Everyone thinks they know 'Breakfast at Tiffany's,' the classic, urbane romantic comedy released 50 years ago today, on October 5, 1961. The film that cemented Audrey Hepburn's reputation as an all-time fashion icon, set the bar for every New York fantasy/romantic comedy from 'Barefoot in the Park' to 'Sex and the City,' and gave birth to a thousand Manic Pixie Dream Girls (or at least 25 others). Yet there's a lot you may not know about the movie -- who the real-life Holly Golightly was, how radically different the film might have been if 'Breakfast' author Truman Capote had gotten his way, why the Oscar-winning song 'Moon River' almost got cut from the film, which classic outfits Hepburn herself came up with, how many cartons of cigarettes the tobacco-loving characters smoked on-screen, and what Mickey Rooney has to say about his still-controversial performance.
1. Who was the real-life Holly Golightly? So many women have been named as possible inspirations to Truman Capote -- including Gloria Vanderbilt, Oona Chaplin, writer/actress Carol Grace (who became Walter Matthau's wife), writer Maeve Brennan and model Suzy Parker -- that Capote called the whole speculation "the Holly Golightly sweepstakes." He claimed there was a real Holly, a woman who lived downstairs from him when he was a writer who'd just moved to New York in the early 1940s (like the autobiographical narrator of Capote's tale), though he never identified her by name. A New Yorker named Bonnie Golightly filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against Capote claiming he'd based the character on her.
2. As George Costanza learned during a memorable 'Seinfeld' episode where he watched the film instead of reading the book for his book club, there are a lot of major differences between Capote's 1958 novella and George Axelrod's screenplay to the 1961 movie. There's the setting (the 1940s, not the contemporary 1960s), the nameless narrator (called Paul in the film), Holly's age (she's still in her late teens in the story but played by 31-year-old Hepburn on-screen), Holly's fondness for marijuana (gone in the film). Holly's bisexuality (ditto), and the wistful, ambiguous ending (replaced in the film by a conventional romantic happy ending). Most of all, there's the sense many readers get that Holly is a professional escort, for taking money from wealthy men whom she sometimes sleeps with. In interviews, Capote described Holly not as a prostitute or golddigger but called her an American geisha girl. The film downplayed any suggestion of prostitution, with Paramount publicists issuing statements like, "The star is Audrey Hepburn, not Tawdry Hepburn."
3. Capote envisioned his friend Marilyn Monroe in the part, but her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, talked her out of it, saying the role's call-girl-like nature was bad for her image. Others supposedly in line for the role included Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine and Kim Novak. Capote was a friend of Hepburn's but thought she was miscast. So did Hepburn herself, until director Blake Edwards persuaded her she could do it.
4. Blake Edwards pleaded on his knees with the producers not to hire George Peppard as the male lead. (Steve McQueen was considered but was unavailable.) Indeed, Peppard tried to play the role as a traditional matinee idol, not a vulnerable, flawed, naive young man. So said co-star Patricia Neal, who played Paul's sugar mama (known in the film as "2-E"). She and Peppard had been friends before the filming, but she wrote in her memoir that she was put off by his apparent desire "to be an old-time movie hunk." (Later, of course, Peppard would age into that more standard, macho kind of leading man, most memorably as the leader of TV's 'The A-Team.')
5. How did Edwards manage to shoot the memorable opening scene, in which a taxi rolls down an empty 5th Avenue at dawn, Holly gets out in front of Tiffany's and she nibbles on a Danish while gazing longingly through the jeweler's window? There are two conflicting accounts. One said the scene was hampered by challenges -- a gaggle of gawkers longing for a glimpse of Hepburn, the star's dislike of Danishes, and an accident that nearly electrocuted a crew member. Yet Edwards said the shot was relatively easy, with the busy thoroughfare suddenly clearing up as if by divine intervention. "It was as if God said, ''I'm going to give you a break now, but for the rest of your career you're going to have to live off this one,'" he recalled. At a recent screening of the movie, Edwards' widow, Julie Andrews, said the director (whom she would marry nearly a decade after 'Breakfast') claimed he got the shot in one take.
6. For a movie so associated with Manhattan, very little of it was shot there. There were only about 8 days of location shooting, including inside Tiffany's, which opened on a Sunday for the first time in decades to allow filming, though 40 armed guards and several Tiffany's sales clerks were on hand to prevent pilferage.
7. The party at Holly's apartment, like much of the film, was shot on a Paramount soundstage. A signature Edwards sequence -- he would go on to shoot memorable parties in the 'Pink Panther' movies, '10,' 'Victor/Victoria,' and of course, 'The Party' -- it took six days to film. The extras playing the guests were all friends and relations of the director, Andrews has said. According to studio notes, the revelers consumed plenty of real champagne, as well as 120 gallons of soft drinks, lots of party food (hot dogs, cold cuts, chips, dips, and sandwiches), and 60 cartons of cigarettes. Even that didn't generate enough smoke, so Edwards brought onto the set a smoker of the sort beekeepers use.
8. It's never explained why, at the party, Hepburn is wearing a gown made from a towel. A scene that was cut from the final release has her taking a bath when the party breaks out, and she's forced to improvise a gown.
9. What's the movie's connection to 'The Flintstones'? It's Alan Reed, who played gangster Sally Tomato. He was also the voice of Fred Flintstone.
10. Buddy Ebsen had all but retired when he was persuaded to play Doc Golightly, Holly's estranged husband from down South. His brief performance is said to have landed him the role of Jed Clampett on 'The Beverly Hillbillies,' which made him more famous than ever and extended his career by decades.
11. Hepburn's husband, actor Mel Ferrer, seemed to exercise a near-Svengali-like control over his wife during the production. Neal recalled dining with the couple at their home, an evening that included a very light meal and ended practically before sunset; she remarked that now she knew how Hepburn stayed so thin. Ferrer also tried to influence his wife's performance, until Edwards took her aside and insisted that she treat him as the film's sole director. After that, Ferrer behaved like wet blanket; upon seeing the finished film, his only compliment to his wife was, "I liked your hat."
12. Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer composed 'Moon River' with Hepburn's limited vocal range in mind, having heard her sing in 'Funny Face.' There was talk of having Marni Nixon dub her vocals (as she would do a couple years later in 'My Fair Lady'), but Edwards decided that Hepburn's own plain, unvarnished rendition of the song fit the character better.
13. "Over my dead body!" That was the response to a Paramount executive who wanted to cut the song from the film. It's not clear who said it, however. One account says it was Hepburn, another says it was the producers.
14. Hepburn worked with designer Hubert de Givenchy to craft her costumes for the film. One result: Holly's iconic little black dress, one of the most influential fashion choices in cinema history and a must for nearly every woman's wardrobe ever since. (Yes, it was Coco Chanel, not Givenchy, who invented the little black dress, but it was the version Hepburn wore that made the garment a fashion staple.) Christie's auctioned the original dress in 2006 and sold it for $923,000 (one of the highest prices ever paid for a piece of movie memorabilia), with the money going to support the construction of a school for the poor in Calcutta.
15. Despite her reputation for elegance, Hepburn enjoyed relaxing in a turtleneck and jeans. Which is what Holly wears while lounging on the fire escape and singing 'Moon River.'
16. You'd never know from Holly's willowy figure that Hepburn had given birth to son Sean just three months before shooting. As a hobby, the new mom took up knitting.
17. Hepburn caught a cold after spending four days in studio-made rain shooting the final sequence.
18. The one part of the film that makes audiences cringe today is Mickey Rooney's performance as Holly's neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi. Aside from the insult of having a non-Asian performer play a Japanese man by wearing yellowface makeup, Coke-bottle glasses, and buck teeth, there's also the performance's consistent sense of caricature and stereotype. In a 2008 interview, Rooney said Edwards hired him as a veteran comic actor and directed him to play the character broadly, and that if anyone had taken offense at his portrayal -- like the Asian-American activists who got a free public screening of 'Breakfast' in Sacramento yanked in favor of the more anodyne 'Ratatouille' -- it was news to him. "Never in all the more than 40 years after we made it -- not one complaint," Rooney said. "Every place I've gone in the world people say, 'God, you were so funny.' Asians and Chinese come up to me and say, 'Mickey you were out of this world.'" He added that if he'd known the performance would offend people, "I wouldn't have done it."
19. The film reportedly cost $2.5 million to make. (Some $750,000 of that reportedly went to Hepburn, making her one of the highest-paid actresses of the era.) It earned $4 million in the U.S. upon its initial release and $14 million over its lifetime.
20. Consumers responded almost immediately to the film. Besides the black cocktail dress, Holly's coat and purse became widely copied. Animal shelters reported a rise in demand for ginger tomcats like Holly's cat (whose name, of course, was "Cat"). The soundtrack album went to No. 1 and stayed on the Billboard chart for two years.
21. 'Breakfast' earned Oscar nominations for Hepburn's performance, Axelrod's adapted screenplay, and for art direction. It won two prizes, for Mancini's original score and for Original Song ('Moon River'). They were the first two Oscars of Mancini's career; he'd ultimately win four times out of 18 nominations, and he would compose music for Edwards on many more movies, notably, the 'Pink Panther' films and 'Victor/Victoria.'
22. In 1966, there was a Broadway musical version, starring Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain. It closed after just four performances, becoming one of those legendary flops that -- if as many people who claimed to have seen it actually did -- wouldn't have been a flop at all.
23. In 1969, ABC commissioned a pilot for a TV series, a sitcom called 'Holly Golightly' that starred Stephanie Powers and Jack Kruschen (as Joe the bartender, a character from Capote's novella that didn't make it into the movie). The network ultimately declined to pick up the pilot and make it into a series.
24. The property made it to the stage once more as a straight play in 2009, on London's West End. Anna Friel (the cult TV series 'Pushing Daises') played Holly.
25. In 1995, the band Deep Blue Something had a hit with a Hepburn-inspired song called 'Breakfast at Tiffany's.' The lyrics actually had more references to 'Roman Holiday,' but songwriter Todd Pipes thought the reference to the more iconic tale of Holly Golightly would make a better song title.
[Photo: Everett Collection]
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- A is for Audrey Hepburn in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'
- B is for 'Breathless,' with Jean Seberg
- C is for Claudette Colbert in 'The Palm Beach Story'
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