Monday, November 23

Telling Moments

Listening to: "Audience Of One", Rise Against

I was talking with a friend a while ago, and we were discussing our favorite classic films and their best moments. Roman Holiday, of course, came up in this conversation. I can't say it's my favorite Audrey Hepburn film--that would be like picking my favorite star in the sky or my favorite sunset--but it's a film that everyone should see.

Especially writers, if only for the opening scenes.

You see, there's a moment of absolute brilliance in the opening scene. While discussing our favorite moments, my friend recalled the Mouth of Truth scene:

Which truly is great. Especially since, according to some sources, Gregory Peck ad-libbed the bit where his hand disappears, so Hepburn's reaction there is real.

The vespa scene is pretty darn good too, as she recalled:

And then there's the haircut scene, which reminds me of every time I've walked into a salon wanting a drastic change. "You sure? You sure?"

And of course, I can't find the scene I want on YouTube. But I'll describe it, for those who've never seen the film:

The Princess is visiting yet another city on a whirlwind goodwill tour. In Rome, as in the other cities, a formal reception is held. The Princess must stand for probably hours as the country's most important people come forward to meet her. A thrill for them, an obligation for her. In a formal gown, hair perfectly coiffed, she has everything a princess should: dignity, regal bearing, an inner calm that shows on the surface.

And her feet are killing her. The camera goes beneath her skirt to show her carefully slipping from her shoes and stretching her toes. This, right here, is the telling moment. Here we delve beneath the character's perfectly designed exterior to see what's going on inside. She's tired, she's feeling incredibly stifled, and the weight of her responsibilities is bearing down. Without a word from the princess, without even a change of expression on her part, we see everything we need to know.

This is a telling moment (don't confuse "telling" in this case with its usage in the popular adage "show, don't tell"--as we are, in fact, being shown quite deftly what's going on in her mind). It's a single action by a character used to tell us his or her state of mind.

And it's the most brilliant telling moment I can think of from film or literature. Perhaps that's why, out of all the wonderful moments in that film, that first scene is my favorite. It's a stroke of genius, and it's funny, to boot--as the princess loses control of the situation when she can't quite get her shoe back on before she's required to sit. So there sits her shoe, just beyond the hem of her gown, and her calm exterior is ever-so-slightly ruffled as she begins to panic. Her handlers do their job and handle the situation, as one of them asks her to dance and gives her the opportunity to quietly slip back into the shoe. But the audience knows, now, where the protagonist stands.

What do you think of this scene as a telling moment? Can you think of any particular moments like this, from film or literature, that so beautifully illustrate a character's starting point? And, most importantly--if you've seen Roman Holiday, what's YOUR favorite scene?


  1. I've never seen it, but now I must!!! I can't think of a scene like this offhand, but this post was definitely food for thought.


If you don't feel that you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then possibly what you are doing isn't very vital. If you don't feel like you are writing somewhat over your head, why do it? If you don't have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you are not trying to tell enough. --John Irving