Saturday 20 January 2018

Review: Fifth Avenue 5am: Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast at Tiffany's by Sam Wasson

Aurum, €17.99, Hardback

When the 78-year-old novelist Colette caught sight of Audrey Hepburn in a Monte Carlo hotel in 1951, she immediately noted the 22-year-old's defects:

"Her legs were too long, her waist was too small, her feet were too big, and so were her eyes, nose and the two gaping nostrils in it."

There was also a mouth "that swallowed up her face and a row of jagged teeth that wouldn't look too good in close-ups."

And yet there was something about this young woman's looks, expression and bearing that caused the French writer to murmur in astonishment: "Voila, c'est Gigi!"

Hepburn never got to play Colette's most famous character on film (though she did on stage), but soon cinema-goers all over the world would be saying "Voila" in rapture at Hepburn's elfin allure -- irresistible as the free-spirited princess who enchants Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, but also cherishable in Sabrina, Funny Face, The Nun's Story and even as Natasha in King Vidor's misconceived and lumbering attempt to conquer War and Peace.

Aside from her beauty and girlish sense of mischief, there was a purity and innocence about Hepburn's screen persona that endeared itself to audiences. And she was very aware of this image of herself, which is why, when producer Marty Jurow asked her to play Holly Golightly in the screen version of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's in 1960, she replied: "Oh, Martin, you have a wonderful script, but I can't play a hooker."

Already worried about how the Code's censors would regard Capote's blithely libidinous heroine, the canny Jurow assured the young actress, "We don't want to make a movie about a hooker, we want to make a movie about a dreamer of dreams" -- adding that if she couldn't see Holly as a "cockeyed romantic", then maybe she was the wrong choice for the role. That reeled her in.

Sam Wasson's book, a bestseller in the United States, tells the story of the film's making, and very entertainingly, too, even if he makes claims for it that really don't hold up -- watching it again recently after an interval of some decades, I was struck by how dated it had become (that frenetically unfunny party scene, Mickey Rooney's offensive Japanese impersonation) and by how coy it was, too, in its softening of Holly's character to that of a little girl lost who could only be saved by the love of a good man.

Unfortunately, that man was played in smirking, self-regarding mode by George Peppard, who no one on the film set liked. "Cold and conceited", was the verdict of supporting actress Patricia Neal, while director Blake Edwards thought him "a piss-poor actor".

As for the female star, co-producer Richard Shepherd recalled: "There wasn't a human being Audrey Hepburn didn't have a kind word for -- except George Peppard."

There were other problems, too. Hepburn, who had previously suffered two miscarriages, was pining for her newborn son Sean, while husband Mel Ferrer, a jealous control freak, was constantly putting her down in public. Meanwhile, the head of the studio hated Henry Mancini's 'Moon River' and wanted it dumped from the soundtrack, while Capote stayed entirely away, regarding George Axelrod's screenplay as a travesty of what he called his "really rather bitter" novella.

Travesty or not, the film opened to generally good reviews and was an immediate international hit.

It also turned Hepburn into an iconic figure, and one that has endured -- the famous poster of her, draped in Givenchy's little black dress and flaunting an extended cigarette holder, still adorns the walls of restaurants, cafes, bars and hair salons throughout the world.

Two years after Breakfast at Tiffany's she was swooning over Cary Grant in Stanley Donen's romantic comedy thriller Charade.

Some of us think that her loveliest hour, but for many of her fans she'll always and only be Holly Golightly and it would be churlish to begrudge them such devotion.

Irish Independent

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