William Holden Centennial
Today we reminisce about
Paris When It Sizzles (1964)
Directed by Richard Quine
Starring: William Holden & Audrey Hepburn, featuring Tony Curtis
The film follows renowned Hollywood screenwriter Richard Benson (Holden) and his newly employed typist Gabrielle “Gabby” Simpson (Hepburn) working together in Paris over the Bastille Day weekend. Given 20 weeks and a handsome sum of money to prepare a screenplay, Benson has accomplished nothing before his deadline. Instead, he has been living the high life by travelling, relaxing, and entertaining beautiful women. When Gabby arrives, she is astounded to learn that they only have two days to present a 180-page screenplay. They have little other choice that to start writing which they do whilst acting out the scenes as they go along. (The rest of the film becomes, in large part, a film-within-a-film.) This all builds up to whether or not there will be a completed product just in time.
1964 was a mixed year for Paramount. They had a few notable successes with Zulu, Becket and The Carpetbaggers, though their disappointments were more highly numbered. Olivia de Havilland in Lady in a Cage, John Wayne in Circus World, Sophia Loren in The Fall of the Roman Empire, and Elvis Presley in Roustabout –– all once big office names and draws who failed to bring in audiences at the same time as boring critics to no end. The same can be said of Paris When It Sizzles, “a dreadful remake of the 1955* French comedy (La fête à Henriette) which itself was nothing to set the Seine on fire, but at least had charm.”
It is unclear why Paramount decided to go ahead with making this film and moreover, why the studio was so adamant about Holden and Hepburn taking the lead roles. Both of them were at the end of their respective contracts, being literally forced into doing the film by studio executives. Nine years beforehand, Holden and Hepburn enjoyed an intense love affair on the set of their film Sabrina. Although Holden was married (and had the reputation of being an insatiable womanizer), Hepburn seriously considered turning their relationship into something more than just forbidden trysts. She broke things off when she was made aware that Holden could no longer father children and got married a few years later to fellow actor Mel Ferrer. Rumour had it that Holden never got over Hepburn, always carrying a torch for her. Now, Holden and Hepburn had no choice but to face their skeletons when it came to seeing each other and working together again, with Holden having separate issues arise during production. There would be no duplication of the magic experienced in 1954.
Paris When It Sizzles has really little to do with the City of Lights and there is nothing hot or flashing about the goings-on of the film. It was advertised as a romantic comedy but it is far from it, being quite difficult to categorise. The plot is introduced but then it goes nowhere, unable to grow into a blossoming story and leaving the viewer confused as to what is happening. There seems to be a lot of running around especially in regards to Holden and Hepburn who appear to be chasing each other. I suppose the film’s most troublesome issue, among others, is that every part of it is uneven: the pace, the reactions of the characters, the direction of the story, and so on. One minute, Gabby is wide-eyed and open-mouthed in reaction to Benson’s sexual innuendo; another minute, she is succumbing to his warm kisses and embrace. Considering Holden and Hepburn’s past history, you cannot help but to wonder if they did not have some pent-up sexual tension that translated onto the big screen. Production troubles also besieged the film and caused delays, in particular with William Holden who had had to be temporarily removed so that he could receive in-patient treatment for his alcoholism. This resulted in Tony Curtis being brought in to fill in for an absent Holden. Curtis was initially written in as a cameo but he went on to play two minor characters (yes … two). His presence in either role is a bit odd as is how he chose to act them out. His behaviour is rather kitsch and extremely cheesy. Here is what Curtis had to say about his experience:
Paris—When it Sizzles didn’t have much of a story, which turned out to be helpful when they had to write me in at the last minute. I did a good job, but having me in the movie didn’t turn it around.”**
Some moviegoers defend this film, calling the dialogue ingenious and saying that it reflects the inner workings of Hollywood and the business of movie-making. It is true that numerous in-jokes are cracked throughout the film about the actors’ careers themselves but the intentional overplay of the characters make it less humorous. Imagine Jerry Lewis doing physical slapstick comedy all the while using a language made-up of irony and metaphors. You would not know where to put your attention and some part of the message would be lost. This is the unfortunate reality of the crazy mess that is Paris When It Sizzles.
* The Paramount Story: The Complete History of the Studio and its 2,805 films by John Douglas Eames, 1985. La fête à Henriette was made in 1952, not 1955.
** American Prince: My Autobiography by Tony Curtis with Peter Golenbock, 2008
Having aged considerably since his role in Sabrina, Holden looked well older than his 45 years of age. Many times, there was too much gel in his hair and he appeared dishevelled, much in need of a bath. Other times, he was better groomed and seemed more refreshed. This see-saw effect can be attributed to him having bad booze days then coming back from his treatment quasi-sober. In any case, Holden still flaunted himself around like an irresistible Casanova. It was particularly sad to see him shirtless or with several of his top buttons undone to show off his hairy chest when he clearly had lost much of his physical appeal. Holden had seen better days and fortunately for him, he would rise again several years down the road. I am sure that he would not mind forgetting about Paris When It Sizzles himself.
- Filmed and scheduled to be released in 1963 but production setbacks made it so that is premiered in 1964, many months behind schedule. The film’s copyright is indicated as having been established in 1963 and that year is also marked on posters and other merchandise.
- Though Audrey Hepburn claims that she had a great deal of fun during production, this is her least favourite film from her own body of work.
- Holden’s drinking would incur an even darker downward spiral after the film’s completion. A little over two years afterwards, he would receive a suspended sentence for vehicular manslaughter after provoking an accident while drunk driving in Italy, killing a 42-year-old man.