Sam Wasson's just-released and delightful book on the making of Breakfast at Tiffany's is so chock-full of great anecdotes that you're sorry when it's over. For awhile, you are there - a privileged insider-witness to a marvelous bygone moment in moviemaking history - and it's with a feeling of bittersweet regret that you step from its closing pages back into a realm of noisy 3D sequels and superfluous comic book franchises.
Everything you'd want to know and more is delivered in Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, from the reader's coverage producer Marty Jurow was first handed, re: adapting Capote's book for the screen ("In any event this is more of a character sketch than a story. NOT RECOMMENDED") to the guest list for the post-premiere party (including such unlikely elbow-rubbers as Dennis Hopper, Buster Keaton, Charles Laughton, and Jane Mansfield).
A delicious through-line in the book is how close the movie came to not coming out so well as it did, with such jaw-droppers as everyone's resistance to having Henry Mancini write a song for the thing (eventual collaborator Johnny Mercer's original lyric, we learn, one of three eventually presented to Mancini, was called "Blue River"). An intimate exploration of the myriad personalities in conflict and collusion when a casual classic is being created, the book is cannily adept at detailing the logic of the so many minute decisions that lead to what we now accept as inevitable. Of course Audrey Hepburn played Holly Golightly, you think, until you hear how hard Capote lobbied for Marilyn Monroe.
Wasson is a formidable researcher. He doesn't so much know where the bodies are buried as he knows where the hearts and minds are hidden. The book is written like a good novel, taking you inside the consciousness of its characters with an impressive, insight-laden believability (Fifth Avenue's only recent movie-book rival in this regard is Mark Harris' fascinating Pictures at a Revolution). And Wasson's notes on how he arrived at, and can justify, his leaps of imagination and empathy are almost as interesting as the text itself.
Of course the book has its thesis and theories as well, positing Breakfast at Tiffany's and Hepburn's stylish, fresh, era-defining performance as a watershed moment in cultural history. Having made much the same point re: the film's effect on the rom-com genre in my Writing the Romantic Comedy, I was happy to see Wasson really run with it, but that's not the total extent of my personal pleasure here. Full disclosure: the prodigiously talented Sammy is a friend and neighbor (though if I didn't love the book, I wouldn't be going on like this), and he was good enough to answer a few questions about Breakfast at Tiffany's for Living the RomCom.Q: What's at least one thing you didn't know about BAT that you learned during the course of your research?
A: A lot. For one, they shot two separate endings. Screenwriter George Axelrod's original ending was more in line with the melancholy spirit of the novel. The cat recovered, Holly and Fred sort of walk into the sunset. There's no romance, no swelling orchestra, just a feeling of intimate resignation. When it came down to it, Blake Edwards was dissatisfied with what he had shot and in the final moments, rewrote the ending (much to George's dismay) into the intensely romantic finale that exists today.
Q: In what ways may BAT have influenced today's romantic comedies?
A: After BAT, love, not marriage, became the goal. look back on some of those Rock Hudson and Doris Day pictures and you'll see they all end with a sense of husband and wife, if not actual marriage itself. Because it allowed for a promiscuous heroine - one who's looking for belonging, not a partner - BAT freed up screenwriters to invent other impediments to love, challenges beyond simply getting to the altar. Sadly, I think today's romantic comedies have gone back to the Doris Day/Rock Hudson model. The Weddingness is all.
Q: How do you think the film holds up today?
A: Well, everyone has their own take on this, but - don't shoot me for saying this - I happen to think Mickey Rooney's offensive performance, which is probably the most out of touch aspect of the film, deserves a little reconsideration. As cringe-worthy as it is, it's also a carefully realized comic invention. Remove the political incorrectness, and what you have is a full-bodied, fully-committed, full-throttle expression of bombast - and precision. It's a bit of Blake Edwards' invention that I wish could be appreciated as much as it deserves to be reviled.
Q: What do you think a contemporary rom-com writer might learn and put to good use from seeing BAT?
A: George Axelrod found a new conflict, a new reason why these two people couldn't be together right away. Simply put, he broke the mold. Today's rom-com writers might think to experiment with what at first seems not to work, as opposed to leaping into what has worked many, many times before. Also, in BAT, I think you see these two people fall in love. You can actually see it on screen! Too many of today's rom-coms are satisfied merely to show two hot people, with no sense of emotional or intellectual communion, fight, reconcile, and kiss - as if that could stand in for the real thing. BAT is a reminder that rom-coms are not merely about would-be lovers overcoming obstacles, but about two people deeply enthralled with one another. After all, if they aren't enthralled, they're hardly motivated to go through fire - and if they don't go through fire, well, how in love can they be? Part of what has made BAT such an enduring classic is that, like It Happened One Night and Annie Hall (and all the other greats), the romance - the feelings - are on the screen.
What he said, is all I can add, and what she did is really the final word. If you're a fan of Audrey Hepburn, the book is a must-have, because Sammy's astute take on what she was about, what she was up against, and how she delivered the goods strikes me as definitive. Her spritely, near-angelic spirit comes alive in the pages of this eminently devour-able book, which is kind of an awesome dividend. It's in stores this week.