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Two charming movies ask a vital question -- is it better to be or not to be a princess?

Published August 5, 1998 5:16PM (EDT)

A few years back I was walking around Boston's Back Bay one bitterly cold
winter night when I came upon an unusual display in a video store window.
All of the glass had been covered up except for a square peephole behind
which a magnifying glass had been placed. Looking in, you'd see whatever
movie was playing on the monitor, blown up large. I hesitated. How could I
know what I'd see? What if I peered in and saw something terrible, like
Tippi Hedren being pecked bloody by a flock of crazed birds, or that damned
baby carriage rolling down the Odessa Steps in "Potemkin"?

Sometimes, though, a gamble pays off. I stepped up to the peephole, looked
in and was greeted by the vision of Sleeping Beauty -- Audrey Hepburn, to
be exact, fast asleep at the beginning of "Roman Holiday." Then, she opened
her eyes, and I felt like she was looking right at me.

Directed by William Wyler with his customary unfussy taste and submerged,
meticulous style, "Roman Holiday" is a romantic fantasy that never takes a
wrong step. Even that tower of stolidity, Gregory Peck, shows some lively,
cynical wit as the male lead. "Roman Holiday" wouldn't exist, though, if it
weren't for Audrey Hepburn. The credits claim to be "introducing" her, even
though she'd shown up in movies before that (you can spot her as the young
lovely who snuggles up to Alec Guinness in the opening scene of "The
Lavender Hill Mob"). "Roman Holiday" made Hepburn a star (and won her an
Oscar), and no movie better captures the charm of this swan-necked sylph.

"Roman Holiday" is probably the most famous princess movie ever made, and
the most unusual since the subject is how stifling it is to be a princess.
Hepburn plays Ann, the princess of an unnamed European nation who goes AWOL
during a state visit to Rome and spends her 24 hours of freedom with an
American reporter (Peck) and his photographer buddy (Eddie Albert, doing an
ingratiating job playing Hollywood's idea of a beatnik). The reporter
pretends not to know who she is (he's hoping for an exclusive,
no-holds-barred story) and she has no idea what he does. But the couple's
romance takes a back seat to the love story between Hepburn,
and her precious stolen freedom.

Wyler shot the movie entirely on location and assembled some distinguished
collaborators. The photography is by Henri Alekan (who took over when Franz
Planer became ill), who shot Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast," and the music
was composed by Georges Auric, who wrote the score for that Cocteau film,
as well as the likes of "Rififi," "The Wages of Fear" and "The Mystery of
Picasso." There are beautiful views of the spots you'd expect (like the
Coliseum), and also back streets, cafes and outdoor dance halls. We simply
follow Princess Ann, the most elegant fish out of water ever, as she
experiences the (to her) unknown joys of getting her hair bobbed, ordering
a gelato to cool off and smoking her first cigarette while watching the
city from a cafe table.

Hepburn's subdued, stylized hysteria in the first scenes (when she feels
strangled by her nonstop duties) gives way to a continually surprised
delight, then to a creeping sadness as she knows her holiday must end and
finally to an acceptance of her role accompanied by a new assertion of
independence. For a romantic Hollywood entertainment, "Roman Holiday" is
awfully bittersweet. It presents a concentration of the disappointment we
all feel toward the end of our holidays and makes us imagine what that
would feel like if we knew we'd get only one holiday in our lives. You wish
somebody had given a cassette of this picture to Diana before she went
ahead with her marriage.

While "Roman Holiday" is the story of a princess who dreams of being an ordinary
girl, 1994's "Princess Caraboo" is the flip side, the tale of a seemingly
ordinary girl whom everyone wants to believe is a princess. The director,
Michel Austin (who co-wrote the screenplay with John Wells), based the film
on a true story. Phoebe Cates plays a young, turbaned girl picked up for
vagrancy in the English countryside in the early 19th century, a time when
being poor was enough to land you in jail. She speaks an unintelligible
language, and eventually her story is interpreted as follows: She's the
princess of some far-off island who, after being kidnapped into slavery by
pirates, effected a daring escape and made her way to England. An
upper-class woman (Wendy Hughes) who abhors the way her society treats the
poor takes the girl in, proclaiming her Princess Caraboo (the name comes
from the word the girl uses to denote herself).

This wish-fulfillment fantasy is both sweet -- because everyone is eager to
believe a princess is in their midst, even the Irish journalist (Stephen
Rea) who sets out to debunk her -- and sly because it gently satirizes the
very idea of royalty. What better place than the movies to put forth the
idea that the people who rule our hearts do so because of charm and
charisma rather than bloodlines?

"Princess Caraboo" has some choice supporting roles for the likes of John
Lithgow -- touching as only someone truly silly can be, playing an expert
convinced Caraboo is a fake but winding up thoroughly smitten by her -- and
Kevin Kline, who struts through the movie in an embroidered pillbox fez as
Hughes' Greek servant. Kline, speaking in some indeterminate accent, is
hilarious in the way Erik Rhodes was in the Astaire/Rogers movies.
Convinced that Caraboo is a phony, he dismisses her as a "'feelthy beggar'
and then, as he ladles out her first course at dinner, whispers to her, "I
a-know you are a fraud and I a-speet in your sopp."

Every princess movie needs a princess with spirit and Cates more
than fits the bill. Cates' movie appearances have become infrequent, and
she's never quite been accorded the respect she deserves. She's a
fastidious actress, though, and I've never seen her give a bad performance.
"Princess Caraboo" revolves around the question of is-she-or-isn't-she and
Cates doesn't give anything away. Climbing up to the roof to pray,
preceding every pronouncement with graceful and utterly baffling hand
gestures, being allowed to sit in with the men during cigars and brandy (if
she can't understand a word, what harm can it do?) or dancing with the
prince regent, she's a grand masquerader with a mischievous spark barely
detectable behind her porcelain features. And Cates knows how to get right
to our emotions, as she does when she suddenly breaks down listening to a
Schubert concerto. "Princess Caraboo" is a lovely, sweet-tempered
entertainment. Little girls may be especially taken with it. It recasts
their princess fantasies as the grandest make-believe of all.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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