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 brassiere 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

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Xanadu – Olivia Newton-John And The Place Nobody Dared To Go


I know of fervent movie fans who play out elaborate rituals before their favourite films. Prom dresses and pigs’ blood for Carrie, chain smoking in the shower and Benzedrine for All That Jazz. And don’t even think about Single White Female.

Xanadu (1980) is one of those movies that never quite achieved its full potential, a coulda’ been shoulda’ been masterpiece, a disappointing sum of numerous wonderfully satisfying parts. It’s a musical that is the glittering wrapping around a grand love story set against a 70s roller disco backdrop.

The best way to fully appreciate this criminally under-rated slice of movie magic is to dress the part: leg warmers and roller skates, the old style not the in-line, and something acrylic and flowing. Natural fibres just won’t give you the same feeling.

Roll up the flokati rug to expose the bare boards. A large unencumbered viewing space is a necessity especially for the final, glorious dance scene when you must skate with your arms stretched above you, wrists crossed, lycra-sheathed hips bumping out the sensuous disco beat, your entire body held straight and proud. Beware of small, enclosed spaces. There’s nothing so humiliating than being in the midst of a major dance number and sprawling across a nest of coffee tables.

The beating heart of Xanadu is Australia’s darling, Olivia Newton-John, known proudly throughout the length and breadth of that great brown land as Our Livvy. Australia has always adhered to a carefully-qualified paraphrasing of the “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” ethos except in this case it’s more akin to “give me your Grammy-winning, Golden Globe-grabbing, Oscar-adorating, million-seller masses from across the oceans and we’ll make them our own”.

Thus, Our Livvy was born in England but, more importantly for our celebrity-embracing culture, settled in Australia with her family at the age of five. The roll call of Australia’s adopted entertainers include Andy Gibb and the Bee Gees (born in England); AC/DC (England and Scotland); The Easybeats (England, Scotland and the Netherlands); Jimmy Barnes and John Paul Young (Scotland); Split Enz, Crowded House, Dragon and Russell Crowe (New Zealand), and Nicole Kidman and Mel Gibson (United States). The best Australia can rightfully claim as their own is one half of Air Supply.

Through the 70s, Olivia Newton-John was a recording sensation, topping the charts worldwide with such hits as If Not For You, Banks Of The Ohio and I Honestly Love You before breaking into the movie big-time with her stellar turn as the squeaky-clean good girl out to snare bad boy John Travolta in Grease (1978).

The hits continued and it seemed as if she could do no wrong. She was attached to Xanadu before there was even a script, not that one actually appeared until well into the shooting schedule.

Our Livvy is cast as Terpsichore, one of the daughters of Zeus and a muse, a goddess who inspires creativity in mortals. In modern day Los Angeles is artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beck), who earns his living from turning record covers into giant advertising murals and fears he will never find his true creative calling.

“Sometimes I see more in the covers than what is really there,” he says tellingly; deep inside, he knows that in the right circumstances he could be the da Vinci of promotional painting. But he anguishes over his craft. “Guys like me shouldn’t dream anyway.”

As an aside, this seques beautifully with a comment I overhead recently at a TEDx conference where two trend spotters were discussing Xanadu. One said: “At its core, Xanadu seeks to examine the deepening chasm between continental and analytic philosophy up to and including Hegel, the emphasis on metaphilosophy on one hand and its repudiation by the continentals and the development of the logical positivist approach on the other; in particular, and it’s a question Wittgenstein agonised over until late in his career, should leg warmers ever really be paired with lycra?”

At the lowest point in Sonny’s artistic journey, Terpsichore and her eight muse sisters spring from a wall on the Venice boardwalk. In a flowing white peasant dress with ribbons decorating her blonde hair, she decides it more prudent to disguise herself lest she be confused with the numerous other muses already flooding Los Angeles and adopts the name Kira.

She straps on a pair of roller skates, leaving her sisters behind to dance to a rock-symphonic Electric Light Orchestra number in an alley and goes in search of Sonny. Her virginal beauty, thick Australian accent and habit of answering questions with more questions while skating in circles, beguiles and inspires Sonny.

Later, Sonny meets up with a clarinet player, Danny Maguire (Gene Kelly). Danny was a featured player in Glenn Miller’s big band in the 1940s but gave up music after loving and losing the girl of his dreams (a dance sequence between Our Livvy and Gene Kelly reveals that girl to be Kira only he doesn’t appear to recognise her; time and bedevilling disappointment has coloured his memories to a fetching shade of Alzheimer’s).

Sonny and Danny set out to find a venue in which to open a disco. Kira magically leads Sonny to the cavernous Pan Pacific Auditorium, a real-life Art Deco landmark located in the Fairfax district near Farmers Market. (It burnt down in 1989, something of a metaphor for the film itself.)

While debating a name for their new club, Kira suggests Xanadu, which implies either she was also a muse to Coleridge or that the lending library on Mount Olympus is unusually comprehensive. When Sonny declares his eternal love for Kira, she discloses her true identity and says they can never be together.

Skating the gravel-pocked pavement of true love, Kira and Sonny fall desperately in love; he travels to the alleyway mural at Venice Beach and leaps through into Mount Olympus which looks like a cross between an empty stage set and Tron, where he implores Zeus for Kira’s hand.

It looks like his quest will be in vain. He returns to the real world in time for Xanadu’s opening where Danny, Sonny and Kira skate in circles for the final dance number leading a cast of hundreds of colourfully-dressed guests; it’s an explosion of satin shorts, feathered hairstyles, lycra, jersey dresses, body shirts, undulating hips, and leg warmers.

Just when all seems hopeless with Danny broken-hearted amidst the celebrations, a waitress who bears a startling resemblance to Kira brings him a drink. Double-take on Sonny’s part and fade out.

On release, the movie bombed badly; one magazine reviewed it with the unnecessarily harsh:  “In a word – Xana-don’t”. The soundtrack, however, with such numbers as Xanadu, Magic and Suddenly, with writing credits split between ELO and long-time Livvy collaborator, John Farrar, charted well.

It’s difficult to know exactly where it went wrong. Our Livvy and Gene Kelly were absolute delights. Michael Beck, with an acting style as wooden as Pinocchio, much less so, although he’d just come off the cult hit, The Warriors (1979), and was considered a hot property. Beck’s passing resemblance to singer Andy Gibb has since created some confusion and many still think it’s Our Livvy and Andy Gibb together in Xanadu; the combination is certainly worth entertaining.

There were also reports from the set that the script was constantly being rewritten throughout production; by the time shooting wrapped, there were six different versions of the script.

Overall, though, Xanadu remains a delight, even if it’s somewhat of a guilty pleasure. It is one of the most comprehensively satisfying movies of the disco genre, just slightly above  Can’t Stop The Music (and that’s saying something, although I’m not quite sure what) and Thank God It’s Friday.

With so many fans and so much timeless attention lavished on this paean to love and artistic inspiration, Olivia Newton-John and roller disco, Xanadu will remain a muse to all its fans.

Words © David Latta