This is the sixth post in a series in which I explore what classic film actresses in iconic roles can teach us — and, more particularly, teach my now two fast-growing daughters — about the seven classic virtues. These posts follow the order of the virtues that Dante encounters in his journey up through Purgatorio. The first post was on humility and Ingrid Bergman’s character in Casablanca. The second was “Jean Arthur and Virtue of Kindness.” The third post examined the power of meekness through Donna Reed’s character in It’s A Wonderful Life. The fourth post was “Katharine Hepburn and Zeal.” The fifth post was on charity and Myrna Loy’s character in The Thin Man.
By Sarah Cornwell
Audrey Hepburn’s performance as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday artfully shows the full meaning of the virtue of temperance. Practicing temperance prevents one from falling into its opposing vice, gluttony. Both the virtue and the vice are often misunderstood, where temperance can be thought to apply exclusively to abstaining from alcohol and gluttony to overeating. As Dante shows on the sixth terrace of purgatory, the meaning of each is both more nuanced and more broadly applicable. Dante’s examples of temperance illustrate a particular form of self-control whereby one discerns appropriate proportion based on the situation at hand. His examples of gluttony reject that any such discernment of proportion and context is necessary and embrace a form of self-indulgence where the glutton can fool himself into thinking “Where’s the harm?” or even, “I deserve this.” Hepburn as Princess Ann knows better, and, through watching the temperate path that she walks through Roman Holiday, we know better, too.
Hepburn as the young Ann is a princess from an unnamed European country who, while on a diplomatic tour of Italy, has an emotional breakdown brought on by the pressure of a confining life in the public eye. She decides to sneak out of her rooms for a little bit of freedom, but then promptly falls asleep on a public bench after the sedative which her doctor has forced upon her kicks in a little late. Gregory Peck plays an expat American reporter who finds her, supposes her to be intoxicated, and in gentlemanly fashion helps her back to his apartment to allow her to sleep it off. It’s only the next day that he realizes he’s got a missing princess in his apartment and quickly offers to sell an exclusive interview to his editor for a large sum of money. He enlists the help of a photographer to follow him around as he shows Hepburn around Rome. Hepburn thinks Peck believes her cover story, that she’s a school girl who ran away for a bit of fun. She initially is reluctant to accept Peck’s offer, but agrees to take the day and relish being a nobody rather than a royal. There are many famous scenes from this little tour, like visiting the Mouth of Truth, riding a vespa the wrong way through heavy Roman traffic, and getting into a teeny tiny brawl on a barge when some rather shady agents try to forcibly take Hepburn back to the palace. Yet, by the evening’s end, she chooses of her own free will to take back the mantle of her responsibility and return to her duty. She took this one day of freedom for a rather harmless rebellion (if you don’t count lightly hitting someone over the head with a guitar) and it was sufficient. Her self-control was strong enough so that she could have a taste of freedom without slipping into unrestrained self-indulgence.
Dante gives numerous examples of self-restraint and shows that practicing temperance in this way not only takes considerable strength, but also, surprisingly, bestows it in return. This is illustrated by Gideon’s army of 300 men. Gideon’s army was massive, and God commanded that the number be greatly reduced so that any victory over the Midianites would not be mistaken as anything other than the will of almighty God. After an initial cull, God commanded Gideon to lead the army down to the water. Nearly all of the 10,000 parched soldiers knelt down and put their faces to the water to drink their fill. Only 300 scooped a little water into their hands to sparingly lap it up. They had a few sips, but not more. Anyone who has ever been extremely thirsty can recognize the strength that this would take, not to gulp down as much water as the body craves. These 300 men were chosen and given sufficient strength to rout the Midianites, who were many times more numerous. Then there is the example of Daniel, who, while in exile, chose a restricted diet of vegetables and water rather than transgress against God’s dietary laws by partaking of the king’s meat and wine. Daniel was strong in his self-restraint, and his temperance made him noticeably stronger and healthier when all expected it to make him weaker. When it comes to practicing temperance, strength is its cost, but also its reward.
One can see this in the way Hepburn’s character grows in strength by the end of the movie. In the beginning, she is understandably run off her feet with public engagements in which every word she utters, every stitch of clothing she wears, every polite gesture is dictated by someone else. No one said being a royal would be easy. When she has her emotional breakdown, it resembles a child throwing a tantrum with no control over her body or her words. She melodramatically throws herself about on her bed, shouting that she’s dying. At the end of the movie, she is poised and tactfully assertive in her own judgments. She goes “off script” in her remarks, allowing herself an opinion that still naturally falls within the bounds of dignity of one representing the royal family and her entire nation. It is clear that she will competently and gracefully perform the role into which she was born, but she can be relied upon to make some of her own judgments. She will no longer behave like a child, so it is no longer necessary to be treated like one.
Just as Gideon’s 300 men were a model of self-restraint, Hepburn was able to slake her thirst with only a few small drops. Like David, she chose a restricted diet — 24 hours of freedom — over a self-indulgent insistence that she needed more than that to survive. Such a restricted diet does not mean no sweetness at all, however. Temperance need not be boring or bland. Within that restricted diet, Hepburn enjoyed a little “sugar” along the way — she just didn’t gorge herself. Hepburn and Peck exchange two sweet kisses, but then that’s it. In the beginning, she expresses interest in being a little sexier, saying her nightgown and her underwear make her seem like an old lady. She prefers to sleep in pajamas — just the top part. Yet these two kisses turn out to be enough. There is no need for a “when in Rome” throw-self-control-to-the-wind attitude for a movie — or indeed a life — to be sweepingly romantic. Temperance allows for sweetness. John the Baptist is another of Dante’s temperate examples, and even he had a little (literal) sugar in his diet.
Just as temperance can allow for a little sugar, so too can it allow for a little wine. It depends on the context. In most of Dante’s examples, the virtuous abstain from wine. In addition to Daniel’s abstention, Dante includes the Roman women who were not allowed to drink wine, the implication being that this form of abstinence made them virtuous. If temperance is about self-control, wine can weaken that resolve and the consequences can extend far beyond a hangover the next day. To illustrate this, Dante includes the myth of the centaurs who became drunk on wine at a wedding and tried to drag off the bride. Harmless debauchery is an oxymoron. Even for those who are not suffering from the terrible devastation of addiction, alcohol consumption can harm our ability to guard our words and actions, preventing us from being temperate in all things as we are called to be.
It is logical that abstinence from wine is lauded; yet, Dante reminds us, it is not always necessary. Indeed, leaving room for obvious exceptions like alcohol addiction, there are specific circumstances when wine is preferable to water. As one of his key examples of temperance, Dante includes Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana. Mary tells Jesus the wedding party has no wine, following which Jesus changes six jars of water into wine. Dante is quick to note that Mary’s motivation wasn’t because she wanted a glass of wine and was bummed that the happy couple had run out, but she wished to honor the wedding feast and make it complete. Jesus’ first miracle brought wine to a wedding, and in the sacrament of his body and blood, wine is used to give a foretaste of the wedding feast between Christ the bridegroom and his bride the Church. This is to emphasize that certain indulgences — a little sugar or a little wine — are still to be consumed with the self-restraint shown in any eating and drinking. Jesus changed six jars into wine; he didn’t provide an open bar. It was enough to gladden the heart, but not enough to willingly erode good judgement and jeopardize upright actions.
Hepburn’s Princess Ann, though a little immature in the beginning, eventually understood the importance of self-control and appropriate proportion based on context. Though she partook sparingly, Hepburn didn’t get drunk on her new freedom. She soberly decided to return to her life of service. It is a privileged life to be sure, but it is also an extremely restrictive one where she serves a family and a nation larger than herself. Many of us are not royalty, but we too are called to lives of service in which we represent a family and nation larger than ourselves. We are the body of Christ and emissaries from the City of God to the City of Man. We may be tempted at times to run away and indulge in all that this world has to offer, perhaps even believing that we deserve it and need it to be happy. We might embrace the lie that the only one that could come to harm is ourselves — as if that in and of itself were permissible — while not recognizing the way others in our Christian family depend on us. It takes much self-restraint to sip rather than chug. This is particularly true with wine, where large gulps can quickly overcome the head if we are not controlled in our consumption. Wine is designed to loosen our inhibitions, and when proportion in context are not kept at the forefront of a relatively sober mind, we can end up hurting ourselves or others. Like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, we should allow our self-controlled consumption of the sweet and the intoxicating make us that much more prepared to assume our lives of self-sacrificial duty, rather than tacitly believe in the lie that petulant self-indulgence is a victimless and ultimately a harmless vice.