Spoiler Warning: This post divulges the entire plot of Roman Holiday.
"I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live."
Audrey Hepburn and I once lived together. And oh the sex we had. Okay, not really, but our existences did overlap for a few years - almost a decade in which it was at least physically possible (if nothing more) for me to be in her presence. There was a stretch of time in which I could have sent her a fan letter (as letters were still written, then) and expected a response - a stretch of time in which we could have been watching the same episode of Murder She Wrote or I could have somehow touched her life by some strange stroke of the Butterfly Effect.
But the Audrey Hepburn I fell in love with about 8 seconds into my first viewing of Breakfast at Tiffany's... we were never even in the same dimension. That Audrey Hepburn was a fever dream even in her own time, distant and impenetrable in a way possible only for our most iconic movie stars. But like all things, she was always more potent as an apparition - a collective reverie that can't be bottled. And I don't think there's a sequence in any of her films that captures the sad and private sweetness of myth and memory better than the ending of William Wyler's Roman Holiday.
"Rome. By all means, Rome."
Roman Holiday is a film that understands that things in life will never be as good as they are right before the credits roll. That's a feeling you can't get back, and Wyler just drowns you in it. Gregory Peck is expatriate American reporter Joe Bradley, and he's had the tremendous fortune of having the tabloid story of a career fall into his lap. That story is the spirited Princess Ann of Wherever (we'll call it Genovia), played by Hepburn as a sweetly naive and endlessly curious girl whose strict royal duties have kept her at bay from the world. Upon discovering her identity, Joe enlists a photographer friend and together they take her on a whirlwind tour of Rome. But Joe doesn't only steal some photos, he also steals (wait for it) Ann's heart, and can't bring himself to tell her that he's just another sneaky newsman or that he even knows her true identity. Ann - understanding that her royal responsibilities demand that she not pursue this love or life - returns to her embassy in time for her climactic press conference.
And make no mistake, this scene will mess with your sh*t in a big way. Wyler dumps all of the inevitable rom-com reveals that usually cap the 2nd act into the film's final moments, and does so in a situation during which his star-crossed lovers can't openly express their feelings. Joe's coded assurance that he won't sell the photos is handled beautifully, but it's the handshake line that kills me. Wyler's masterstroke is that he accepts the need for close-ups and inserts when the Princess meets the photographer, but refuses to privilege the moment when she meets Joe, reverting back to the same deeply focused shot in which we've seen the Princess introduce herself to the other members of the press. She and Joe shake hands and formally introduce each other, and then the camera just casually dollies back to reveal the next reporter on the press line. The distance between Joe and the Princess is never greater than when they're holding hands.
Wyler gives Hepburn her close-ups once she re-takes the stage, but then she just walks out of Joe's life - the girl's got a schedule to keep. And then Joe waits as the room clears out. He waits for Ann to come back. And when he gives up, we wait for him. And then the music swells and we realize they're never going to see each other again. But as Joe turns for one last glimpse he knows that while their story is over, only now can he begin to savor it.
Sorry to go all saccharine on you, but sweet damn I love this movie. Somebody come hold me.