Tag Archives: audrey hepburn

Why They Couldn’t Make Breakfast at Tiffany’s Today

This week, as the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, generations of fans old and new will amble up Fifth Avenue, press their noses to the shiny windows on 57th and remember their first times.

It will be a bittersweet day for me, however.

Sweet for all the right reasons, bitter because the age of the grown up Hollywood comedy is long behind us. Mind you, this isn’t nostalgia, it’s arithmetic: the people making the movies have changed and so have the people they’re making them for.

As a former seven to twelve year-old, I was a huge fan of sameness. That was the great thing about The Kids Menu. No matter where your parents took you, it was always the same. Pizza, pasta, grilled cheese, simple, familiar, benign. The perfect speed for a young person not ready for the Big Out There. That’s Hollywood today.

No offense to pizza, but this is tragic for those of us care to enjoy a piece of arugula from time to time.

Even more tragic for those of us who were eating off The Kids Menu when the likes of John Calley, the great and beloved studio chief who died three weeks ago, was in the kitchen.

A true master of the art of commercial art, Calley oversaw a successful series of highly diversified films, ranging honorably from healthy dreck to serious grown-up fare. For every meandering, money-grabbing Da Vinci Code on his tremendous resume, there was challenging, immortal A Clockwork Orange. For every dollar earned, in other words, there was a risk taken.

The very beautiful thing about this era of not-tool-long-ago is Calley wasn’t alone. There were others making money, making art. Fox’s Alan Ladd Jr. said yes to Star Wars and Harry and Tonto, a movie about an old guy and a cat; United-Artists’s David Picker agreed to Dr. No and Lenny, a movie about the price of making tough art; Paramount’s Richard Shepherd green-lit The Towering Inferno and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a movie about free love before the term even existed.

Alas, Shepherd wouldn’t get far with Breakfast at Tiffany’s today, at least not if he were making the grown up version we know and love. Out would go the subtle innuendo, European couture, moral ambiguity, and brilliant counterpoint casting of its good-girl star in a bad-girl part, and in their place, rim-shot jokes, the latest fashion trend, explicit messages, and safe, dependable typecasting. In other words, today’s Tiffany’s would be a film suited to the mundane demands of Hollywood’s most admiring customers: kids. Theirs is mainstream film’s greatest love affair.

No business likes risk, and lucky for Hollywood, younger audiences, prone to the pressures of “cool” and partial to formula, are about as risk-free as a demographic gets. They know what they like and they like what they know. Thus are the young supplied with sequels, franchises, remakes, and movies named after board games (Battleship will be released in 2012). Anything to serialize what has already been serialized before.

To be fair, this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. As far back as Hollywood’s first star, movies have tried to homogenize their product in a way that was mutually beneficial for both business and audiences.

If they like Cary Grant, the thinking went, give them Cary Grant movies. If they like Marilyn Monroe, maybe they’ll go for Kim Novak. Sometimes it even turned out well. But not anymore.

The very big, very small difference between then and now is back then, novelty had a commercial ring to it. Mixing proven types with risky, unproven material, like Audrey Hepburn (a franchise) plus Truman Capote’s (challenging, naughty) Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was in 1961 an attention-grabbing combination. A gamble yes, but a gamble bold enough to win big: revoking homogeny, Richard Shepherd’s film was bigger than any single demographic alone. That meant kids, grown-ups, Hepburn’s fans, and Capote-lovers all had something to look forward to.

And thank goodness: Without that lucrative roll of the dice, the film would be little more than a serialized rehash of Audrey’s persona and hardly worth remembering today. Even if the movie failed, it would be worth remembering because, thanks to Shepherd, Breakfast at Tiffany’s had prestige out of the gate. It pandered up.

The Sex Pistols’ late manager Malcolm McLaren observed ours was a karaoke world, an ersatz society. As long as his statement applies to Hollywood, and it does, we’ll never see the likes of an Audrey Hepburn in a Breakfast at Tiffany’s ever again.

Advertisements

Micmacs is The New Film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

I remember the day I saw The City of Lost Children, the first of Jeunet’s films to really breakthrough into US art houses.

I didn’t know it then, but I’m sure now it was one of those outbursts of total imagination, like Caligari and Metropolis and Brazil, films whose singularity is without precedent or successor. In trying to describe it, one inevitably sells it short, but if we’re going to try to understand how far Jean-Pierre Jeunet has fallen in the years since The City of Lost Children, it’s important to try to put a finger on what he once was.

The achievement, as always, is twofold; one happened in front of the camera and the other behind it. First, with co-director Marc Caro, Jeunet created the world of The City of Lost Children. Simply, they gave us a mise-en-scene that expressed the sound and complicated logic of their new world. Vivid sets, costumes, and a company of actors matched only by the faces in Daumier, gave us just about everything we would need to experience total immersion. Then came the camera, the second achievement. Having set the stage, Jeunet and Caro bent it into the kind of expressionistic nightmare Jacques Tati might have had after a night of reading The Brothers Grimm, drunk on absinthe. Their taffy-like camera could go anywhere and do anything. It was elastic. It flew. It moved like a flea, it moved like a crane.

I remember the day – days after seeing The City of Lost Children – when I discovered that Jeunet and Caro had made another film, Delicatessen, which I must have been to young to have caught on its first run in 1991. I rented it, and had the same eureka – perhaps a double eureka – compounded by the new knowledge of Jeunet and Caro I brought to the viewing. To this day, I’m still not sure which film is better. Like a good fairy tale, The City of Lost Children packs an emotional punch; but Delicatessen, in its wit and caricature, is as clever about human strangeness as Bunuel’s drollest films. I could watch them forever and – as Joni Mitchell says – still be on my feet.

Then Jenuet got hot, took a job directing Alien Resurrection (the fourth, and worst, of the Alien franchise), retreated for several years of wound-licking, and returned with Amelie in 2001. There isn’t really much to say about that. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but I remember it felt like the product of a diluted sensibility. What it had was an excess of charm (almost cloying) and a colorful, Rube Goldberg approach to narrative. Okay, fine. If people loved it, it was probably because they didn’t know about the great work that had preceded it. Those of us who were already fans of Jeunet and Caro expected more from the circus.

After Amelie, Jeunet continued on without Caro (they split after Alien Resurrection) and lost yet another shade of darkness. A Very Long Engagement was a failed attempt to get into David Lean mode; you could feel Jeunet desperately wanting to go global and it came off as insincere. Once again, Audrey Tautou was set up to be the next Audrey Hepburn, but I think we can all see now she was really nothing more than a human pastry. Yum, but where’s the beef?

Now we have Micmacs, Jeunet’s limpest yet. I saw it with a friend, also a fan, and we left the theater with our heads down. “Gilliam, Burton, and now Jeunet,” my friend sighed. I sighed too.

Share

Safe Sex

I woke up this morning happy to discover the lovely Mary Kaye Schilling had written a lovely riff on 5th Avenue, 5 AM in this week’s New York Magazine. Here’s the top of it:

On the morning the film began shooting—a chilly dawn, October 2, 1960—Audrey Hepburn was seated in a cab. She had big doubts about this role, right down to the Danish in a paper bag sitting beside her. She hated Danishes and had asked her director, Blake Edwards, if she could switch to an ice-cream cone; he said no, pointing out that it was breakfast, after all. When “Action!” was called, the taxi drove up Fifth Avenue and stopped on the corner of 57th Street. Hepburn—wearing sunglasses and a black Givenchy gown—stepped out of the car and paused on the curb to gaze up at Tiffany’s. In that moment, the actress, in the guise of Holly Golightly, created an indelible cinematic moment—and a new future for women. “No Holly, no Carrie Bradshaw, no Sex and the City,” says Sam Wasson, whose new book, Fifth Avenue, 5 a.m. (June 22), is about the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

A fascination with fascination is one way of describing Wasson’s interest in a film that not only captures the sedate elegance of a New York long gone, but that continues to entrance as a love story, a style manifesto, and a way to live. “It’s crossed generations in ways Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and other cliché classics haven’t,” says Wasson, who unearths such juicy tidbits as the near-cutting of the indelible theme song “Moon River,” the utter dickishness of co-star George Peppard, who played the love interest, and the protest over Mickey Rooney portraying a Japanese man. Wasson wanted to know the reason for its cultural longevity, and once he started asking, the inevitable answer was Audrey Hepburn. But something about the idolatry bugged him. “Hepburn has become a near-saintly figure, untouchable. That didn’t sit well with me. I thought there was a human being there who needed to be looked at.”

For the rest, please check out New York Magazine.

Share

What is This Thing Called Audrey?

Yesterday was Audrey Hepburn’s 81st birthday.

I’ve spent the past year and half thinking about Audrey, trying to figure out why and how this gawky, awkward introvert could go from actress to star to international icon in the space of a few short months. Was it pure luck and timing? Was it sheer force of will? Or was it something else, something bigger?

When Roman Holiday was released in 1953, designer/photographer Cecil Beaton was first to lay a finger on it. He wrote,

She had, if you like, her prototypes in France – Damia, Edith Piaf, or Juliet Greco. But it took the rubble of Belgium, an English accent, and an American success to launch the striking personality that best exemplifies our new Zeitgeist.

Nobody ever looked like her before World War II: it is doubtful if anybody ever did, unless it be those wild children of the French Revolution who stride in the foreground of romantic canvases. Yet we recognize the rightness of this appearance in relation to our historical needs. And the proof is that thousands of imitations have appeared. The woods are full of emaciated young ladies with rat-nibbled hair and moon-pale faces.

Well put. But who exactly is responsible for “the rightness of this appearance”? For beyond being simply Audrey Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn was “Audrey Hepburn,” a synthetic amalgamation of looks, style, behavior, marketing, media, and the characters she played. Like everything else in Hollywood – like Marilyn Monroe and Singin’ in the Rain – she was a construction, fortified by the gifted men and women of Paramount, the writers, directors, cameramen, production executives, public relations people, and (quite memorably) costume designers. One designer in particular.

Edith Head.

Outside of the stars, Ms. Head was arguably the most powerful woman in Hollywood. By 1953, she had been nominated for the Oscar eight times and had won five. (And the category had only been approved in 1949.) Even still, they said she wasn’t a great designer, at least not like Givenchy or any of the great Parisian couturiers. Maybe she wasn’t, but as the confessor to the biggest stars in Hollywood, Edith Head had all she needed. She didn’t just hold their measurements, she held their secrets.

And she had her favorites. Grace Kelly: to Edith, she was what a woman should look like. But lanky, breastless, big-eyed Audrey Hepburn looked nothing like Grace Kelly. Nor did she resemble Bette Davis, Carole Lombard, or any of the other feminine ideals Edith had known so well. Audrey was something else entirely.

But what was that something else? And how did the events of October 2, 1960, the first day the cameras turned on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, change the course of Audrey’s life, and the lives of young women across America, forever? It took a whole book to figure out why, and I haven’t thought of Holly Golightly, Truman Capote, Edith Head, or Audrey in quite the same way since.

Share

The Dawn of the Modern PR Campaign

I was walking down the streets of New York, mulling over the release strategy for my new book, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Dawn of the Modern Woman, when I was mugged.

I didn’t see him and I don’t know how it happened. All I know is I was on the ground. “Hey man, are you okay?”

Are you okay? To someone who’s been contemplating the book business, this is an imposing question. “I don’t know,” I thought to respond, “am I? Are any of us?” Instead I chose to ignore him, and laid there fretting about my impending photo shoot. I had hoped to appear dapper and slightly licentious, like young Truman Capote on the back of Other Voices, Other Rooms, but now I was certain to look more like Eric Stoltz from Mask – but with Jewish hair.

Moments later, a cop was squinting at my nose. He was a short man, with the face of Jon Polito and the body of Miriam Margolyes. “It looks like you’re pretty roughed up, buddy,” he observed, “and you’re gonna hurt for a while but don’t you wurryboutit. The ladies are gonna love it.”

But I didn’t want ladies. I want sales.

“Kid, what do you for a living? What’s your job?”

I mumbled.

“You’re a blogger?”

I mumbled emphatically.

“Oh, a writer!”

I smiled. Blood spurt.

“Well, now you’re gonna be in the papers.”

What? The papers. Wait a second. “Yofinkdanoyowkpah – ”

“Don’t try to talk – ”

The papers. “Yoo fink da Noo York Potht cud wun an item bout – ”

“Listen, kid. Keep your mouth closed.”

But I wanted to sing. I wanted to run to the top of the Conde-Nast building and cry out in wild joy. “Yoo fink Janet Mathlin readths the Potht?” I wasn’t thinking now, I was exploding. “Offither, yoo fink it wud bebedder if the other thide of my fathe wath…” There was literally no end to the possibilities. If I could get mugged again, wouldn’t that make for a better story? And if I did it in another part of town, I could reach a new audience. Of course the backdrop was going to be key here. What about the Bronx? There really was something in my book for the Puerto Rican community. Or Chelsea? No, I had the gays – but the hipsters? If I could just change into a flannel shirt before the next mugging, Nylon might even go for it. Or even Interview. Whoa, whoa. Easy there, keep it cool, keep it viral. Art Forum? Because this is bigger than mugging, this is performance art. Yes, MoMA! Move over Marina Abramovic! “Sam Wasson’s latest series, ‘Mug Shots,’ is the artist’s most explicitly political sequence yet. In the wake of health care reform, Wasson, author of Fifth Avenue, 5.A.M: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Dawn of the Modern Woman, sets about to demonstrate the inefficiency of the national…”

The paramedics were upon me now, dabbing at my wounds. I tried my best to keep the fuckers off, but my arms were too sore.

“It’s okay, you’re going to be fine. Really.” They were cleaning me up.

No.

“Just hold still.”

Now Graydon would never notice.

Share

Goodbye, Bob Willoughby (1927-2009)

Bob Willoughby, the man considered by many to be the greatest set photographer of all time, died Friday at his home in Vence, France. He was 82.

It’s difficult not to love Willoughby’s work. He shot the most beautiful people, his pictures are graphically bold and often full of action, and they give us regular people privileged access into the private, behind the scenes moments of our favorite movies. But what am I saying? That’s what all set photographers do.

What makes Willoughby’s work stand up taller than the rest, is that it contains a true, open-eyed love for the process of making movies. One look at any of his pictures, and you’ll see he saw the stars, directors, and technicians, the way we want to see them, with curiosity, the enthusiasm of true fans, and, unlike the classical Hollywood portraits of Hurrell, only the slightest touch of idealism.

Today, we like to see movie people cut down to size. And why shouldn’t we? Many of them are just too rich and too happy (or so they seem) for us to want to let them stay that way.  But Willoughby’s work forsakes that impulse, and reminds us of all that was wonderful – and indeed still may be wonderful – about the picture industry. And the way Willoughby saw it, it was truly an industry – of stunning people out there doing stunning work.

I’m happy to say I had the good fortune to speak with Willoughby over the last year. Our communication began when I contacted him out of the blue to see if I could get the rights to a photo of his which I wanted to use for the cover of my book about Blake Edwards. Though he owed me no favors, he wanted to give it to me for a very, very low price. He didn’t have to; I was willing to pay pull price (for this shot, attached below, you would have too), but he insisted.

And when I told him I was working on a book about his muse, Audrey Hepburn, he assured me that everything they ever said about her was true. She was the loveliest person in pictures, perhaps the loveliest person he had ever met. The way he said it, with such tender reverence, it was impossible not to believe him.

So here’s to Bob Willoughby, who loved making movies. The proof is in the pictures.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1966)

Blake Edwards and Natalie Wood, The Great Race (1965)

Judy Garland and George Cukor, A Star is Born (1954)


Dustin Hoffman and script supervisor Meta Rebner, The Graduate (1967)