Journalism and celebrity collide in classic film

Wednesday, September 3, 2008 | 5:15 p.m. CDT; updated 5:21 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 3, 2008

COLUMBIA - In a famous scene of "Roman Holiday," Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn stand in front of "La Bocca della Verità," or the "Mouth of Truth." It's an ancient marble sculpture in the shape of a giant circle with a human image, possibly a pagan god, carved into it. The legend associated with the statue saysif you tell a lie while holding your hand in the mouth of the sculpture, your hand will be bitten off.

Peck holds his hand in the sculpture's mouth and pretends it has been bitten off, frightening and fooling Hepburn, who was not expecting it. The scene was ad-libbed and kept because the director, William Wyler, liked Hepburn's reaction so much.

At this point in the film, neither character is being completely truthful with the other. Peck has lied about being a reporter, and Hepburn has lied about being a princess.

"It's a central theme for the whole film," said W. Arthur Mehrhoff, academic coordinator of the Museum of Art and Archeology at MU. "It's a key scene in terms of the film. It's about truth. And the central question in journalism is: What is truth?"

"Roman Holiday" will be shown Friday as part of a free film series put on by the museum. The preference is to focus on classics not widely available, Mehrhoff said, and they also must relate in some way to an exhibit in the museum. "Roman Holiday" will be shown in conjunction with the opening of "Missouri through Lens and Palette."

"The exhibition features photojournalism and paintings of Missouri in the 20th century," Mehrhoff said. "The movie is a kick-off for the exhibition itself."

The showing of "Roman Holiday" also comes days before the Missouri School of Journalism centennial and dedication. Although it's primarily a romance, the movie does strike on themes in journalism. One is the relationship between someone in the public sphere and the reporter assigned to cover them.

Peck plays a reporter who stumbles upon a chance to write an intimate profile of a princess finishing her tour of Europe. Peck pitches the story as "the private and secret longings of a princess, her innermost thoughts as revealed to your own correspondent in a private, personal exclusive interview." According to his editor, a story like that could fetch $5,000 (in 1953).

Peck lets his photographer friend, played by Eddie Albert, in on the ruse, and soon the three are traveling around Rome. Unbeknownst to Hepburn, who plays the princess, Peck and Albert are documenting her every moment of freedom from her official duties.

"I think it was ahead of its time in looking at the violation of a person," Mehrhoff said.

For the majority of the movie, Peck is fully prepared to write behind Hepburn's back, taking the private affairs of royalty and making them public.

"The movie pulls at the heartstrings and shows a responsibility in journalism we no longer see," said Cathy Callaway, associate museum educator who is in charge of the film series. She refers to the seemingly endless coverage of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole Smith, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

"It really touches on the responsibility that the press has in using good judgment," said Bruce Cox, assistant director of museum operations. "There is a realization of the human condition."

Then, there is a moment in the movie at which romance has taken over and Peck's reporter has fallen for Hepburn's princess. Their time together must end, and she returns to her sovereign duties, he to his newsroom. Peck tells his editor there is no story, no intimate portrait of a royal on holiday. Albert decides not to sell the photographs of candid moments of the princess, opting instead to give them to her.

"Both realize they became aware of the person behind the position," Mehrhoff said.




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