Friday, April 18, 2008

Dov'è Gregory Peck?

A year ago today, I was visiting Rome for the first time. It was spring break in France, and I chose to take a bus tour of Italy with a group of French people (I assumed most of them would be students; they weren't). Rome was our last stop, after Pisa, Florence and Siena.

Now, thanks to a lifelong love of Audrey Hepburn and a pirated videocassette from my grandfather, I've seen Roman Holiday so often I've practically memorized it. Some of its lines have even become catchphrases in my house: we say "You have my permission to withdraw" when we want to make someone go away, just as Princess Ann (Audrey) does in the movie. The bus tour gave us only two days in Rome, but look how much fun Audrey had in half that time! So I was determined to hit the same tourist spots that she did (and you can imagine my disappointment when we got to the Mouth of Truth fifteen minutes after it closed).

I always seem to get a sunburn on the first sunny days of the year, and I got a pretty bad one in Rome, from hanging out too long by the Trevi Fountain and on the Spanish Steps. But I simply had to go to the Spanish Steps and eat a gelato, like Audrey in the movie! Since Gregory Peck was nowhere to be found (nor Eddie Albert with that funny camera concealed in his cigarette-lighter), I had to attempt to take a picture of myself and my rapidly melting gelato:

After I finished the gelato, I sat on the Steps and found a discarded copy of Le Monde. It was a special issue devoted to the French presidential elections (which were happening in a few days) so I read it with interest. Then a young man approached me. He was decidedly not a handsome, well-tailored Gregory Peck type. He was a weedy-looking little punk in a baggy T-shirt; the kind who trolls the tourist districts looking for young foreign women.

He saw my Le Monde and asked "Francese?"

I took a deep breath. I did not feel like launching into a complicated explanation about being an American studying in France. The last thing I wanted was more attention from this guy. I assumed that the word "American" is catnip to these men's ears, whereas if I were actually French, he might leave a fellow European alone. I'd been in France for over three months by this point, and knew enough about the country to make up a convincing lie about living there, if need be. I'd been developing a good French accent and conversation skills, and assumed that I knew more of the French language than he did. So, even if it were a lie, pretending to be French might be the simplest solution...

"Oui," I said.

And he left me alone! My plan had worked!

On the long bus ride back to France, I ended up watching Roman Holiday yet again--or, I should say, Vacances romaines, because they showed the French-dubbed version. While I missed hearing some of Audrey's line readings (she won the Oscar for it after all), I didn't find it incongruous that her character spoke French. Audrey practically seems French anyway--so petite and refined, and half of her movies take place in Paris.

But when it comes to Gregory Peck, that's another story. His character, Joe Bradley, is supposed to be the quintessential American newspaperman, so it doesn't work if he speaks French and calls himself "Zhoh Broad-lay." Also, in the script, Joe is slightly disreputable: having gambled away his money, he plans to sell Princess Ann's story to the newspapers. But because Gregory Peck, that icon of decency and moral fiber, plays Joe, he remains likable throughout. Speaking French, however, Joe becomes downright sleazy. When Ann wakes up in Joe's bed, wearing his pajamas, the French-language dubber puts a salacious spin on "Zhoh"'s lines. This one little change causes the movie to lose a great deal of charm.

Yes, Gregory Peck was one-of-a-kind, and though I hoped to run into a modern version of him on the Spanish Steps, that seems unlikely, these days.

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