Fifth Avenue, 5 AM: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Peter Tonguette
Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman
by Sam Wasson. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. 231 pp., illus. Hardcover: $19.99.
Considering how perceptive I found Sam Wasson’s 2009 study of the films of Blake Edwards, when I read that one of his next books was on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I was delighted. At last, here was a serious, sincere film scholar committed to doing a kind of full-court press on behalf of one of America’s greatest filmmakers, though also one who has suffered profound critical neglect since he directed his last film, Son of the Pink Panther, in 1993.
Indeed, prior to the publication of Wasson’s A Splurch in the Kisser, the only books written on Edwards were Peter Lehman and William Luhr’s admirable two-volume academic study, the last volume of which was published in 1989, and both of which are long out of print. Wasson’s one-two punch had, I felt, the potential to equal the feat of Robin Wood following (albeit after an interval of more than thirty years) his classic Howard Hawks with his BFI monograph on Rio Bravo: a comprehensive overview of a master director’s work followed by a close, careful examination of one of his best films. An Edwards revival, spearheaded by Wasson, seemed in the air.
But I was also perplexed by Wasson’s selection of this particular Edwards film as the subject of what I thought would be a treatment along the lines of Wood’s Rio Bravo. On the one hand, the most passionate and articulate champion of Edwards’s work I know, author Damien Bona, regards Breakfast at Tiffany’s not only as Edwards’s greatest film, but also the greatest of all films. Even so, his enthusiasm is a minority position, even among Edwards partisans. Dave Kehr’s judgment that the film “is one of [Edwards’s] best-known efforts, but far from his best” seems to be more representative.
If not Breakfast at Tiffany’s, what? Stuart Byron’s famous defense of Darling Lili (referenced in A Splurch in the Kisser) suggests some of the riches that might emerge in a detailed analysis of that much-maligned film. Of course, yielding to the commercial realities of book publishing, it seems far-fetched to imagine such a work ever reaching shelves. But what about 10? Or The Pink Panther series? Or Victor/Victoria? All were commercial films that appealed to mass audiences upon their initial releases, but they were also examples of Edwards working at the top of his abilities, artistically speaking. About Victor/Victoria, Kehr has written that it “has the most beautiful range of tones of any American film of its period.”
I was mostly surprised, however, because I knew what Wasson’s own opinion of Breakfast at Tiffany’s was. In A Splurch in the Kisser, he asks the question, “Is Breakfast at Tiffany’s a masterpiece?” His answer: “No.” What’s more, in his seven-page chapter on the film (roughly half the space that is devoted, for example, to The Party), he makes it plain that he is not persuaded by those (such as Lehman and Luhr) who have tried to tease out the film’s “auteurist components”—“Though these elements are most certainly present, they are not prominent, and their attendance adds little to the Breakfast at Tiffany’s experience.” Wasson concludes that the film’s iconic stature, as well as its achievement, was “the product of fortuitous collaboration.”
In Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, Wasson doesn’t back down from that view. He has chosen to write at such length about Breakfast at Tiffany’s (as opposed to, say, Victor/Victoria) for reasons other than its importance in Edwards’s oeuvre. His account of the film is such that Edwards’s part in it is not at all primary. Screenwriter George Axelrod, designer Hubert de Givenchy, and, most of all, Hepburn herself are arguably more significant in Wasson’s telling. This is a highly informative, insightful, and often witty book, so I don’t mean to take away from its accomplishments when I say that its author needn’t have been a Blake Edwards expert (which Wasson surely is) to have written it. I hasten to add that I find this regrettable, as Wasson’s brief attempts to read Breakfast at Tiffany’s through an Edwardsian lens in A Splurch in the Kisser are persuasive (such as a comparison he makes between it and Edwards’s next film, the underrated Experiment in Terror.)
But that isn’t the book Wasson has set out to write here. Instead, in recounting the story of the writing of Truman Capote’s novella, Hepburn’s rise to stardom, and the struggle to make the film, Wasson tells us about Hollywood’s (and America’s) changing social and sexual mores in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Much of the credit for those changes, he feels, is due to Hepburn. He writes that before she appeared in Roman Holiday (a film, along with Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, that is seen as anticipating certain aspects of Breakfast at Tiffany’s), “For women in the movies, there existed an extreme dialectic. On the one end, there was Doris Day, and on the other, Marilyn Monroe.” “Wholesome andindependent” is how Wasson describes “what Audrey offered” audiences at the time of Roman Holiday. “[Paramount publicist] AC Lyles saw the value in this combination,” he writes, “one so appealing, it seemed Audrey’s reach might even extend beyond the teenage girl.”.
This connects to Wasson’s most memorable argument, which holds that the casting of Hepburn as Holly Golightly represented the emergence in American film of a playful, guilt-free libertinism (“living alone, going out, looking fabulous, and getting a little drunk didn’t look so bad anymore”). “It was one of the earliest pictures to ask us to be sympathetic toward a slightly immoral young woman,” offers Judith Crist. Wasson is convincing enough on this point, as he has clearly thought a lot about Holly, both Capote’s literary creation and the film’s screen incarnation (and the subtle differences between the two). He writes, “Though the picture ends when she kisses Paul [George Peppard] in the rain, we cannot forget that to get there, she has forsaken her family, abandoned her husband, gone out with a lot of rich foreign men, and, worst of all, had a really good time throughout.” Crist’s claim that the film was “a progressive step in the depiction of women in the movies” seems plausible in this context. Given control over her wardrobe inSabrina (and thereby launching her influential association with Givenchy), on Breakfast at Tiffany’s Hepburn emerges as a kind of coauteur with Edwards, with whom she “worked together to make the performance. Holly, in effect, was their offspring.” In spite of her extreme reluctance in accepting the part of Holly at first, it would eventually lead to the film Wasson sees as Tiffany’s successor, Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road. By my reckoning, the only other subsequent film in which Hepburn “played a woman—not a lovely one, but a real one,” as Wasson writes of Two for the Road, is Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed.
Wasson demonstrated his industriousness as a scholar in A Splurch in the Kisser, which memorably included an appendix listing recurring features of Edwards’s films (e.g., chases, disguises/doubles, pianos), and citing each instance of them in the Edwards filmography. In Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M., he draws extensively on new interviews he conducted with producer Richard Shepherd, late actress Patricia Neal, and Hepburn’s companion, Robert Wolders, among many others. A natural storyteller, Wasson’s writing style is casual to the point of identifying his subjects by their first names (“Truman finally got back to the seaside in the summer of 1957”; “Meanwhile, George and Blake were riding a few postproduction bumps of their own”). But that ought not to obscure his prodigious attention to detail.
In spite of emphasizing so much about Breakfast at Tiffany’s that has nothing to do with Blake Edwards, it eventually becomes clear that only he could have coordinated the production’s various elements and ended up with the film we have today. The revelation that Shepherd and fellow producer Marty Jurow first approached John Frankenheimer to direct brings this point home. John Frankenheimer’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s? It’s hard to imagine such a film. One doesn’t have to strain to identify “auteurist components” inBreakfast at Tiffany’s to recognize (as Wasson does, if only implicitly) that a change in directors, even with everything else remaining the same, would have resulted in a totally different film. For example, it was only because of Edwards that Henry Mancini (by then “fluent in the unspoken language of Blake Edwards”) joined the film. What’s more, it was due in large part to the director’s support that Mancini was allowed to compose “Moon River.” The film’s greatest sequence, depicting a cocktail party thrown by Holly, is presented as being almost entirely an Edwards creation. “Of course, the scene was written by George Axelrod,” says Fay McKenzie, who appeared in the scene, “but everything in it was pure Blake Edwards.”
Therefore, it seems counterintuitive to write, as Wasson does near the end of this fine, entertaining book, that Breakfast at Tiffany’s “wasn’t really A Blake Edwards Movie.” I certainly agree with Wasson (and Kehr) that the film isn’t a masterpiece, however much it is of sociological interest. I only wish that in the future Wasson might devote his considerable critical skills to writing a book on an Edwards film that is.
To purchase Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman., click here.
Peter Tonguette is currently at work on a book on the films of James Bridges to be published by McFarland and Company.
Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.