by Corinna Honan, The Daily Mail, November 5, 2010
When it came to casting the star of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, the two producers were stumped. None of the big stars of the late Fifties seemed right for their radically modern heroine, who earned her living as a call-girl.
Debbie Reynolds? Too sweet. Grace Kelly? Too conventional. Liz Taylor? Too seductive. Doris Day? Too virginal. Then the producers had a brainwave. Of course: Audrey Hepburn!
Didn’t the novel on which the film would be based specify a skinny girl with a ‘flat little bottom’, ‘hair sleek and short as a young man’s’ and ‘a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman’?
Audrey wasn’t too sexy or too apple-pie, and there was no doubt she had the right physique. Hadn’t the great film director Billy Wilder once said that ‘Audrey Hepburn, singlehanded, may make bosoms a thing of the past’?
Now convinced that Audrey was the only woman on the planet who could bring Holly Golightly to life, one of the producers — Marty Jurow — flew out to meet her on a film set in the south of France. There, however, he was shocked to discover that their 29-year-old leading lady wasn’t quite as gamine as they’d imagined; in fact, she was heavily pregnant.
Well, that didn’t matter; they could wait. But they hadn’t reckoned with Audrey’s controlling husband, Mel Ferrer, a B-movie actor and occasional director who was increasingly resentful of his wife’s success.
Playing a woman of questionable virtue, he counselled his wife, could only do her image irreparable harm. Audrey acquiesced. ‘I can’t play a hooker,’ she told Jurow firmly but sweetly — and that appeared to be that.
If only Marty Jurow and co-producer Richard Shepherd’s problems had ended there. Audrey, as everyone knows, eventually relented, and Breakfast At Tiffany’s has over the past five decades become a classic, illuminated by a haunting song and the charm of its twig-like star.
But the film, it can now be revealed, was very nearly not made at all. Behind the scenes, a cauldron of egos and insecurities was continually threatening to boil over.
Both the initial director and scriptwriter were thrown off the movie. The next director begged the producers to sack the leading man. The studio boss tried to axe the specially-written theme song — and the star refused to sing it.
Meanwhile, the costume designer was aghast when a French couturier was asked to make the dresses. And the gay socialite writer Truman Capote, who wrote the original novel, loudly proclaimed that Audrey had been grossly miscast as Holly Golightly.
That wasn’t all, by any means. Had Jurow and Shepherd been less determined, they might have pulled the plug after their first approach to the author ended in utter farce.
No, he wasn’t against them filming his book, Capote told them in his distinctive nasal tones over a lunch at the Colony restaurant in New York. But he wanted Marilyn Monroe — ‘that sweet, dear baby’ — to be the star; after all, she had something touchingly simple about her and would be perfect as Holly.Then he added: ‘You know, of course, that I want to play the male lead.’
There was a long pause as it dawned on Jurow, who privately thought that Capote looked like a leprechaun, that the novelist wasn’t joking.
Trying to conceal his dismay, he rallied valiantly: ‘Truman, the role just isn’t good enough for you. All eyes will be on Holly Golightly, through every frame of this picture. The male lead is just a pair of shoulders for Holly to lean on . . .’
Truman pondered this for a few moments. ‘You’re right,’ he said at last. ‘I deserve something more dynamic.’
On the plane back to Los Angeles, Marty found himself seated by chance next to Marilyn Monroe, who had recently finished filming Some Like It Hot. Unlike Capote, he wasn’t at all convinced she’d be right for Holly, but he wasn’t about to pass up the chance of landing such a big name.
Marilyn — who’d already heard all about the project — told him she was definitely interested but would need to consult her personal acting coach, Paula Strasberg. A few days later, Marty had his answer. ‘Marilyn Monroe,’ Strasberg told him in a short call, ‘will not play a lady of the evening.’
In retrospect, the failure to cast the marshmallow-soft Marilyn as a tough but effervescent little tart was probably the first thing about the production to go right.
Paramount, the studio behind the movie, was deeply worried about the whole project. So were Jurow and Shepherd, who’d snapped up Capote’s popular novel without giving much thought to its content.
Not only did they have an openly carnal heroine on their hands, but they didn’t have the faintest idea how to turn a book with precious little plot and no romance — a motiveless drama with an unhappy ending — into a Hollywood hit.
The first script, by Sumner Locke Elliott, was a disaster — not least, according to Shepherd, because the scriptwriter had made a travesty of Holly and turned the male lead into a character who ‘borders on the effeminate’.
No, no, no, said the anguished producers: Holly had to be funny and likeable and her neighbour — who was nameless in the book, but was to be called Paul in the film — had to be robustly heterosexual.
George Axelrod, writer of The Seven Year Itch, now came on board to make a romance between the pair believable. Out went the illegitimate pregnancy and miscarriage. Out went the swear words. Out went the unhappy, unresolved ending.
In came the famous scene — not in the novel — in which Holly and Paul get a cheap ring engraved in the hallowed halls of the Tiffany’s jewellery store.
But even Axelrod couldn’t get around the fact that Breakfast At Tiffany’s would be asking audiences for the first time to fall in love with an unrepentant bad-girl heroine who has sex for money.
And he knew that was going to upset the Hollywood film censor, whose Fifties sensibilities were more attuned to Doris Day/Rock Hudson-type movies that equated sex with marriage.
So, cunningly, Axelrod decided to divert the censor’s attention from any hints about Holly’s true nature by giving Paul a tumble in bed with another woman living in the apartment block.
The ruse worked: the censor scored a red pencil through Paul’s sex scenes — which Axelrod had never intended to use in the first place — and more or less left Holly alone.
Enter Audrey Hepburn, who’d finally agreed, after some arm-twisting by her agent, to sign on the dotted line. But not before she’d wrung a few key concessions from the producers.
First, Axelrod would have to soften her character even further and take out some of the sexual innuendo. (No surprise there: during the making of Love In The Afternoon, her puritanical husband had once walked out on Audrey just for using the word s*** when she spilled something on her dress.)
Second, she wasn’t keen on the hot young director who’d already been working on the project for three months, and she wanted a bigger name.
Against his better judgment, Axelrod gave in, because he knew he had no choice; and the blameless director, John Frankenheimer, was duly booted off the film.
There was, at least, a sigh of relief when Audrey said she was happy with the new director, Blake Edwards, later best known for his Pink Panther films. But Edwards himself had an awkward problem: he passionately believed that George Peppard, the actor who’d already been hired to play Paul, was wrong for the part.
‘What about Tony Curtis?’ he suggested. Curtis was keen, but the producers weren’t. In an attempt to make Edwards change his mind, they took him to a screening of Peppard’s latest film, Home From The Hill.
From the moment the actor first appeared on the screen, Edwards knew he didn’t want Peppard in his movie. ‘After coming out,’ he recalled, ‘I dropped to my knees on the sidewalk and begged the producers not to cast him.’
It was two against one, however, so Peppard was in. Garrulous and full of his own importance, he was soon to become the least-liked member of the entire production.
So eager was he to steal the limelight from Audrey that even the producers began to regret hiring him. On one occasion, the director almost hit Peppard in full view of the cast after the actor had objected loudly to some instructions for a scene. Even Audrey wasn’t a fan.
‘I must say there wasn’t a human being that Audrey Hepburn didn’t have a kind word for,’ said co-producer Richard Shepherd, ‘except George Peppard. She didn’t like him at all. She thought he was pompous.’
When Audrey wasn’t around, Peppard referred to her disdainfully as ‘the Happy Nun’.
Not that our leading lady was exactly happy — oh, no. As Edwards discovered, she had no confidence what oever in her acting ability and leaned on him heavily for support.
Until, that is, her husband flew over to be with her and started secretly directing her every evening for the next day’s scenes.
It wasn’t hard for Edwards to realise what was going on. He made a point of rehearsing the next day’s scenes with her at the end of each day’s filming — but, back on set, she’d ignore everything they’d agreed.
At this point, he gave Audrey an ultimatum. Either stop letting Ferrer take over, or find herself another director.
With the movie at stake, Ferrer found it politic to stop coaching his wife. Instead, he began openly criticising her clothing and demeanour in front of others on the set.
One evening, at a Japanese restaurant with various members of the cast and crew, Audrey made the mistake of putting her elbows on the table. When Ferrer saw this, he picked up a fork, slipped its prongs under her elbows, and said, in a voice loud enough for all to hear: ‘Ladies do not put their elbows on the table.’
Everyone at the table was mortified. Audrey quietly removed her elbows and put her hands in her lap.
She had other, more pressing anxieties, however, among them the requirement for her to sing a song. It was to be a key moment: Holly Golightly, sitting on the fire-escape and strumming a guitar as Paul listened from his open window above.
Well, forget it. Since making the musical film Funny Face, Audrey believed her voice had thinned considerably, and now she was terrified of making a fool of herself.
It was just as well that the jazz composer Henry Mancini, who’d been hired to write the score, didn’t know that she’d backed out. He was having battles of his own with the Paramount head of production, Marty Rackin, who thought Holly’s plaintive song should be written by a Broadway composer instead.
In an attempt to placate Mancini, the producers let him write a song anyway. Only an amazing tune and lyric could have prevailed against these odds, and that is precisely what happened. When the producers heard Moon River, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, they were so dumbstruck with admiration that they decided to put it in the picture without the head of Paramount’s consent.
That left the director with the problem of having no one to sing it. For a brief period, there was talk of using Marni Nixon (who would, three years later, be Audrey’s vocal surrogate for My Fair Lady), but he didn’t think that would look authentic.
So he set to work on wearing down Audrey’s defences. Whatever weakness audiences perceived in her vocal ability, Edwards told her, it would actually enhance their perception of Holly as a normal, likeable girl.
Ever keen to distance herself from the loucher elements of her character, Audrey finally caved in. Without a moment to lose, she was rushed into guitar lessons and rehearsals with a vocal coach.
The first preview of Breakfast At Tiffany’s took place in 1961 at a small theatre near San Francisco. Afterwards, Audrey, her husband, the director, the two producers and the composer piled into a stretch limo and headed for a party in a Paramount suite.
Marty Rackin, the studio head, was the first to speak. ‘I love the picture, fellas,’ he said, tapping out his cigar on an ashtray, ‘but the f***ing song has to go.’
The director’s face turned crimson with rage and Audrey started rising from her chair. The composer, Mancini, said later that he thought there was going to be a lynching.
It was producer Richard Shepherd who managed to save Moon River from the cutting-room floor. ‘You’ll cut that song over my dead body!’ he growled, and Rackin had a feeling that he meant it.
Then everyone gathered round Audrey to tell her how brilliantly she’d captured the will’o’the wisp at the heart of the movie. All except her husband, who was clearly suffering from a serious case of spouse-envy.
‘I liked your hat,’ he told her tersely.
In the wider world, most of the critics greeted the film with rapture. Not Truman Capote, though. When asked what he thought was wrong with it, he replied: ‘Oh, God, just everything. It was the most miscast film I’ve ever seen. It made me want to throw up.’
From Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson