At the Movies
Breakfast at Tiffany's screening ignites a flame — and magic memories of AudreyHepburn
So there I am at the Sarasota French Film Festival on a balmy Florida evening in a late November of the early 1990s, sipping champagne and enjoying the flirtatious company of a lovely and talented Newsweek correspondent during a sumptuous outdoor soiree in the exquisitely appointed courtyard of the Ringling Museum of Art. There I am when I spot the woman of my dreams – Audrey Hepburn, a celebrity guest of the fest – encircled by a small group of friends and admirers just a few feet away.
And I… I… I am absolutely paralyzed and gobsmacked, immobilized by the realization that there is a goddess in my midst.
That is, I am frozen until I recognize that the lady is brandishing an unlit cigarette, and looking hither and yon for a light.
At which point, I immediately take my leave of the Newsweek scribe, rush over to a nearby bar – jostling, oh, I dunno, maybe five or 10 people in the process – and implore the bartender for a book of matches. He readily grants my request, I toss him a tip – maybe a ten-dollar bill, I really don’t remember – and I race over to the Hollywood icon who’s jonesing for a nicotine rush.
One quick brush of the match against the matchbook, and I am offering her a flame. She bends over slightly, accepts my proffered fire, then looks deep into my eyes for just a moment and, with a smile more radiant than a thousand suns, murmurs: “Thank you.”
Then she turns away, and goes back to her conversation with her intimates.
And I saunter off, my face emblazoned – or so I am told later -- with the sort of smile mortals often wear after a close encounter with the spendiferously divine.
Audrey Hepburn had that sort of effect on people. (Even on the lovely and talented Newsweek correspondent, who offered me not a frosty frown but a hearty thumb’s up – and, ahem, a good bit more -- after I returned to her side.) And she continues to work her magic, nearly two decades after her demise, thanks to the immortality granted by the magic of the movies.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s – one of the most magical of her movies – is the subject of a splendidly entertaining and impressively searched book by Sam Wasson, a savvy film scholar who’ll be at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday to dish about the making of the late, great Blake Edwards’ classic 1961 film. (He’ll also being signing copies of said book – Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and The Dawn of the Modern Woman.)
But wait, there’s more: At 7 p.m. Friday, he’ll return to MFAH to introduce a screening of the beloved romantic comedy based on Truman Capote’s acclaimed novella.
As I noted not too long ago on this very site: When we talk about Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which scriptwriter George Axelrod adapted for Blake Edwards: “We’re not talking about an entirely faithful adaptation — certain seamier aspects of Capote’s story had to be toned down or tidied up — but even literary purists have found it hard to resist the captivating spell of Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, the small-town girl who finances her upward mobility in Manhattan with generous ‘tips’ from appreciative men.
“Indeed, I strongly suspect that this movie, more than any other she ever made, made more men (and women) fall hopelessly, helplessly in love with Hepburn during the ’60s and beyond… And for that, Edwards deserves considerable credit for enabling and encouraging her to cast that spell.”
Sam Wasson graciously agreed to an e-mail interview this week to talk about some of the things he’ll be talking about Thursday and Friday at MFAH.
CultureMap: So we have Breakfast at Tiffany’s to thank for the enduring appeal of the little black dress, right?
Sam Wasson: As my therapist used to say, “Behavior is multi-determined.” So is enduring appeal. Certainly the film played a large part in the success and continued popularity of the dress. And so did its longstanding association with Hepburn, which goes all the way back to Sabrina in 1954. But movies aside, there are stylistic and utilitarian reasons the LBD has gone on to such a long and happy life. For instance, it’s always appropriate, it’s easy to manage, and it’s endlessly changeable.
CM: Would you say Sex in the City is a direct descendant of Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
SW: I think most single-girl-in-the-big-city romantic comedies are.
CM: This may seem like an odd term to use in this context, but wasn’t Breakfast at Tiffany’s – which is, at heart, a story about a sexually active woman who’s not at all apologetic for her activity -- a genuinely subversive movie to make back in 1961?
SW: Yes, yes, yes, absolutely yes. “Subversive” is exactly the right term, and like the most subversive works, Breakfast at Tiffany’s doesn’t look or feel subversive. A wolf in Givenchy’s clothing.
CM: For most of us, there’s no doubt about it: Audrey Hepburn is Holly Golightly. But didn’t Truman Capote have quite a different actress in mind for the role?
SW: Yes, again. You’re good! Truman wanted Marilyn Monroe. I go into more detail in my book, but I think it’s safe to say that if Capote got what he wanted and Holly went to Marilyn, in 1961, Breakfast at Tiffany’s would not be the subversive (see above) movie it most definitely became. It would have been a romantic comedy of its time and not, as was the case with Tiffany’s, the time ahead.
CM: It’s like L.P. Hartley said: The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there. Back in 1961, didn’t the Paramount publicity people feel compelled to emphasize that Holly Golightly wasn’t a high-class call girl – but rather, as you note in your book, a lovable kook?
SW: Wow, you did read my book! The Paramount spin just goes to show how scared of Holly they really were.
CM: You wrote a well-received critical study of Blake Edwards, A Splurch in the Kisser. But in this book, you seem to take a rather ambivalent view of the filmmaker. At one point, you compliment him for not wanting to grab too much credit – but then you state that “gallantry was Blake’s preferred mode of manipulation.” In light of his recent death, have you revised your appraisal of him?
SW: Ambivalent I am not. Edwards is, to date, our last great writer-director of Hollywood comedy. Catch me in the right mood, and I may even make a wilder claim than that. But, as I said in the book, while making Breakfast at Tiffany’s, he had the wisdom to hang back.
CM: The end of your book indicates you might like to write a sequel – one about Audrey Hepburn and Two for the Road. Is it heretical to suggest the latter is a much better movie than Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
SW: Not heretical at all! I think you’re right!