Audrey Hepburn was the daughter of a British banker and a Dutch baroness and was raised in Holland, where she was trained as a dancer. She was a teenager during World War II, when Holland was occupied by the Nazis. After the war, she went to England where she started act on stage and in films. The author Colette, who had written Gigi, saw Hepburn when she was filming in Monte Carlo in 1951 and asked her to come to New York to star in the Broadway production of that play. William Wyler, the long-time Hollywood director, who had made movies starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, among others, chose her for the lead in Roman Holiday, the story of a young princess who sought freedom on a visit to Rome. The script had been written by Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted. It was credited to a front, Ian McLellan Hunter. Paramount, the studio that would make the film, agreed that Hepburn would make the film after her run in Gigi on Broadway.
Production took place from May through August, 1952. Filming Roman Holiday on location was a great deal of trouble. Wyler was used to shooting in the studio, not on location. Rome was of course a big city. Clearing streets to film was difficult. Trying to get the crowds that inevitably would watch the filming to be quiet was difficult. It was summer, and it was intensely hot. Shooting usually began at dawn and continued until after midnight. The film, and the performances of Hepburn, Gregory Peck and the supporting cast, show little of this, appearing lighthearted and effortless. The picture has the charm of a travelogue and made the film audiences of that day think they had visited the city.
Hepburn built a close relationship with Edith Head, who designed her costumes. Hepburn admired Head’s elegant and simple costumes; Head was fascinated not only by Hepburn’s athletic body but also by her charm and intelligence. For the princess’s incognito street apparel, Head chose a variation of Hepburn’s everyday clothing. Hepburn suggested a heavy leather belt to emphasize her thin waist. Head felt Hepburn was so professional that she had no doubt that she would become a big star.
William Wyler said, “As I saw the rushes, I had that rare gut feeling that I was witnessing something very special, indeed. She was a princess—she had so much poise, no doubt from her experience as a dancer and from her mother’s aristocratic background. But she was also every eager young girl who has ever come to Rome for the first time, and she reacted with so natural and spontaneous an eagerness that I, crusty veteran that I was, felt tears in my eyes watching her. Audrey was the spirit of youth – and I knew that very soon the entire world would fall in love with her, as all of us on the picture did.”
Audrey Hepburn won the best actress Oscar for this performance. The script also won a best script Oscar, which the Academy awarded posthumously to Trumbo in 1993. I hope you enjoy the charm of this picture as much as the audiences in 1953 did.