Paris When It Sizzles was panned when released in 1964 and doesn’t exist in Audrey Hepburn’s diamond-encrusted canon as we know it today. No frame from the movie has been turned into decorative pop art. You probably won’t find a postcard with the image of Hepburn and William Holden dancing around a Paris hotel room to send home from your weekend in the French capital. I’m not sure why. This is a film as satisfying as smoked salmon and scrambled eggs.
Co-starring Tony Curtis, Noel Coward and with a cameo from Marlene Dietrich, Paris When It Sizzles is a grand old Hollywood piece. Studio projects like this still happen – grab the biggest names you can, turn on the camera and let them do what their thing. The formula works because cinemagoers find movie stars fun to look at, especially when filmmakers utilise familiar tropes and polish every shot with that expensive-looking sheen. But you wouldn’t find one of the Oceans movies tinkering with ideas as daring as director Richard Quine’s piece.
Paris When It Sizzles is actually a remake of the 1952 French film Holiday for Henrietta, but feels as pre-Easy Rider (1969) Hollywood as Brylcreem. It’s a studio vanity project that ridicules the whole idea of the studio vanity project. Holden plays an incredibly successful but jaded screenwriter who secures a huge advance on his next project. Instead of putting ink to paper, he wastes the cash on booze, hotel rooms and expensive food. It’s fun to imagine how well the pitch went down in the studio executives’ meeting room.
Selling his screenplay on the strength of the title The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower (sounds like a box office lock), Richard Benson (Holden) is left with just two days not just to write the film, but to come up with the whole concept. Enter Gabrielle Simpson (Hepburn), a secretary hired to type up to phantom script. A striking counterpoint to Benson’s cynicism, she’s pitched up in Paris just for the adventure. “Every morning when I wake up and I see there’s a whole new other day, I just go absolutely ape!” It’s enthusiasm to break the most hardened writer’s block.
Benson expresses his attraction to Simpson in his work. As he conceives the story on the fly, she types, and their movie unfolds right in front of us. “Cut to the Eiffel Tower. The main title. The trumpets segue into the inevitable title song,” dictates Benson as his vision comes to life. “Maybe we can get Sinatra to sing it.” Frank Sinatra’s booming voice immediately sounds. The pair picture themselves in the lead roles.
Paris When It Sizzles settles into two parallel arcs: Benson and Simpson’s working assignment-turned-love story, and that of the screenplay they forge together. There are false starts and rewrites in Benson’s vision, essentially tossing huge chunks of the film-within-a-film’s storyline. In a surreal sequence, Gabrielle shows her immatureness as a writer when she tries to move the story from a sharp spy thriller into a vampire caper. But there’s a smartness to the film’s quirks. Paris When It Sizzles knows that the creative process, like a burgeoning relationship, is never an uninterrupted straight line.
The movie takes you back-and-forth between narratives, but its self-aware streak hints at another off-screen layer. This is one, long, smartly-executed in-joke. You can almost see the smirk on the face real life screenwriter George Axelrod (adapting Julien Duvivier and Henri Jeanson’s original script) as he calls the very actors reciting his dialogue “highly-paid heads”. Axelrod even depicts of his own profession as one of playboys and hustlers. The experienced Benson can almost write a movie script from muscle memory. Paris When It Sizzles plays as smack down to Hollywood flicks that fall into the same formulaic tropes.
There’s nothing mechanical about Axelrod’s dialogue. These are prose too well formed not to be pre-written. No real human mind could funnel such snappy language from brain to vocal cords in real time. Hepburn and Holden burn up their monologues as easily as an Eiffel Tower souvenir stand hawks key rings.
That sense of heightened reality is further enforced when the duo dance to Fred Astaire’s “That Face”. Such a perfectly choreographed dance could never just happen, but that’s movie magic for you. Just go with it. (“Unfortunately Miss Simpson we are not writing a musical,” quips Benson as he lifts the needle from the record). Paris When It Sizzles openly celebrates film’s history as a form of fanciful escapism. Bonnie and Clyde would shotgun blast their way on screens just three years later, bringing with them a new Hollywood era of concrete-hard narratives and blood-in-your-mouth realism.
Paris When It Sizzles’ gentle touch is even more miraculous when you consider its backstory. Hepburn and Holden had first worked on Billy Wilder’s 1954 classic Sabrina. During production, the pair entered into a highly publicised affair that’s become the stuff of tabloid mythos. Some reports say a vasectomy that the then-married Holden had undergone years previously caused Hepburn to end the relationship before it progressed to something more serious. Whatever the case, the pair were sitting on a hoard of kerosene, stockpiled over a decade. If anything was sizzling it was the fuse.
None of that disturbed Paramount Pictures’ plans to replicate Sabrina’s success. The studio reportedly exercised an option on Hepburn and Holden’s contracts to force them to make the movie together. Hepburn was at this point married to actor Mel Ferrer (who has an anonymous cameo in the film). A still-heartbroken, hard-drinking Holden was a mess when he turned up for filming;
“I remember the day I arrived at Orly Airport for Paris When It Sizzles,” he’d later say. “I could hear my footsteps echoing against the walls of the transit corridor, just like a condemned man walking the last mile. I realised that I had to face Audrey and I had to deal with my drinking. And I didn’t think I could handle either situation.” Source
Holden spent much of the shoot in a drunken haze. Sometimes he’d arrive on set with his pet galago, a small African primate, perched on his shoulder. The planned final scene was never shot because the actor showed up with his arm in a splint, having crashed his sports car into a wall. As detailed in Edward Z. Epstein’s book Audrey And Bill, one night he climbed a tree outside Hepburn’s dressing room window. When she rejected his advances, it sent Holden off on another drunken lurch. Quine, who had experience directing him on The World of Suzie Wong (1960), remembered;
“Bill was like a punch-drunk fighter, walking on his heels, listing slightly, talking punchy. He didn’t know he was drunk.”
This is darkness I hope you never experience. If the closest you’ve come is from a cinema seat, consider yourself lucky. Whatever Holden’s state of mind, he held it together when the cameras were on. Channelling real emotions into his performance, the star’s on-screen chemistry with Hepburn pops and crackles. Paris When It Sizzles is two screen greats working off each other’s energy. Their spirits tangled in a passionate web – knotted together forever. 17 years after the film’s release, an intoxicated Holden would slip on a rug in his California home, cut his head on a table and bled to death.
Turmoil fuels the film’s performances. Most good movies speak to the human experience. This is one that celebrates the value of cinema in capturing that experience while itself bottling those identifiable feelings of lust, attraction and intimacy. It’s a love letter to celluloid that displays film’s true potency, all with a big screen bluster that’s undeniable. It’s time to take Paris When It Sizzles off the shelf.
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