FILM AUGUST 31, 2010
by Sam Wasson
Harper, 231 pp., $19.99
This book is such a swift, sweet, smart stroll through the making of the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s that it takes a little while for one to realize how slick, undemanding, adorable, and unintelligent it really is. The penny doesn’t drop until 5:10 at least. By then you are ready to flip to the back flap, look at the GQ-ready picture of the cute author (only twenty-eight!, in jeans and a corduroy jacket, all teeth and hair and terrific attitude), and let the ugly truth sink in past the glibness of the image—it’s a photograph from advertising, which is less than adorable. Still, it is more than appropriate in any consideration of a property that was always a commercial for Tiffany’s. And around 5:15 you are bound to remember how this bizarre hit of a book—hits excuse nearly anything now—has already been the subject of a gushy email transcript column on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times.
Already some murmurings may be heard that I am not really supposed to review the author’s photograph—but that is tantamount to saying that one can’t question the chilly yet unlived-in gamine glamour of Audrey Hepburn. And in the spirit that would urge all of us in the age of mass media to be suspicious of the “adorable” (especially when it is dressed expensively), I have to say that it is past time that we re-examine Audrey Hepburn—to say nothing of that will-of-the wisp, that huckleberry friend, Holly Golightly, a creature who has survived because no one any longer bothers to read Truman Capote’s original description of her. Under many circumstances I might be prepared to let the brittle Audreyness of Audrey pass, but in the case of Sam Wasson’s book we are supposed to swallow the medicine that she is part of “The Dawn of the Modern Woman.” Well, I suspect there are modern women willing to put aside their latest simple black dress by Givenchy and say (this is very 1961) “Fudge Holly Golightly—and that priss Audrey, too. Can we talk!”
So let me admit how adorable this book is. It is short, cool, and pert, and very well researched. If a brisk journalistic account of the making of a movie, and the real-life voice of so many veterans telling white lies about what happened fifty years ago, is your latte—this is it. It’s “Inside Hollywood” stuff, no matter that Hollywood has been dead or defunct since the era of this movie, and that “inside” has become a poisoned come-on. There is no inside anymore, there is just a black hole. More than that, it is a book you need to have read if you are going to get the best out of this review. I don’t say that as a boast. I’m only trying to get at the way nowadays every disaster seems to exist to promote TV spin-talk.
Begin at the beginning. Truman Capote was a brilliant, sick man, who was very early into the art and craft of offering up photographs of himself so cute and beguiling that he might not have to notice his own sickness. He wrote a novella called “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” which was published in … I was going to look it up in Wasson, but the book has no index. Well, it was published in 1958, and it is the story told by a gay guy in New York about meeting Holly (real name Lula Mae) Golightly. Lula Mae is a wreck from the country whose smart talk and gaping schtick does not obscure her grim life as a prostitute or the lies she is living. Even Wikipedia admits there is “a foreboding edge” in the novella that has been cleaned up in the movie. Clean is spiffy, but it is not reliable. In the same way, there are “modern women” who are living in a cuckoo dream world.
The most valuable thing about Wasson’s book is the fond detail he applies to the extensive process of compromises with which this delicate material was turned into a reasonably successful movie. (It reminds me of an occasion when I gave what I thought was a rigorous lecture on John Berger’s dismantling of advertising, only to have a student come up to me at the end, thanking me from the bottom of his shallow heart, and telling me I had changed his life—he was going to go into advertising.)
The screenwriter George Axelrod pondered long and hard on how this material could “work” as a movie. Then he got it, and Wasson treats this yielding as a triumph. The guy, Paul, could be straight, but a gigolo. There could be a love story between him and Holly (because love stories are life preservers when the plane goes down), but they could be so busy having sex with other people that they never quite made it together. They were chums. Do you see? I know, this was fanciful even in 1961, but suppose we cast George Peppard as the guy, and Audrey Hepburn as Holly. Peppard is so dull he hardly gets noticed, and Audrey is so adorable we don’t have to think about her. That could work, couldn’t it? With good clothes, and a song? No, there isn’t a song in the book. There usually aren’t.
All of this was done, and Axelrod was a deft, clever, talented man. But he was also a Hollywood engineer who wanted his picture to “go.” The dawning of the modern woman did not cross his busy mind. But with Blake Edwards directing (a late replacement for the edgier John Frankenheimer—and why? Because Audrey and her husband, Mel Ferrer, had not heard of Frankenheimer), with Edith Head and Henry Mancini, the picture went. And with Mickey Rooney—but we’ll come to him.
You can say, with justice, that such fudging was automatic in that Hollywood. True enough. But consider this. Only a few years before Breakfast “they” had said no one could ever film James Jones’s From Here to Eternity, owing to the language, the sex, and the hard-earned fatalism it felt for the military. Then, in 1953, a writer, Daniel Taradash, and a director, Fred Zinnemann, took a shot at it. They fudged? Yes and no. They omitted language and words. They tamed attitudes. But they did not alter things. They did not introduce lies. I don’t think there was ever any doubt that the characters played by Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr were having sex. And although “prostitution” was not stated in the Montgomery Clift-Donna Reed relationship, there are moments when she (yes, Donna Reed played the whore) gives that woman a nasty, fearful undertone that is still arresting—when the truth is there for anyone to see and hear. The film is a Reader’s Digest abridgement of the novel, but you know what James Jones meant and you do not want to be in the Army. The witless dawning in the film of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by contrast, is that you are ready to be an East Side prostitute if you can look, and dress, and sing like Audrey. And Audrey, for all her charms, was not just a virgin, she was a Crackerjack virgin, done in life-like plastic, but engravable. She was about as real as Shirley Temple, and as huggable as Lassie.
So it’s crucial to Wasson’s gloss on things that right at the start he can say that “There was always sex in Hollywood, but before Breakfast at Tiffany’s, only the bad girls were having it.” Isn’t it pretty to think this? Now, it is true that before 1961 (and for a few years afterwards), movies did not dare show sex. Indeed, there is no sex in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But it’s ludicrous to say the idea was not there, or that “bad” girls kept it as their special trick. It is apparent and painful that Shirley MacLaine is having sex with Fred MacMurray in The Apartment, yet her character, Fran Kubelik, is doing her best as a person. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) has sex just before the first scene in Psycho, and while she will steal $40,000 on the spur of a foolish moment, she still is decent. Grace Kelly in her Hitchcock films—Rear Window, To Catch a Thief—is plainly packing sex in her overnight bag. And talking, too—please remember that, because one of the glories of the American talking picture is dialogue as sexual play.
And if you care to go back a little, before Wasson was born, you may recall Barbara Stanwyck. Her cross-talk with MacMurray in Double Indemnity leaves no doubt why the insurance salesman goes off the legitimate page. And in The Lady Eve, in the breath-stopping scene where she gets Henry Fonda to tend her damaged ankle, you see what a lewd, permissive dildo censorship could be. In His Girl Friday, you know Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are caught in a spiral of marriage, break-up, and re-marriage because of the furious intimacy with which they talk to each other.
Conversation, or natural, fluent battle. It needed writers, of course, and directors as alert to talk as Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder. But it took players, too, and voices. And this brings me to Audrey Hepburn. (This may be a point at which you want to let the cat out or check your own blood pressure.)
Audrey Hepburn is an unquestioned star of the ’50s and early ’60s. She was beautiful, she had lakes for eyes and a boy’s body, as well as a highly developed instinct for fashion. I can watch her in some films—Funny Face, say—forever, or at least often. I can easily understand the story, well covered by Wasson, that the elderly Colette saw Audrey and immediately knew she was born to play Gigi. But note: not Claudine, not the woman in Chéri, and certainly not anyone as worldly as Colette herself. Audrey had a pristine charm, an armored innocence, in an age that (on screen at least) was very nervous about sex. For this reason, I think, and because her place in our dreamscape was as the brilliant child, Audrey invariably played with men much older than she was—Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, Mel Ferrer, and so on, all the way to Rex Harrison. There is only one worthwhile picture in which Audrey was matched with a man of her own age, the Stanley Donen-Frederic Raphael film Two for the Road, where she is married to Albert Finney (who was seven years her junior).
It is true that in the ’50s such couplings were common in American film (Grace Kelly played with father-figures, like Cooper, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant), and it reflected a serious gulf in the dreamscape. But Kelly insisted on talking to her men. She challenges them. And she had her own voice—snooty, sexy, knowing. Audrey talks like an actress alone on a sound-stage. It’s not just her curiously unattached accent—born in Belgium, raised in Britain, at work in America, but permanently in an elocution class, plaintive, touching on self-pity or self-congratulation, never really talking to people. She could do lines, she could talk to the cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and she oozed a cozy sympathy. But, oddly, she was warmest when singing, even if she was not trained in that work. And so she makes Holly an isolated, precious creature, someone talking to herself.
What Audrey does in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not uninteresting, but it is far from the modern woman, even the one introduced to American audiences in the persons of Bette Davis, Irene Dunne, Margaret Sullavan, the other Hepburn (though she could talk herself into a self-centered corner, too), Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur, as well as Barbara Stanwyck. Instead Audrey rather resembles her physical antithesis Marilyn Monroe (who wanted to play Holly) in that they have very distinctive voices, but not voices that are good for talking to people.
Audrey was bankable, no doubt about that. That was how she could get Frankenheimer off the picture, and how she and Mel Ferrer could bar Tony Curtis or Steve McQueen from playing Paul. This raises the sacrilegious question of who else might have played Capote’s Lula Mae, if the world had been brave enough. Well, Shirley MacLaine could have done it then. So could Piper Laurie, Geraldine Page, or even Natalie Wood—I mention them because they were the other nominees in the year Audrey was nominated for an Oscar for her Holly. (None of them won—that was Sophia Loren in Two Women.) Or Anne Bancroft, or Lee Remick, or even Elizabeth Taylor (who had been a fine slut in the inept BUtterfield 8, but was seldom afraid or self-protective). There’s the nub of it: Audrey got the film made, but she ensured its dishonesty and its fabricated air.
She sang the song, and I doubt the film would have much currency now but for “Moon River,” out of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer. Everyone knows that song—it is, alas, a classic. I say alas because, for all its melodious charm, the song is a dog, a sell-out, a fraud. It is like a great deal of Mancini’s music, so easy to hum but so short on character. Compare “Moon River” with “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca or “The Man that Got Away” from A Star is Born.
“As Time Goes By” is not just a song about the past and memory. It’s a moment placed in the rising drama of Casablanca with magnificent accuracy. It’s not an aside; it’s a vital step in the story. The Harold Arlen song from A Star is Born is a little different. It is a demonstration that “Esther Blodgett,” the character played by Judy Garland, has talent enough to impress Norman Maine. But it is also part of the helpless yet intriguing sub-text to that film: that Esther, apparently on her way to “stardom,” is actually a used-up wreck (which was more or less Garland’s status) in full possession of a torch song. The allegedly fading Norman in the persona of James Mason is so much younger and more hopeful than Judy. The song works in ways the film hardly seems aware of. Whereas Holly is discovered on the fire escape singing, without one iota of justification or placing. Wasson is very good on how the song nearly got dropped, though he does not appreciate the justice of that challenge—the song is irrelevant to the story. And it was a harbinger of worse to come, like the inane “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” that signals how far Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid cared about nothing except sliding our money out of our pockets.
And yet, “Moon River,” and Mancini‘s score, were the only Oscar winners for Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Agreed, the exquisite John McGiver deserves a small silver spoon for his salesman at Tiffany’s. But Mickey Rooney got not so much as a sniff for his hideous rendering of a Japanese character upstairs. Wasson makes it clear that George Axelrod was horrified by Rooney’s caricature. It was director Blake Edwards who liked it. Afterwards, no one was happy. Rooney’s performance remains a startling revelation of American attitudes in the “hip” Kennedy era, and a disgrace. But the film’s treatment of the whore character, and of women in general, is only a little less vulgar and deluded.
So much for the “new woman.” Breakfast at Tiffany’s concludes with hollow complacency, and no sense of Holly’s real experience. It is the movie itself that fudges her, along with everything else. If you want to see a credible whore in American pictures, you have to wait for Jane Fonda in Klute. Wasson doesn’t mention it, but any consideration of the dawning of a new woman in 1961 should include Jeanne Moreau in La Notte or Jules and Jim. We might even recollect the performances of Kinuyo Tanaka and Setsuko Hara in films such as Ugetsu Monogatari, Sansho the Bailiff, The Tokyo Story and Late Autumn—Japanese films, with an emotional gravity that Mickey Rooney and Blake Edwards must have missed. The real new women know that the dawning, and the experience, are so much more demanding than the mannequin joie de vivre of Holly Golightly or the stupor in which some people have taken this travesty of a book seriously.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.