 1953 debut, but it was a far more unusual project behind the scenes. For starters, the film's starlet was completely unknown to the public, and Paramount took a substantial risk in hoping to make Audrey Hepburn an overnight sensation (a task the actress managed with ease). Director William Wyler was an Academy Award winner, but his reputation was built primarily upon literary and theatrical adaptations, and not romantic comedies pictures such as The Little Foxes, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Wuthering Heights were far removed from this lighthearted bit of European romance. Like Wyler, Gregory Peck was not known for light romances either, and he was selected for the part of Joe Bradley only after Cary Grant turned down the role. The screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) preparing to serve time in jail and in need of cash for his family, Trumbo wrote it quickly and earned $50,000, while writer Ian McLellan Hunter agreed to take credit in his place. And the decision to shoot entirely in Rome was an added expense not to mention the fact that location shooting, at that time, was still a novelty for the American film industry. But the gambles paid off, with some added support. Eddie Albert is almost unrecognizable with wavy hair and a beard, but he provides good comic relief as the photographer who insists on calling the princess "Smitty." And throughout, Edith Head's costumes flatter Hepburn's winsome figure in everything from casual clothes to elaborate gowns. Taking some inspiration from Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, Roman Holiday is one of Hollywood's classic tales of star-crossed lovers, and one that would forever establish a young actress among the Tinseltown elite. Because of this one film and a heartfelt central performance, Audrey Hepburn would always seem to be a royal figure, both to her fellow actors and to her adoring public.
Paramount's DVD release of Roman Holiday offers a crisp full-frame (1.33:1) transfer from digitally restored materials, making the film appear as pristine as it may have on its premiere night, with only a couple of brief glitches in the source material. The clean, solid monaural audio is delivered in Dolby Digital 2.0, and features are generous. Most enjoyable is the 25-min. documentary "Remembering Roman Holiday," with retrospective comments from Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert, and others. Also here is "Restoring Roman Holiday" (7 min.), which looks at the digital processes that went into getting the film ready for a DVD release. The featurette "Edith Head: The Paramount Years" (13 min.), four photo galleries, and three trailers round out the supplements. And for those of you interested in just how far Paramount was willing to go with a digital restoration, watch the opening credits closely nearly 50 years later, Dalton Trumbo is credited with the film's story for the first time. Keep-case.