Audrey Hepburn was a 100% absolute queen and I will not be told different.
It’s fitting, then, that her first starring role is as a princess – the cloistered and closely-guarded Princess Ann, heir to an unknown European nation and off on a whirlwind post-War goodwill tour of Europe. Every step she takes is pre-scheduled, every statement is pre-scripted, and she is chafing under her tight leash by the time she arrives in Rome. When she snaps at her chaperone one night at bedtime, the royal doctor gives her a sedative – she has a full schedule the next day and she needs her rest. But before it can kick in, Ann makes her escape – shimmying out a window and hiding in a delivery van to sneak out of the embassy. She enjoys a few minutes of wandering around one of Rome’s piazzas before the drugs finally kick in, and she falls asleep on a park bench near the Forum.
She’s soon discovered by Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a cynical reporter who doesn’t recognize her and thinks she’s just another tourist who’s had a bit too much vino. Joe chivalrously brings her back to his flat to sleep it off. It’s not until the next morning when Joe heads into the press office for his day’s assignment that he realizes just who’s sleeping in his place. He excitedly promises his boss an exclusive with the princess – whom the embassy has been claiming is bedridden with an illness – and hurries home to where Ann is just waking up, understandably alarmed about where she is. Joe reassures her she’s fine and nothing happened – and adds that hey, how about they hang out today? Get to know each other better, y’know?
Joe keeps his true motive under wraps – but so does Ann, who turns him down, and makes as graceful an exit as possible. But she’s not headed back to the embassy; she’s just out for a wander, exploring Rome on her stolen day off. Joe secretly tails her at first, taking notes as she samples small pleasures like a fancy new hairdo, a bit of gelato, a seat in the sun on the Spanish steps. He “conveniently” bumps into her again after a bit, this time with his buddy Irving (Eddie Albert) – a photographer friend he’s hastily summoned – and offers again to play tour guide.
Joe and Irving squire the ecstatic Ann on a grand adventure through Rome, exploring monuments and sipping champagne and nearly crashing a Vespa before the three head out dancing. Ann is getting pensive as night falls, knowing that she’ll have to return to her real life in the morning – and Joe, who’s been writing down their adventures, starts to have second thoughts about his expose – and about what he thinks about Ann.
The denouement is probably the most conventional bit of this film. You know that Joe’s probably not going to go ahead with his planned article, and that Ann and Joe would end up sweet on each other. But in another film they would have found a way to reconnect later; here, it’s pretty clear that this one day is all they’ll have. They do see each other one more time when Joe turns up in the press scrum at Ann’s rescheduled conference; but somehow both manage to say their lovers’ farewells, with Joe adding that their adventure will be just between them.
I’ll say it again – Hepburn is a queen. Or more accurately, she becomes one over the course of this movie. Her Princess Ann is an incredibly rich performance – the petulant fed-up Ann at the beginning of the film grows up into a regal presence by the end, able to command authority in her chaperones simply by giving a sidelong glance. And in between she is the ordinary girl living in the moment she desperately wants to be. Her smile when the hairdresser flatters her new haircut is radiant.
And Hepburn is funny. There are some early moments of physical comedy as Joe helps the dazed Ann to safety – but they’re not overly broad or slapsticky. They’re just….funny. Joe initially plans to have Ann sleep on his couch while he cozies down in his own bed – but things shake down quite differently, and it’s a masterwork of physical comedy.
Fortunately everyone involved seemed to realize just what a prize they had in Hepburn. During her screen test, director William Wyler suspected that she had a goofball side, and had the casting director capture some candid footage of her to go with the dignified audition scene she’d been given. It was the candid stuff that got Hepburn the role. Peck also loved working with her as well – the famous scene when Joe teases her at the “Mouth of Truth”, pretending his hand has been bitten off, was an ad-lib, because Peck suspected it would get a fabulously fun reaction out of Hepburn. Peck originally had star billing on the film, but was so impressed by Hepburn that he asked producers to move her smaller “Introducing Audrey Hepburn” credit to top billing in the credits. She’d earned it, he said.
Damn straight she did, because she is a queen.