TWO FOR THE ROAD clicked with audiences in 1967, a vibrant, keynote year for movies that saw them catering to changing mores with a slew of adult-minded fare. It was part of a one-two punch for admired leading lady and fashion icon Audrey Hepburn, Oscar- nominated that year for her good work in the thriller Wait Until Dark. She’s even better in this bittersweet comedy-drama; not a handicapped target of a psycho and some drug smugglers, but a heart-wounded victim of love’s accumulated injuries from time and the one closest to her. Dated in some aspects (five decades will do that, especially with ‘contemporary’ comedies), the insightful screenplay, clever framing and especially Hepburn’s top-tier acting makes it not merely classy nostalgia, but, if you’ve ever been in a rocky relationship, possibly painfully pertinent. “Where’s my passport?”
Written coldly acerbic by Frederic Raphael, directed by the lighter-treading Stanley Donen, over an incident-chock 111 minutes it traces a dozen years in a marriage. Using a non-linear, shifting collage of the couple’s quartet of trips through Southern France, in a variety of vehicles and circumstances, with an array of companions, it dissects and illuminates the ebb & flow of Romance vs. Reality. Through mostly superior editing, resilient ‘Joanna’ (Hepburn) and bumptious ‘Mark’ (Albert Finney) bond & bicker, make love & memories, drift & rift, hurt & heal.
There are flaws: the insertion of a frantic-speed segment is clumsy and obvious–too much like Laugh-In; the self-absorbed Americans (fastidious William Daniels, droning Eleanor Bron and hateful daughter Gabrielle Middleton) are cartoon-amusing but overdone (ever meet any obnoxious Euro or Asian tourists? I have). Now, we like our Albert Finney, but much more so in his latter period. Here, his ‘Mark’ is not only a jerk and a bore as written but Finney’s gruff monotone quickly becomes wearying.
While the brash Brit tries patience here on-screen, his presence, with its youth and vitality, seemed to energize and renew his co-star, who was undergoing her own bout of personal homelife travail. For both the comedy and the drama, it’s a winning suit for Hepburn. *
Though her frightened heroine from Wait Until Dark was on the Oscar roll that year, joining a superb lineup of strong female leads (Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, Edith Evans in The Whisperers), the Academy made a sentimental gesture and gave Best Actress to the other Hepburn, Katherine, for her decent-and-no-more work as a worried, long-married lady in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? Sorry, Kate, but Audrey’s wounded wedded lass is a much richer, more penetrating and affecting performance (so were all the others above, he hissed). Leaving the gamine princess & designer darling aura that had served so well in a score of roles since Roman Holiday, Hepburn’s ‘Joanna’ is more accessible and ‘normal’ than her other characters. With the fine writing and sensitive direction, she’s allowed range to dig deeper into her own life experience, to be funny and silly, ace scenes of spatting that show wit, timing and resilience, with mature, wise eyes that reflect anguish, longing, mirth and warmth. It’s her best ever. Finney’s brusque ‘Mark’ may plot the course, but She rules the road.
The elegance price tag came to something over $5,000,000, which included having six designers whip up the 29 outfits Hepburn graced over the course of the story. In a neat twist, the costumes are svelte yet believable for the character, so it’s not like a phony designer showpiece. That said, you could put Audrey Hepburn in a potato sack and she’d make it look good: grooviest outfit is a shiny black polyvinyl motorcycle trouser get-up. Her hairstyles, changing to reflect the story arc, are another fun aspect.
Critical reaction in the day was inexplicably blah: now they love it. Grosses came back with $12,000,000 and Raphael’s screenplay was Oscar-nominated. With Claude Dauphin, Georges Descrières, Jacqueline Bisset (on her way at 22) and Nadia Gray. Music by Henry Mancini (recognizably so), slick titles sequence courtesy Maurice Binder. **
* Rumors were flung about a fling, and Donen credited the 30-year old Finney with lightening up the actress (37), who, unless you count Tony Perkins in Green Mansions (Holy Mother of Gawd), had been primarily teamed with older men (Bogart, Holden, Fonda, Astaire, Cooper, Lancaster, Grant, Harrison). The two remained mum: class acts.
** Those vintage cars: Mercedes-Benz 230SL roadster, Triumph Herald, VW microbus, Ford Country Squire and an MG TD. Chic French locations include Saint Tropez, Nice, Cap Valery.