Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A study in subtlety: Roman Holiday’s final scene

The last scene of Roman Holiday is like a Beatles single, in that it's so compact, and so perfect in its construction, that you instinctively feel it cannot be improved, irrespective of what you think its artistic merits are. The director William Wyler sets the audience up beautifully with an hour and a half of charming, scenic fluff; diverting, sure, but not such stuff as dreams are made on. Then when everyone expects him to end the fairy tale the way all fairy tales ended in the 1950s, he calmly pulls the rug out from under their feet. It’s a strangely unsettling ending – no tears are shed, and there is no need. No matter how much one may deny it later, almost all who watch it for the first time are left with a feeling of gnawing emptiness, as if the happiness denied to the characters on screen was in reality their right, and was being denied to them.

Clichéd may a slightly tough word to use the first one and a half hours of this movie; it has winsome performances, beautiful Rome in the background and the sort of leisurely charm which Hollywood couldn’t come up with the today if you gave them a multi-million dollar budget and a special effects system which thinks for itself. But clichéd it is – Audrey Hepburn plays a slightly spoiled, very bored princess who runs away from her drudge of a royal life, and Gregory Peck a journalist who sees in her the story of a lifetime. Like any good Italian romance, they walk around, see the the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum (and, in a marvelous improvised scene, the Mouth of Truth), have close brushes with the local police, and finally, fall in love. However, the clock will soon strike twelve, and Cinderella must return to her gilded rags and troop inspections. So they part, if only to clear the way for the final, towering cliché – the journalist is sent off to the climatic press junket to win her back.

So the great Gregory Peck stands and looks at his love for a sign, but things are not going according to script. We have seen a little while earlier that the princess is no longer controlled by her advisors, and she reacts sharply when one of them reminds her of her duty towards her station. It gives us a hint that she has already thought the matter through, and made her decision.

The deliberate manner in which Audrey Hepburn says her lines here could be (and has been, by some critics) put down to nervousness, a debutante handling her first big scene. As for me, I think of Anna Karina in Godard’s Bande a Part looking straight at the camera and saying “My heart goes out at the sight of you”. Then I think of Audrey Hepburn interrupting her own manufactured response to slowly intone “Rome. By all means Rome” and I can’t choose one classic movie moment over the other.

Finally, after all the questions have been asked, the princess comes down to meet the members of the press, including Gregory Peck, who probably expects her to say a lot, and is disappointed. By now, the look of confidence he started the scene with is visibly beginning to wane; like the audience, he is slowly, painfully coming to terms with the fact that this may not be a happy ending. Yet he looks up, and with a movement so subtle as to be non-existent asks her “Well, how about it?” She replies with the slightest shake of the head. In an unforgiving close-up, we see hope fade from his face, and he swallows. The audience though, has not learnt its lesson, and still expects a fairy tale end. They force him to linger until everyone else has left, hoping that she will reappear, recant. But she doesn’t. It truly is the end, and all one can do is accompany the man on his lonely walk out


Ruchika Khattar said...

Good decision! Long overdue.

I haven't seen the movie, yes it's on the hard disk. But I loved the piece anyway.

You'll find a lot of interesting subjects, given the city you will be in, this next month.

Anonymous said...

My emotions exactly about the film. Some were talking about a masterpiece and I couldn't find the reason while going through a light and "charming" comedy. But it's that final scene that leaves that fairytale world, sets feet back on the ground and the spectator again to reality; that got to me at the end. And saying it all purely through gestures, some minimal.

B said...

Excellent analysis of the final scene. You brought out the emotions of that scene perfectly!

Heart of Gold said...

I am afraid that the director of Roman holiday is not George Cuckor but William Wyler.

a fan apart said...

A Langian slip. Difficult to believe no one noticed it all this time. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Did this movie begin the era of the chump man? He gives up a $5, 000 story and a $500 bet and isn't even able to brag about having sex with a princess? No glass slipper for you, chump.

Strawberry said...

Mmmm... I saw a slightly different interpretation. Not a spoiled and bored princess, but one who was trapped. In 1953, the terror of Nazi Germany was fresh and Red Menace loomed large, and so I saw a princess whose freedoms were curtailed perhaps by more than simple duty. The way she was drugged almost by force... the way her country's secret service people tried to recapture her as if it were a kidnapping... her stilted and rehearsed answers to every question and conversation... It all made me think that I wasn't watching someone who was merely obligated by her station in life, but by something more sinister. Looking at it that way adds a whole different dimension to that heartbreaking final scene.

awfulorv said...

There isn't a Director in the world, though some would come close, who could capture the minute inflections of that final scene. This is truly one of the great movie frolics of all time. Thanks to all of them for having left this masterpiece for us to view forever.