Fifth Ave, 5 a.m.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman
Sam Wasson’s book about the classic film Breakfast at Tiffany’s draws not just from the first day of film production but also from the lives and heartbreaks of Truman Capote, Audrey Hepburn, producer Richard Shepherd, screenwriter George Axelrod, and famed costume designer Edith Head.
Wasson opens the book with a close examination of Holly Golightly’s inception, studying Capote’s first brushes with glamor and disappointment as a child. Capote endures a troubled relationship with his mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, a wannabe socialite from humble beginnings who often leaves Capote with relatives in Monroeville, Alabama. Capote’s mother often disappears to Manhattan hoping to rub elbows with the chic and elite but often comes back to Monroeville with little to show for her efforts.
According to Wasson, Capote internalizes his mother’s desperate dedication to metropolitan glamor and, as a result, develops close relationships with women who are cast from the same mold. While living in New York City, the dichotomy of youthful, small town sweetness and uptown sophistication fascinates Capote, and he entertains the idea of writing about his “swans” — delicate and troubled women who suffer under the social caste that they depend on.
After Breakfast at Tiffany’s is published, Jurow-Shepherd considers doing the book as a romantic comedy but Paramount Pictures is puzzled with how to market a New York City call girl with little regard for marriage, family, or love to wholesome American audiences. Producers grapple with how to alter Capote’s tale for the big screen: an openly gay narrator who describes Golightly’s loveless dalliances with rich men, her love of living alone, and her confession to being “a bit of dyke” herself after a few cocktails.
Producers pass on casting sex bombs like Marilyn Monroe and consider a sweeter actress to counteract Holly Golightly’s licentious lifestyle. Hepburn’s agent resists the script. Hepburn too feels that playing such a character will compromise her image. What ensues is a humorous and entertaining behind-the-scenes tale in which Head struggles to appropriately dress Hepburn’s slight form, Capote insists to the press that he could have written the script, and Blake Edwards, the director, demands real actors, not extras, for the famous party scene in Golighty’s apartment.
Wasson’s writing is vivid, lively, and effortlessly comedic as he resurrects scenes and phone calls between producers and writers with quick and snappy dialogue. Wasson’s detailed descriptions of shooting locations and between-the-scenes moments are recreated with a reserved amount of fiction, moving reported events along with novel-like ease. His literary use of Hepburn, Capote, Monroe, and Axelrod read like finely drawn biographical sketches — as if they are fiction characters of his own making.
Impeccably researched, Fifth Ave, 5 a.m. presents a peek into 1960s cinema but also, as the title promises, the beginning of modern women in film. Wasson consistently contrasts Audrey Hepburn, devoted mother and not-so-appreciated wife, with her party girl role, producing a thoughtful meditation on the Madonna/whore schism. He takes note of the sexist utilization of the term “kook” in the press to soften Holly Golighty’s image and the strategic placement of the cat on Hepburn’s shoulder for the promotional poster.
… that cat, which was so important to the studio was — as their explicit definition indicates — part of their spin on ‘kook.’ Without it, the figure of Holly in the Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster reads as simply seductive. The presence of the cat quite cleverly plays against that potentially alienating feature — and here’s the key — without negating it… Breakfast at Tiffany’s is kookie, the poster says, but the good kind, the kind with an old-fashioned ending.
Wasson’s analysis of women’s sexuality in the 1960s includes interviews with women who were mini Golightys before the fame of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Their anecdotal stories, along with comments drawn from reviews of the film, reveal the impact Breakfast at Tiffany’s had on depictions of women in the media. Beautifully, he describes how America responded to the progressively themed film that predated the turbulent 60s:
Back then, while the sexual revolution was still underground, Breakfast at Tiffany’s remained a covert insurgence, like a love letter passed around a classroom.
Fifth Ave., 5 a.m. is well-rounded in its reach and study of many topics, facts, and people. The stories of Breakfast at Tiffany’s individual participants could suffice as vignettes of their own, but Wasson brings each of them together in close observation of the film that they’ll each be remembered for.
To read more about Sam Wasson, click here.
Tags: 1960s, acting, Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, cinema, Edith Head, female roles, filmmaking, Five Ave. 5 am, George Axelrod, Holly Golightly, Manhattan, modern women, new york city, Richard Shepherd, Sam Wasson, Truman Capote, women in cinema
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