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In 1964, Paramount reteamed Audrey Hepburn and William Holden in their second film together, hoping to repeat the enormous success of Sabrina (1954) ten years earlier. Taking its title from the Cole Porter tune "I Love Paris," Paris When It Sizzles was a revised remake of the French film La Fete Henriette (1952). William Holden plays a scriptwriter more focused on drunken carousing than writing. When faced with a do-or-die deadline, he hires Audrey Hepburn as his assistant and together they blur the lines between reality and fantasy as they imagine themselves as various characters from the script, ultimately falling in love. This colorful storyline, however, couldn't compete with the behind-the-scenes drama; Holden played his inebriated role to the hilt while carrying an unrequited torch for Hepburn - and that's just for starters.
The actor's alcoholism was well known in the industry, but his drinking was the worst during production on Paris. Director Richard Quine, who had directed (and handled) Holden well in The World of Suzie Wong (1960) was stunned at the downward spiral of his leading man, recalling, "Bill was like a punch-drunk fighter, walking on his heels, listing slightly, talking punchy. He didn't know he was drunk." Holden further exacerbated his eccentric behavior by showing up to call in the mornings, already intoxicated with his pet of an African bush baby, a small nocturnal primate, perched on his shoulder! Quine began to keep closer tabs on his high-maintenance star in an attempt to keep him out of trouble, even going so far as renting the house next to Holden's in order to keep an eye on him.
Holden's out-of-control drinking was undoubtedly being partly driven by the mere presence of his costar. It was widely reported that Holden fell headlong for Hepburn during the filming of Sabrina; indeed, she still received the occasional phone call and bouquet of flowers from him years later despite being married to Mel Ferrer. Holden once confessed, "I remember the day I arrived at Orly Airport for Paris When It Sizzles. I could hear my footsteps echoing against the walls of the transit corridor, just like a condemned man walking the last mile. I realized that I had to face Audrey and I had to deal with my drinking. And I didn't think I could handle either situation."
Toward the end of the shoot, Quine finally convinced Holden to undergo a one-week treatment. While he was away, producer George Axelrod convinced Tony Curtis to fly in for an extended cameo-a half-ditch attempt to rescue the failing production. Mel Ferrer and none other than Marlene Dietrich were also recruited for brief guest star appearances. Holden's bio, Golden Boy, relays a priceless anecdote about the diva: "...Axelrod had engaged Marlene Dietrich for a guest appearance requiring a half-day's work. The scene called for her to emerge from a limousine and enter a fashion salon to choose a fur coat. As Holden was conversing with Axelrod outside the salon, the assistant director emerged to report concernedly, 'We're in trouble; Miss Dietrich wants to keep the coat-and it's a white ermine!' Axelrod said confidently, 'Don't worry, I can handle this.' He returned white-faced from his conversation with Miss Dietrich and announced, 'She gets the coat-and the limo.'"
Hepburn caused a little drama of her own, demanding the dismissal of cinematographer Claude Renoir after viewing what she deemed to be highly unflattering dailies. Renoir, grandson to the Impressionist master Pierre-Auguste and nephew of legendary director Jean, was regarded as Parisian royalty; and as Quine pointed out, "...firing a Renoir is tantamount to treason in France, so the unions raised hell and threatened to go on strike." Renoir, however, was extraordinarily gracious, even negotiating with the unions to allow Charles Lang to come over as his replacement. Lang, who photographed Sabrina, not only knew his star subject well but how best to film her. Her major aesthetic obsession? A crooked front tooth. Hepburn was also superstitious, requesting dressing room 55 specifically upon arriving in Paris for filming-she had the same number room for both Roman Holiday (1953) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and believed 55 was her lucky number. In a diva moment of her own, Hepburn also commanded a credit for her long-time designer, Hubert de Givenchy, not only for her wardrobe but for her scent as well!
Playwright Noel Coward was featured in a bit role; in his diary he commented, "[Axelrod] hurried the script to me, is effective although tiny, but I am being paid $10,000 and all luxe expenses, so I said yes. I think it will be rather fun." He later describes Holden as "off the bottle and looking fifteen years younger." To be fair, however, Coward was only on the set for three days!
After his stint in rehab, the producers were hopeful that Holden could keep out of trouble until the shoot wrapped. With one sequence remaining to be filmed, however, Holden announced he was leaving town one weekend to pick up a new Ferrari. True to form, he returned with his arm in a splint: he crashed the sports car into a wall. Quine cut short the last scene. Miraculously, Holden's shenanigans were largely kept out of the press but the film ended up crashing anyway. Critics uniformly panned it and audiences didn't fall for the once-powerful Holden/Hepburn combination this time. Over the years, however, the film has earned a reputation as a guilty pleasure for those who enjoy in-joke movie spoofs and an absurdist storyline played out against the glorious backdrop of the City of Light.
Producer: George Axelrod, Richard Quine, John R. Coonan, Carter De Haven, Jr.
Director: Richard Quine
Screenplay: George Axelrod, Julien Duvivier (story), Henri Jeanson (story)
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Film Editing: Archie Marshek
Art Direction: Jean d'Eaubonne
Music: Nelson Riddle, Lew Spence
Cast: William Holden (Richard Benson), Audrey Hepburn (Gabrielle Simpson), Gregoire Aslan (Police Insp. Gilet), Raymond Bussieres (Francois), Christian Duvaleix (Maitre d'Hotel), Noel Coward (Alexander Meyerheim).
by Eleanor Quin