Any woman who counts “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” among her favorite films and the LBD as its major contribution to the post-Fifties fashion landscape should not be fooled by the cover of Sam Wasson’s new book.
Sure, it features the indelible image of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, danish in hand, peering into the window of the famed jewelry store. But a breezy tale of dresses and breakfast pastries, this is not. “There was something nagging at me in talking about this movie with people,” says Wasson, 28, the author of the new “Fifth Avenue, 5 a.m.” (the title refers to the location and time of that aforementioned on-screen moment). “People use words like glamour and sophistication, you know, romance, all these things that they love about the movie. And, of course, there are other movies that are just as glamorous and sophisticated, yet they don’t do what ‘Tiffany’s’ does to us. So I was fascinated with what it was that gives this movie its power, and why.”
Though some might be quick to credit the gamine actress who so embodied Golightly, Wasson points to a number of factors that combined to secured the film’s position as a cultural touchstone, among them the hiring of director Blake Edwards (Wasson previously wrote a biography of Edwards); Hubert de Givenchy’s cleverly sexy costumes; the mournful ballad “Moon River,” a theme which nearly didn’t make the final cut, and a screenplay by George Axelrod, based on Truman Capote’s novel, that served as the precursor to a certain late Nineties television show and subsequent movies.
Namely, however, it was timing. “[‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’] was on the crest of a new era in terms of what it meant to be a woman, and I think it captured that better than anyone else ever has, better than ‘Sex and the City,’” Wasson says. “And I think that’s incredibly powerful, to be sexually independent, fun, glamorous, emotional, all of these things that a woman ideally is, but was not on-screen before Audrey.”
Hepburn nearly lost the part of Holly, a backwater call girl, to Marilyn Monroe, who was Capote’s first choice. The film, says Wasson, would have been “less significant in that culturally, with Marilyn, you’re kind of playing the same card that the Fifties had already been playing. [Marilyn represented] an already established idea of what it meant to be a sexually powerful woman.”
Yet Hepburn was not an easy sell, not simply because of the hooker-from-Texas angle, but because she doubted her range as an actress would allow her to play such a woman convincingly. “It was an enormous transformation, and I was surprised at really how worried Audrey was at this late point in her career,” about taking on Holly, says Wasson (Hepburn was 32). “I found it very touching and very revealing about the era she was working in.”
Even more intriguing is the length to which Paramount, the studio behind “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” went toward concealing the true grit of Capote’s original story, much of which wound its way into the shooting script (although press releases for the film called Holly not a hooker but a “kook”). “You know that you’re in exciting territory when people are uncomfortable,” laughs Wasson, citing yet another release in which Paramount emphasized the importance of Hepburn’s husband and baby in her life. (“Audrey made it tersely clear that she is by no means living her part” read the 1960 publicity notice, in part.)
Indeed, though nearly every designer since 1963 has at one point looked to the film’s whimsical, label-laden tableau for inspiration, not to mention Hepburn herself, the subtexts of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — materialism, sexual freedom — were decidedly more complicated. As Wasson says, “The two eras really come into conflict right there in that publicity blurb. It just goes to show how transgressive the movie was.”