Wednesday 17 January 2018

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

Aurum, €16.99

LUNCH AT TIFFANY'S: Audrey Hepburn takes a break, while filming on Fifth Avenue in New York for Breakfast at Tiffany's.
LUNCH AT TIFFANY'S: Audrey Hepburn takes a break, while filming on Fifth Avenue in New York for Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Ronan Farren

SITTING in my local suburban cinema in 1962, it never occurred to me that Holly Golightly was a hooker. In those innocent days, the word probably wasn't even in my lexicon, though I undoubtedly knew what a call-girl was.

I hadn't yet read Truman Capote's 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany's, on which the Blake Edwards film was based. And I wasn't aware that Marilyn Monroe -- a close friend of Capote -- had turned down the role of Holly on the amusing grounds that she wouldn't play a hooker.

That's the way it was in Eisenhower's America -- a joyless, hyper-morality prevailed and rigid censorship ruled Hollywood: the studios went along, in advance of shooting, to the Production Code Administration and watched helplessly as their script was slashed. So that's one reason -- though only one -- for the huge difference between Capote's story and the watery romantic comedy that wound up on the screen.

What had to go from the novella? Well, the implication that the main male character (Fred was the name Holly imposed on him in the novella) was homosexual was definitely out. And Holly could not be divorced from the older man she had left back in a hick town in Texas: the marriage had to be annulled. Bedroom scenes were carefully vetted and any implication that a couple had spent the night together was out of the question.

As an example, the censor of the time, Geoffrey Shurlock, homed in on a scene between the hero (now named Paul and red-bloodedly hetero) and a well-heeled woman from an upstairs apartment in Holly's block. The script's proposal that "she has very gently begun to unbutton his shirt" after which "she very gently pushes him ... towards the bed" was "unthinkable" to Mr Shurlock.

In this absurd situation, it became a kind of ping-pong between the director and the censor: in this case, anyway, the writer Capote and the screenwriter George Axelrod had little say in the matter of the final script.

Sam Wasson, who writes in a whiz-bang style which becomes tiresome, flogs his yarn with brash hyperbole, insisting, for example, that Breakfast at Tiffany's, the movie, was not only innovative but virtually revolutionary, and that Audrey Hepburn was presenting on screen a type of heroine never seen before. It was, in fact, a pleasantly diverting tale of no great depth and Hepburn was, as usual, a pleasure to watch, but revolutionary, no; even if the heroine was a free spirit at a time when such a concept was suspect. It's worth remembering that the only Oscar picked up by the film was for Henry Mancini's song Moon River -- and the studio bosses had tried hard to axe that.

Wasson starts his somewhat bitty account of the making of the film with Hepburn in Monaco years earlier, working on a long-forgotten B-movie called Monte Carlo Baby. She was spotted by the French writer Colette, then aged 78 and in a wheelchair, who was on the prowl for an actress to play the title role in her Gigi on Broadway. When it finally got to the stage, it was hugely successful and propelled Hepburn to her first big film role in Roman Holiday. By the time she agreed, reluctantly, to play Holly Golightly, she was 31 but had no difficulty looking 10 years younger.

Everyone liked Hepburn, who never, it seems, adopted big-star mannerisms or pretensions. She was always uncertain of her talent and the glowing screen presence was the result of hard work. When Mancini was composing Moon River, he was constrained to keep it within her very limited vocal range; her wistful singing of this slight but effective song remains one of the best scenes in the movie.

The author rehashes a lot of well-worn stuff about Capote, who was then enjoying his status as one of social New York's favourite enfants terribles. After his initial attempt to get Monroe for the part of Holly, Capote just took his cheque and ran, seemingly having nothing further to do with the production.

Wasson is best on the shooting of the film, catching the apparent chaos that seems always to prevail on a movie set. His portrayals of the main characters are convincing. For example, everyone was irritated by the egotistical George Peppard, who seemed to believe he was the star, not Audrey, and everyone liked and respected the director Edwards, who appears as the voice of sanity and control. He went on to make far better films like The Great Race and, particularly, Days of Wine and Roses.

Wasson's account is the product of decent research, but I kept thinking of Lillian Ross's 1952 classic Picture, about John Huston and the making of The Red Badge of Courage. No contest ...

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