Her name is Holly Golightly, and she has sunglasses, a cigarette holder, and a little black dress.
That memory of Audrey Hepburn, taken from the 1961 adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, has spent the last 53 years becoming the most iconic image of twentieth-century cinema, peering down at us from prints, mugs, pencil cases, t-shirts, and even a toilet seat. So would it surprise you to know that Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe in the role?
Capote sold the rights to his novella to Paramount Studios on the proviso that they’d be faithful to his work, filled as it is with sex, prostitution, and bisexuality. For a studio looking to make an Oscar frontrunner, and still feeling the effects of Hollywood censorship (albeit in the dying days of the Motion Picture Production Code), that wasn’t an option. Capote’s vision of Holly and her story was not to be.
The novella of ’58 and the movie of ’61 were diverging as soon as fingers were put to typewriter by George Axelrod. His screenplay would be contemporary, moving from the mid-’40s to the early ’60s, and humanising the narrator from a nameless no-one to the handsome hero-type Paul. Holly, a slip of a nineteen-year-old, would now be in her early thirties. Her love of marijuana and women were quickly excised. Her profession as what Capote called “an American Geisha girl”, taking large sums of money from men and occasionally sleeping with them, was severely downplayed by the studio. “The star is Audrey Hepburn,” Paramount said, “not Tawdry Hepburn.”
And Audrey Hepburn it certainly was, to Capote’s eternal anger. His first choice, Marilyn Monroe, was set to star well into pre-production, with Axelrod’s screenplay specifically tailored to her – but when Monroe’s acting coach Lee Strasberg heard that Holly was kind-of-a-call-girl, he advised his pupil that the film would damage her image. Monroe pulled out of the production, choosing instead to star in The Misfits. Despite Monroe taking the exit, Capote never forgave the studio: “Paramount double-crossed me in every way and cast Audrey.”
Capote’s firmly-held negativity impacted on Hepburn herself. His insistence that it was the most miscast film he’d ever seen made her nervous of the part, and his visits to the set held her under the microscope of his disapproval. Though Hepburn’s Holly would go on to both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations and, more than that, to becoming one of cinema’s most iconic characters, she was always at odds with the vision of her creator. For Capote, “Holly Golightly was real – a tough character, not an Audrey Hepburn type at all. The film became 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 wasn’t just Hepburn who stepped through the revolving door of cast and crew. When Hepburn did come on board, original director John Frankenheimer was jettisoned because his leading lady had never heard of him. Instead Blake Edwards signed on, free from the Monroe conflict and ready to direct Hepburn.
Indeed, Edwards’ casting beef was completely separate from the Holly Golightly question; he was far more concerned with his leading man. Desperate to secure Steve McQueen, he begged his producers to give up on George Peppard, but a scheduling conflict between Breakfast and McQueen’s television show Wanted: Dead or Alive put the kibosh on Edwards’ choice. Just like Hepburn, Peppard would fail to embody the character as anyone really envisioned. Despite getting on well with co-star Patricia Neal, their friendship suffered during filming, supposedly due to Peppard’s wish to be an “old style movie hunk”; yet again, the antithesis of the novella’s dark and realistic characters.
With the cast and crew finally set, production on Breakfast at Tiffany’s rolled forwards. Despite the iconic-ness of the movie’s Manhattan location, very little was shot outside of Paramount’s studio lots aside from its Brownstone exteriors – and its most famous opening shot.
The sequence where Holly wanders back from a night out to peer into the window of the nominal Tiffany’s was, depending on who you ask, either a nightmare to film or one smooth take. According to film folklore the shot was hampered by crowds gathering to catch a glimpse of Hepburn; the woman herself was not a fan of the Danish pastries she had to demolish in every take; and a crew member narrowly escaped fatal electrocution. And yet, according to Edwards’ widow Julie Andrews, the shot was accomplished in one take when the traffic on Fifth Avenue serendipitously cleared and gave the impression of a silent 6am.
Despite the hiccups in production, Breakfast at Tiffany’s went on to become a Hollywood classic universally adored. Even if Capote doesn’t agree, Hepburn is Golightly for the world at large and the more romantic ending that was tacked on has delighted audiences ever since. In all this celebration, only one note sings off-key: Mickey Rooney’s racist Japanese caricature, Mr Yunioshi – a classic only in the sense that it shows Hollywood yellowface in all its infamy. Rooney was an actor on one last ride through the movie’s revolving-door cast; producer Richard Shepherd was still pushing for an Asian actor well into production, but Edwards was well-acquainted with Rooney and refused, having chosen him specifically for the part. By 2008, Edwards’ attitude had obviously gone through a drastic change. “Looking back, I wish I had never done it… and I would give anything to be able to recast it.”
When production finally wrapped and the movie was released in 1961, an icon was born – both in Hepburn and in the movie she helmed. Still, Truman Capote kept on keeping on, highlighting the vast world that lay between his book and the movie the world came to know. “I had lots of offers for that book, from practically everybody,” Capote said, “and I sold it to this group at Paramount because they promised things, they made a list of everything – and they didn’t keep a single one.”