Audrey Hepburn, er, ‘Week’…

Audrey HepburnFollowing Valentine’s Day — yes, I’m talking about way back in February — Channel 4 attempted a week of Audrey Hepburn films. Except for some reason they didn’t schedule one for Monday. And then Friday’s, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was replaced by delayed horse racing. And for my part, I forgot to record Thursday’s film, Funny Face.

So following Valentine’s Day, Channel 4 showed a pair of Audrey Hepburn films (that I saw). One of those I posted a while ago — it was Roman Holiday — but I’ve caught Funny Face since, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s on the racing-motivated repeat, so I’ve actually wound up with three Hepburn reviews to post. None are particularly long, so here they all are:

Then there’s Humphrey Bogart… At least his character is pretending to fall for [Hepburn] in order to get her away from his wastrel brother. But it actually feels very mean-spirited — Sabrina is likeable enough that we dislike his machinations. Which means that there’s no truly supportable lead character. Read more…


a surfeit of excellent humour, choreography, cinematography, light satire of both the fashion world and the intellectual world… Indeed, dishing out said satire in both directions means the film never comes across as either snobbish or anti-intellectual… it takes fair jibes at both equally. Read more…


this version is certainly more Hollywoodised. Some hate it, and I can see their point… but it is fun, and it’s plain to see why men and women alike have fallen for Hepburn’s Golightly. A more sordid adaptation of the book might be interesting, but that doesn’t negate the unique qualities of the film. Read more…


Pair this lot up with Roman Holiday and you can see plenty of connections, overlaps, similarities and juxtapositions between Hepburn’s roles… few of which I’ve drawn out in this set of reviews. Plenty of actors play the same character with tiny variations in multiple films; while Hepburn’s parts may not be poles apart (especially if you take Tiffany’s out of the equation), I’m sure the dedicated might find some interesting points to observe.

Some thoughts on star ratings

Last week’s run of films from 1953 got me thinking about a couple of things. Firstly, about coincidence — out of a pile of 20 unposted reviews, it happened to be those that were among the first few I had ready to post. But, more pertinently, it was the last two, and the scores I gave them — The Big Heatfour for The Big Heat, five for Roman Holiday — that gave me the most to mull over.

To put it simply, I wondered “why?” Why is The Big Heat only worthy of four stars and Roman Holiday worthy of five? They weren’t scored relative to each other — I watched them almost a month apart, and while I take forever to post my reviews I usually rate the films straight away — so this contrast hadn’t been thrown up before, and probably would never have been had I not happened to post them side by side.

The thing is, when considered against each other, The Big Heat is more my kind of film than Roman Holiday; if asked to pick a favourite, I’d probably choose the noir; I’d be more likely to buy it on DVD; I’d be more likely to watch it again. That’s nothing against Roman Holiday — it’s a great film — but, in direct comparison between just these two films, The Big Heat is more my kind of thing.

And yet, for all that, and having considered changing both scores, The Big Heat still has four stars and Roman Holiday still has five.

Putting The Big Heat up to five didn’t sit wholly easy, especially when I compared it to the scores I’ve given other noirs. This led me to wonder if I’m harsher on film noir because it’s a genre which, though I’m unquestionably still discovering it (most of those I’ve ever seen are reviewed here), Roman HolidayI have a good deal of affection for — and, therefore, expectation for its films. The same could be said of other favourite genres — action, thriller, etc.

Dropping Roman Holiday to four seemed wrong too, as if underrating it. This made me wonder if I was influenced by expectations — Roman Holiday is simply the kind of film one gives five stars too, thanks to Oscar wins and making a star of Audrey Hepburn and all that. I don’t think this is always an influence on me — I’m happy to give a respected film a slating if I disliked it, and vice versa — but when something sits borderline, I can be swayed by reputation.

Are star ratings just inherently rubbish? There’s a reason why reviewing publications from Sight & Sound to Doctor Who Magazine choose not to use them — and that’s in part because they invite instant, arguably invalid comparisons (such as the one I’m discussing). “Is W a whole star better than X?” “Are Y and Z actually worth the same score?” On many occasions the answer to such questions is “no”; that’s the inherent imprecision of having five possible scores and thousands of things that need scoring. By rating things with five stars the reviewer is placing them in broadly defined groups, and some will always be better than others within their group, and some will always be on the borderline — and some will get placed on the wrong side of it.

Many games magazines and websites using a percentage system (or they did in my day — several now seem to use an out-of-10 score… but merrily use decimal points, so it’s the same damn thing). I guess it’s an inbuilt cultural thing, because (other than an aggregate site like Rotten Tomatoes) Games reviews use percentagesI’ve never seen films reviewed with a percentage. Theoretically, this method allows for 100 different scores — much more precise. In practice, of course, the lower ones are rarely used and the tippity-top ones are seldom (if ever) reached. Partly this is because you find your ‘average’ review score sitting less at 50% and more at 70% or higher. I believe this is because (like almost any reviewed art form) the bulk of what one encounters has been polished enough to earn a higher score — the average quality of work is of above-average quality, if you will. It also makes the system more liable to awkward questions: give one thing 95% and another 96% and you provoke “is the second definitely superior” arguments you wouldn’t get if they both just had 5 out of 5. Arguments aren’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it does require one to be frighteningly precise when scoring.

I’m not convinced the answer is to ditch all forms of rating. Perhaps a skilled reviewer could always present a perfect balance between their pro and anti thoughts on a review subject, Full of starsbut I don’t think there are many of them about. Giving something a score stamps your opinion nice and clearly: there have been a good few reviews where I’ve mainly discussed the negative points of a film I’ve primarily liked, for whatever reason, and without the score at the end readers might get the wrong impression; I may even have penned a review or two where I’ve tried to draw out the positives from something I was giving a low score to. I’d wager this is true of most reviewers — it’s always possible for your text to be misinterpreted; for a reader to see a positive (or negative) bias, however balanced or actually-the-other you thought you were being.

That all said, a definitive summary sentence or paragraph would serve just as well — better, maybe — than a little line of stars. Hm.

I’m not going to ditch my star ratings, but this has caused me to have a good think about them. It’s clear the way I apply them is not always accurate (as if the fact I often include four-star films on my top tens while excluding numerous five-starers hadn’t made that clear), but — if only for my own satisfaction — I like the way they separate the bad from the good, the good from the great… however broadly.

Roman Holiday (1953)

2011 #21
William Wyler | 113 mins | TV | U

Roman HolidayRoman Holiday is the kind of film where its list of achievements don’t quite precede it — Best Picture nominee (it lost to From Here to Eternity), places on the IMDb Top 250, They Shoot Pictures’ 1000 Greatest and one of the AFI’s 100 Years lists — but something else certainly does: this is the film that made Audrey Hepburn a star.

So let’s start with Hepburn. Here she plays a European Princess on a world tour, for various diplomatic reasons, which is coming to an end in Rome. She’s not happy, running off to see the real Rome, and sending her entourage into a quandary as they try to cover up her disappearance. It’s a role that could easily be intensely irritating — the spoilt little brat who doesn’t know how good she has it / with no sense of responsibility — but Hepburn seems to be effortlessly likeable, and it’s easy to sympathise with the idea that seeing the sights and having fun in an iconic city is a lot better than meeting a bunch of stuffy old men.

Through various contrivances, the Princess winds up in the flat of journalist Joe Bradley, played by Gregory Peck. He initially doesn’t realise who she is; he’s helping her out by giving her a bed for the night — the fact he’s Fundamentally Kind will become important in a bit. The next day, when he sleeps in and misses his scheduled interview with the Princess, he twigs who she is and sets about a plan to secretly get a world-exclusive, roping in photographer friend Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert) to get candid shots of Princess and ice creamthe Princess as they take her on a day messing about in Rome.

So, essentially, Joe is conning her. He doesn’t let on that he knows the truth, keeping up the act that he thinks she’s a school runaway after a good time; he tricks her into it so he can get a story that will undoubtedly bring some degree of shame, shock and/or scandal to her family and/or country. His moral underhandedness occasionally undercuts the movie: they seem to be allowing her to finally do the things she wants to do, but all along he’s memorising quotes and Irving is secretly snapping away. It all works out in the end — realistically, and therefore, perhaps, surprisingly — but on the way there…

On the other hand — and without wishing to give too much away — morals do get the better of Joe and Irving, and they do often seem quite genuine in the way they help the Princess do what she wants, and they have a good time too (and not because they stand to be rolling in it if they pull it off); and, naturally, Joe ends up in love with the Princess and all that, and it does all work out in the end… It’s a matter of interpretation, perhaps. If you choose to focus on Joe’s ultimate aim — selling the story — then most of the film is a nasty trick. Princess and (Eddie) AlbertIf, instead, you remember that he’s Fundamentally Kind, it might be less troubling that he has a secret plan most of the time.

Morals aside, the cast work well together. The film is often painted as a Peck/Hepburn two-hander — easier to sell the romance angle that way — and I’m sure it would work as that, but Albert’s in it enough to qualify for attention, and is fairly essential to what makes it quite so likeable in my opinion. He and Peck carry much of the humour while Hepburn charms as a sweet girl finally allowed to be herself.

The bulk of the narrative is structured as a series of set pieces and individual sequences/moments, taking the cast from situation to situation: her scooter riding, cafe foolery, barge dancing/fight, and so on. In some ways, it’s just taking the audience along with them — there’s the Princess’ entourage trying to recover her and Joe formulating his story, but it’s more about the fun the characters are having doing whatever than the way it contributes to either of these plots. Wyler puts the genuine Rome locations to good use — and when you’re the first Hollywood film to be shot entirely in Italy, why wouldn’t you? It’s a cliché I know, but the city is as much a character as any of the cast.
Princess and stuffy old man
In spite of some characters’ moral underhandedness, Roman Holiday emerges as a very likeable film about, essentially, having a lovely time on holiday somewhere nice. Hepburn may not be as obviously iconic here as she would become thanks to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but I think it’s clear to see how she would become a beloved star.

5 out of 5

Roman Holiday is on More4 today, Thursday 23rd April 2015, at 10:50am.