Spitting The Dummy Into Moon River: Truman Capote, Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast At Tiffany’s


To state the bleeding obvious, our perceptions are molded (or mouldered, as the case may be) by what we know. Yet it’s occasionally delicious to explore what could be and this is certainly the case with film when the final product is often radically different than what may have been. Would our enjoyment of so many great movies be the same if, as producers originally intended, Christopher Walken or Al Pacino had taken the part of Han Solo in Star Wars, Tom Selleck played the lead in Raiders Of the Lost Ark, John Travolta appeared as Forrest Gump, or James Caan was the 1978 version of Superman (or even the bizarre casting of Nicolas Cage in the abortive mid-90s Tim Burton remake)?

The faltering bridge between literature and film provides even more wondrous examples. Perhaps the best of these is Breakfast At Tiffany’s. The 1961 Audrey Hepburn vehicle has become so ingrained in pop consciousness that few people today even realise it was based on a book, let alone have ever read it.

Yet it’s a prime example of how a literary property, so celebrated as a work of art by one of America’s most celebrated novelists, was turned into something entirely different by Hollywood. And, despite such apparent limitations, it becomes such a classic of its own right.

Compare the movie to the book and the shortcomings of Audrey Hepburn become obvious. Yet, read the book and it’s impossible not to hear Audrey’s voice in Holly Golightly’s dialogue. Her dark-haired, pale-skinned feisty fragility, her elegance, the black dress and gloves, tiara and long cigarette holder, all create the Holly as we know her rather than the Holly as she sprang from Truman Capote’s imagination. Audrey was the daughter of a baroness and her Holly is regal in the way very few from her character’s background (a dirt-poor former child bride from Tulip, Texas) could ever hope to be.

A raft of other changes were made along the way; Hollywood scrubbed Capote’s novella to remove anything that could compromise an image of Audrey that had already been set in place with Roman  Holiday, Sabrina and Funny Face.

Breakfast At Tiffany’s was written in 1955-57 at a time when Capote generously considered himself to be America’s Proust. Although described as a novella, it is more an over-long and occasionally meandering short story; Capote’s self-indulgence, which had been gavaged out of all proportions by the critical acclaim of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1948, had his editors too terrified to wield the blue pencil.

The story opens in the 1940s, just after America entered World War II. Upon moving into an apartment on Manhattan’s East Side, the unnamed narrator meets his upstairs neighbor. Holly Golightly is 18 years old and blonde (“the ragbag colours of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino and yellow…”, as Capote described it). She’s also a hooker although, to be fair, it’s in an unorganised, amateur sort of way. She attaches herself to wealthy men who give her money and expensive gifts but her philosophy to such a career choice is unambiguous. “…you can’t bang the guy and cash his cheques and at least not try to believe you love him. I never have,” Holly explains rather ingenuously.

The narrator is an aspiring novelist and it’s soon obvious that Capote is describing himself; his birthday, 30 November, is Capote’s own.

Outre Talent: Truman Capote

It’s also apparent that Holly is another version of Capote, the person he would prefer to be – independent, self-confident and worldly. Some of Holly’s biographical details have been cribbed from Capote’s mother. Holly grew up in a dirt-poor rural backwater; Capote’s mother was born and raised in Monroeville, Alabama. Holly leaves her husband (who she married at 13) and step-children behind  to reinvent herself in New York City; Capote’s mother abandoned her husband and young son to move to New York City to be close to her married lover (one of a string that included world champion prizefighter Jack Dempsey). Holly’s real name is Lulamae Barnes but changes it to Holly Golightly to assume an urbane sophistication; Capote’s mother’s real name was Lillie Mae Faulk but adopted Nina to camouflage her origins. The most prominent of Holly’s lovers in Brazilian; Capote’s mother’s was Cuban.

Breakfast At Tiffany’s appeared  in the November 1958 issue of Esquire, then collected with some short stories and published in book form by Random House shortly afterwards. It attracted significant attention; another young lion of American fiction, Norman Mailer, was fulsome in his praise: “He is the perfect writer of my generation, he writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm. I would not change two words in Breakfast At Tiffany’s.”

As was to be expected, Hollywood came calling but the experience eventually left Capote bitter and twisted. He had always envisioned his good friend, Marilyn Monroe, in the part of Holly and rejected any offers that would compromise that choice. “Marilyn was always my first choice to play the girl, Holly Golightly,” Capote was quoted at the time. After much deliberation, he sold the film rights to Paramount Pictures; although the wheels hadn’t yet come off, they were wobbling precariously.

As Capote explained to Lawrence Grobel in Conversations With Capote (New American Library, 1985): “It was the most miscast film I’ve ever seen. It made me want to throw up…And although I’m very fond of Audrey Hepburn, she’s an extremely good friend of mine, I was shocked and terribly annoyed when she was cast in that part. It was high treachery on the part of the producers. They didn’t do a single thing they promised. I had lots of offers for that book, from practically everybody, 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. The day I signed the contract they turned around and did exactly the reverse. They got a lousy director like Blake Edwards, who I could spit on!”

The film kept very little of the novella: the title, setting and some characters, Holly’s ginger cat and her guitar playing (while inserting the abysmal Henry Mancini-penned Moon River, a song that is as annoying in its inability to fathom as Send In The Clowns).

One of the greatest changes was in transforming the unnamed narrator, such a mirror-image of Capote that he radiated the confused emotional yearnings of a young gay man not yet comfortable with his life choices, and turned him into George Peppard, a vibrantly hetero Hollywood leading man as Holly’s love interest.

Still, if you had no previous knowledge of the book, you could understand why the film of Breakfast of Tiffany’s became one of Hollywood’s great classics and Hepburn a style icon who has transcended the ages. The little black dress, designed by Givenchy, that Audrey wears at the beginning of the film is most likely one of the most famous clothing items of all time. Another of the dresses that Givenchy designed for the film sold at auction in 2006 for $US947,000, such is the power the film still holds.

Holly Golightly In An Alternate Universe: Marilyn Monroe circa 1960

Having a wildly successful book and film didn’t stop there. In 1963, a Broadway producer optioned the book with the intention of turning it into a musical. Legendary choreographer, writer and performer Bob Fosse was brought in as co-writer, intending his long-time partner, Gwen Verdon, to play Holly.

Capote objected, saying Verdon was far too old (in her late 30s) to play Holly and the project died. A few years later, Capote  OK’d the 30-year-old Mary Tyler Moore to star in a musical version. The production, beset by numerous problems, closed on Broadway after four performances.

In the early 1980s, plans were well advanced for a remake of the movie with Capote enthusiastically endorsing the choice of a 22-year-old Jodie Foster as Holly. Although he went as far as declaring Foster as “ideal for the part”, nothing ever happened and it remained in the realms of what if?

Would Marilyn Monroe have made a better Holly Golightly than Audrey Hepburn? It’s difficult to even begin to consider this point. At her best, she would have offered up a completely different interpretation; Marilyn’s vulnerability would have been a fitting counterpoint to the froth and bubble and have shaded the character more realistically. Certainly the abandonment issues she shared with Capote and, by extension, Holly, would have provided a stronger core and drawn out a motivational complexity.

But in the closing months of 1960, when filming took place (Marilyn was then on location for The Misfits, her final complete film), she was far from her best. Her life, like her career, was starting to slide precariously close to the chasm that would swallow her up less than two years later.

While Capote had been such a strong supporter of her initially, he later amended his views. As his own glory days were behind him, at which time he was more famous for the parties he attended and the barbed bon mots he indiscriminately tossed out like hand grenades, he had no sympathy for those whose own fortunes so closely resembled his own.

In an essay he wrote on Marilyn, collected in The Dogs Bark: Public People and Private Places (Random House, 1973), he was merciless. He excoriated his once-favourite dance partner and confidante for “…her slippery lips, her over-spilling blondeness and sliding brasserie straps, the rhythmic writhing of restless poundage wriggling for room inside roomless décolletage – such are her emblems”.

Maybe we should just be content with Audrey as Holly and the cat named Cat and that horrendous song and the little black dress and leave what could be alone. Sometimes, when you get to where you’re going, it hardly seems worth the journey.

Words  © David Latta

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Film

4 responses to “Spitting The Dummy Into Moon River: Truman Capote, Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast At Tiffany’s

  1. Jan Pittard

    I’m with Grobel. La Hepburn is annoyingly mannered and completely lacking in credibility as a ‘goodtime girl’. Monroe or Foster would have been infinitley better or maybe it should have been cast gay to carry the metaphor through. If you know the context of ‘Send in The Clowns’ (Sondheim’s ‘A Little Night Music’ about ageing lovers realising they’ve missed out on a commitment that would have made them happy) you’d be kinder about it. Mancini’s ‘Moon River’ is plain silly – Fred Dagg’s version is much better.

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