View all Articles
Commentary By Stefan Kanfer

When Words Go Lightly to Screen

Culture Culture & Society

The metamorphosis from paper to celluloid is never smooth, and the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) presented Paramount studios with an array of difficulties. Sam Wasson’s account of the making of the movie covers them all. En route, “Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.”—as appropriately slender as the 1958 Truman Capote novella from which the film was made—offers lots of savory tidbits. Capote, for example, wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the lead character, Holly Golightly. Monroe’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg, refused to let America’s reigning sex symbol impersonate “a lady of the evening,” and the part went to Audrey Hepburn, who didn’t really want it.

“To think,” Mr. Wasson begins, that the movie “almost didn’t come off . . . that the censors were railing against the script, that the studio wanted to cut ’Moon River,’ that [director] Blake Edwards didn’t know how to end it.” That Capote’s work “was considered unadaptable,” Mr. Wasson writes, “seems almost funny today.”

No, it doesn’t. The novella was unadaptable. Although the movie is fondly remembered by those who were very young in 1961, Capote’s acute character studies of a blithe, air-headed “socialite” who escorted wealthy men around Manhattan after dark, and of her colorful in-group, were hammered into a cinematic gallery of grotesques.

Caparisoned in smashing Givenchy ensembles and wielding a cigarette holder the size of a javelin, Audrey Hepburn did some elegant posing in lieu of acting; George Peppard was rigid and humorless as a romantic leading man—a hint of what was to come when he starred in the TV series “The A-Team.” To bottom it all off, Mickey Rooney, badly miscast as Mr. Yunioshi, Holly’s Japanese neighbor, delivered a racist caricature.

There were a few alleviating moments—Buddy Ebsen as the yokel whom Holly Golightly married when she was 14; Patricia Neal as the woman who regards Peppard’s character as her boy-toy. Alas, they couldn’t hide an absence of plot, theme or wit. But because Capote is one of the central literary and social figures of 20th-century New York, because Audrey Hepburn became the most memorable Hollywood gamine since Lillian Gish, and because Blake Edwards went on to direct the Inspector Clouseau comedies, “Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.” (the title refers to the moment when Hepburn was filmed arriving at Tiffany’s in a cab) is as compelling as it is trivial.

A producer tries to convince Audrey that she’d be an ideal Holly. “You have a wonderful script,” the star demurs, “but I can’t play a hooker.” He purrs: “We don’t want to make a movie about a hooker. We want to make a movie about a dreamer of dreams.” And she buys the line. In an effort to sanitize Paramount’s portrait of a demimondaine, the studio publicity department churned out reams of flapdoodle, defining Holly as a “kook” rather than a B-girl. After all, as one of the publicists observes, “the star is Audrey Hepburn, not Tawdry Hepburn.”

A talent rep at Creative Management Associates pushes Mickey Rooney for the part of Mr. Yunioshi. A few years later, the rep finds himself meeting with another client, the director Akira Kurosawa. Chill time. “When he realized that I had been involved with the decision to cast Mickey Rooney as a Japanese man, he almost couldn’t talk to me. I felt awful. I was so embarrassed.”

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a co-founder of Ms. Magazine, thanks “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” for her feminist liberation. To her, as to many other co-eds of the time, the movie represented the dawn of the modern woman. In their eyes, as she recounts to Mr. Wasson, Holly Golightly “was a single girl living a life of her own, and she could have an active sex life that wasn’t morally questionable. I had never seen that before.” Inspired to adopt some of Holly’s “kookiness” for herself, Letty went out and bought a scooter, a dog, a rabbit and a duck.

The reviews were mixed, but Capote did not waver in his appraisal. The book, he said, was “rather bitter” and “real,” but the film was “a mawkish valentine to New York City and Holly and, as a result, was thin and pretty, whereas it should have been rich and ugly. It bore as much resemblance to my work as the Rockettes do to [the Russian ballerina Galina] Ulanova.”

Mr. Wasson brings a lively and impudent approach to his subject—he offers sub-headings like “Mr. Audrey Hepburn” (referring to Mel Ferrer, Hepburn’s unhappy husband) and “What Truman Capote Does in Bed” (he writes). Most of the anecdotes have a ring of authenticity, justifying the price of admission. Still, those of us old enough to have consumed the under-nourishing film the first time around should have the right to demand a senior discount.

This piece originally appeared in Wall Street Journal

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal