From Roman Holiday to Heaven Can Wait

Roman Holiday and Heaven Can Wait are very similar films, made 25 years apart. Beyond that they are both Paramount Pictures releases, both movies involve a romance where mistaken (or hidden, or misunderstood) identity plays a central role (in Roman Holiday, Gregory Peck as reporter Joe Bradley falls for the Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann, but Hepburn’s character doesn’t know that Peck’s character knows she’s a Princess; in Heaven Can Wait, Warren Beatty as Joe Pendleton living in Leo Farnsworth’s body falls for Julie Christie as activist Betty Logan, but Christie’s character doesn’t know that Beatty’s character is a football player living in an industrialist’s body). And both movies end in a press conference (of sorts), after which the plot resolves itself.

The two films end in very different ways, however: in 1953 in Roman Holiday, it was acceptable to have a movie end with the romantic leads forever apart (Gregory Peck takes that long, lonely walk into the credits, after a press conference during which he shares some of the most delightful “we know that we will forever be apart” body language ever captured on film), whereas by 1979 in Heaven Can Wait, a twist of fate leads the characters back together (“You’re the quarterback…?” says Julie Christie, realizing that the football player she’s met in the corridor is her reincarnated love).

Each is a perfectly wonderful and endearing ending, but the difference points out a trend that has only grown stronger in the intervening years, which is that modern audiences now demand satisfaction at the end of their movies: Meg Ryan must find Tom Hanks, ad infinitum. This is sad: it means that movies just snap out of a mold, have little romantic suspense; these movies teach us little about the delights of ephemeral experiences. Sometimes it’s okay that things don’t get resolved. Sometimes it’s better.