On May 4, I thought about Audrey Hepburn, who was born on that date in 1929. If she had lived, she would have just turned 85. That’s hard to imagine, given what a charming gamine she made in films like Roman Holiday (1953), Sabrina (1954), and Funny Face (1957). Of course she got older, and skillfully took on mature roles in Two for the Road (1967) and Robin and Marian (1976). But Hepburn had no opportunity to truly become elderly on screen. She left us in 1993, at the age of 63.
One of Audrey Hepburn’s classic performances came in the 1961 Blake Edwards film version of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. As party-girl Holly Golightly, who stays afloat in New York City with a little help from her (male) friends, Hepburn is both hilarious and heart-breaking. Capote, though, was not pleased. The story as he envisioned it called for a Holly who was less elegant and more earthy. To Capote, Marilyn Monroe would have been perfect casting. (And he also envisioned himself playing Holly’s confidante, the male lead.)
Much of what I know about Breakfast at Tiffany’s comes from a fascinating little volume that appeared in 2010. Sam Wasson (who has since gone on to write a major biography of Bob Fosse) is the author of Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman. Wasson’s book chronicles the making of the film, and also reveals how vital it was in changing the public perception of women’s behavior, at a time when sexual mores were starting to change. As he writes, Breakfast at Tiffany’s “rerouted the course of women in the movies, giving voice to what was then a still-unspoken shift in the 1950s gender plan. There was always sex in Hollywood, but before Breakfast at Tiffany’s, only the bad girls were having it.“
The challenges for Paramount Pictures when approaching the original material were manifold: Capote had given the world “a novel with no second act, a nameless gay [male] protagonist, a motiveless drama, and an unhappy ending.” After much angst, the screen version evolved into a romantic comedy that faded out on a happily-ever-after kiss in the rain, with “Moon River” swelling in the background. Paramount execs solved the problem of the book’s gay protagonist by turning George Peppard’s writer-character into a red-blooded American male. Holly Golightly, as repurposed for the film, was less a high-class hooker than an adorable kook. It helped immensely, of course, that Audrey Hepburn hardly connoted sexuality in a way that Marilyn Monroe assuredly did. Reading between the lines, we knew that Holly slept around—and earned her daily bread by so doing. But mostly Hepburn’s Holly was childlike and fun, with a child’s wistful innocence underneath. And Peppard’s Paul Varjak was made a gigolo of sorts, as a clever way of distracting us from Holly’s own sexual side.
Wasson has much more to say about Breakfast at Tiffany’s. About, for instance, the inspired teaming of veteran lyricist Johnny Mercer with newcomer Henry Mancini (“Together they were kindness incarnate, and they melted as easily as butter on mashed potatoes”). About the impact of Givenchy’s little black dress, which—as worn by Hepburn—gave women on a budget the freedom to look bold and sophisticated without seeming flashy. The movie feels modern, except in one department: Mickey Rooney’s obnoxious caricature of a buck-toothed Japanese neighbor, played strictly for guffaws. Director Blake Edwards eventually apologized for this lapse in taste, which rubbed many Asians the wrong way. Like Truman Capote, the great Akira Kurosawa was most displeased.