Saturday 16 February 2019

Dark Eyes Retrovision #8 - Breakfast at Tiffany's (USA 1961: Dir Blake Edwards)

Notes from my introduction to the film at Screen 25 on 15 February 2019.

It’s 5am on a Sunday morning, October 2nd 1960. A cab pulls up at the deserted junction of 5th Avenue and 57th Street in Manhattan, disgorging a woman, dressed in a black Givenchy evening dress and wearing huge sunglasses, who totters up to the window display of the famous Tiffany’s jewellery store and gazes on its contents while drinking coffee and eating a Danish pastry. This was scene one on the first day of shooting Breakfast at Tiffany’s and it’s arguably one of cinema’s most iconic openings.

On that first day it was reported that the star, Audrey Hepburn, was incredibly nervous, as evidenced by a pile of stubbed out cigarettes seen on set, her state of mind not helped by arriving in Manhattan fresh from her very quiet mountaintop home in Switzerland, where she had lived since 1953 with her bullying husband, Mel Ferrer, called “the frog faced delinquent with the spindly legs,” by Audrey’s mother, with whom no love was lost. Audrey had also recently become a mother herself; the separation from her 10-month-old son, coupled with Ferrer’s feelings that his wife should be a mother first and an actress second, made her anxieties on this first day of shooting quite understandable.

Most people will know that Breakfast at Tiffany’s is based on the novella by Truman Capote, published in 1958, and that the inspiration for its subject, Holly Golightly, was as much his mother as it was a conflation of a number of society figures who flocked round the author at parties and openings. Each one of Capote’s ‘swans,’ as the women were later referred to, thought that Ms Golightly was modelled on her, and to some extent they were all right.

In casting Holly Golightly Capote - who subsequently took a deal that would remove him from any further influence in the adaptation - wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the part, which would of course have put a very different slant on the movie. The story goes that it was the fear of budget and shooting overruns that affected the decision not to cast her (Marilyn had a reputation for lateness and an inherent difficulty in remembering her lines), but it may also have been because of the spectre of the Motion Picture Association’s dreaded Production Code. This was, after all, an adaptation of a story about a prostitute, a woman who clearly slept with men for money, or to use Capote’s words, an ‘American geisha.’ The movie’s producers, Martin Jurow and Richard Shepherd were therefore on the lookout to cast someone who, while still playing an ‘escort,’ could inject a level of innocence to counteract the more risqué elements of the story.

Audrey Hepburn was about as far away from Marilyn Monroe as you could get. She was actually 31 at the start of filming – playing a character who in the novella was around 18 or 19. Since being ‘discovered’ 10 years previously – by the author Colette of all people, who chose her for the lead role in the stage play of Gigi - over the next ten years Hepburn’s star inexorably ascended. She was the right face at the right time, the fifties being the decade when ‘teenagers’ started to be a thing. Up until then the screen role models for girls had either been someone like Doris Day or, at the other end of the scale, Monroe. Hepburn was someone that female cinema-goers of all ages could relate to, someone independent yet stylish, but down to earth.

But when the producers approached Hepburn for Tiffany’s she was very unsure, both about the character she’d be playing, and the range of acting required; previous roles in Roman Holiday, Sabrina and Funny Face hadn’t exactly stretched her repertoire, and the script for Breakfast at Tiffany’s required her to laugh, cry and sing!

Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) in the opening scene of
Breakfast at Tiffany's
An understandably twitchy Hepburn made it a condition for accepting the role that some of the dialogue was watered down – it was Hepburn’s idea, for example, to change the lines about being paid fifty dollars for services rendered in the ladies room to the more innocuous ‘powder room’ – and the normally stubborn screenwriter George Axelrod happily obliged these changes to keep their star sweet.

Hepburn’s influence also came to bear in the choice of director. John Frankenheimer was first mentioned but she vetoed that. Many other names entered the frame - and exited quickly - until George Shepherd suggested Blake Edwards who had, up until that moment, mostly directed TV and frothy comedies; his last movie had been High Times, featuring a 57-year-old Bing Crosby dancing in a pink skirt. Although he was an outside choice he had successfully directed a big star in a movie – Cary Grant in Operation Petticoat - which gave the producers, who thought that Hepburn would require some solid direction, the confidence that he was the man for the job.

Edwards also brought on board his go to composer Henry Mancini, whose increasing move away from classic film orchestration to more jazzy themes was perfect for the film – the score is one of Tiffany’s strongest elements. Blake also cast his mate Mickey Rooney in the part of Mr Yunioshi, but the less said about that the better – if you’ve seen the film you’ll know exactly what I mean, if you haven’t then I’ll apologise now.

Reflecting later on in her career, Hepburn concluded that Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the best thing she’d ever done because it was the hardest. But she couldn’t have predicted how prescient her performance was. When we look back now we can see that Breakfast at Tiffany’s acts as a kind of shorthand for what was happening in New York at the time, and particularly for females. It’s one of the first Hollywood films to show a strong, independent woman successful at what she’s doing and - mostly - in charge of herself. Around the time the film was released, Joan Didion neatly summarised Golightly’s character when she wrote that New York City had become the natural home for “girls who want to prolong the period when they can experiment, mess around, make mistakes. In New York there is no gentle pressure for them to marry.” Change was definitely in the air.

You can access the full programme at Screen 25 and find out about ticket options here.

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