The classic film Roman Holiday starring the angelic Audrey Hepburn and the stern yet charming Gregory Peck is the romance film that set the precedent for all romantic comedies that have occurred for the past 50 years. Every romance film that is presented at the box office today is reminiscent of the perfect love story between Ann and Joe. Critics praise the captivating fairytale for its bittersweet, reverse Cinderella story. Bittersweet, because of the fitting yet oddly depressing ending given to the couple’s romance.
Wyler sets the audience up with an hour and a half of a blissful, too-good-to-be-true romance. Throughout the film, audiences smile to themselves as they watch the runaway princess slowly grow infatuated with the American reporter. The movie is filled with amusing antics and romantic moments that make viewers swoon with delight. Hepburn and Peck’s chemistry is electric, providing the sense that the character truly are falling in love.
However, unlike the endings of most films of the 1950’s, Wyler throws audiences for a loop. The ending of Roman Holiday is a bit unsettling, but strangely fitting. When watching it for the first time, I felt a sense of emptiness, a sense of dissatisfaction. I felt that the happiness of the characters somehow reflected my own, so when they were denied it I felt robbed. I had invested emotion into the love between these two characters for the entirety of the film, only to have it taken away. After witnessing the cliché aspects of romance that had bombarded the screen, I expected the film to end in the same cliché way.
As the princess comes down to greet the press, the audience can sense the tension between her and Joe. The characters look into each other’s eyes, which says more than the small exchange of words ever could. Viewers are practically on the edge of their seat, anticipating what they believe will inevitably be a happily ever after. As the scene continues, we see the hope slowly fade from Joe’s face as he realizes the love story is ending along with the audience. Wyler intentionally creates a long, moving shot walking along with Joe in order to keep the tiny hope that Ann will reappear alive. The lingering scene gnaws at the audience’s hopes with all its might, only to leave an empty and raw feeling when the credits appear on screen. The eloquent presentation of heartbreak sits on the audience, feeling cold, hard, and wrong.
That is exactly what makes the ending of Roman Holiday so brilliant. Audiences do not get the happy ending; there is no riding off into the sunset. It provides shock value that was not present in the usual romance films of the 1950’s. The audience expects to get a mouthful of blissful fantasy and leaves the film with a bad taste of realism. It’s an ending that you don’t want to see coming, but looking back is almost inevitable. The two star-crossed lovers fittingly drift out of each other’s life just like they drifted in.