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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.

A Dream Team: Patricia Resnick on 3 Women

As a film student at the University of Southern California, new to LA and without connections, Patricia Resnick had a habit of following film trucks, just to see where they’d lead. One took her to Westwood and the set of California Split (1974). The director was Robert Altman, her favorite. That afternoon, she hovered around the trucks (“I had more guts than brains,” she says), and when Altman turned up, Resnick told him she wanted to interview him for a paper she was writing on the greatest living director—which was true. He said okay. The next day, Altman called and said he wanted to hire her, not then but later. By the time Resnick graduated in 1975, he had a job for her: assistant to the publicist on Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976). It was while they were working on that film that he asked if she wanted to write a treatment for the idea that became 1977’s 3 Women.

There’s a rule in the films of Robert Altman: if something works, turn it around and look again. A good Altman picture turns its people and places around so many times, it feels less like a single movie than x number of movies, one for every turn. And with every turn, more flavor. Dreamy and satirical and alarming, 3 Women is a Persona-like slow roast skewered on a spit, a picture of Altman’s frightened unconscious if it woke up in, well, Dodge City. Resnick, whose career as a Hollywood screenwriter was launched that day on the California Split set, would go on to collaborate with Altman on A Wedding (1978) and Quintet (1979) and appear briefly in The Player (1992)Here, she discusses her work with the filmmaker and his translation of 3 Women from brain to screen.

Sam Wasson: So you’re working on Buffalo Bill—

Patricia Resnick: Here’s what happened. He was producing Bob Benton’s movie The Late Show. Lily Tomlin was in it, and she was improving a lot of her dialogue, and she was asking for suggestions. And I was there and threw out some suggestions she liked. She eventually asked me to write a couple pieces for what became her first Broadway show. Altman went to see the show and said, “Oh, the kid can write.”

SW: It was around this time—as Altman told it—that his wife, Kathryn, got sick and he had this dream, a sort of nightmare.

PR: The dream was mostly cast and setting, more than it was story. Sissy and Shelley were in the dream. And he had the desert and something about switching personas. Those things were there, but they were vague. It was a dream.

SW: And he takes the dream to Fox?

PR: Yes. He had a good relationship with Fox and told them about this dream, and they said, “Great, but we’re not going to finance this dream without seeing something on paper.” So Altman came to me and said he wanted a treatment written, and if Fox moved forward with the film and wanted a script, I could come on as screenwriter and that would be my first screenwriting credit.

SW: Beyond the dream elements, was Altman specific about wanting anything else in the treatment?

PR: No. He just wanted a treatment, about fifty pages. We knew there had to be something of a story and we knew there had to be a third woman.

SW: Why?

PR: He just wanted a third woman. He liked the title 3 Women, so we needed a third woman. That was Bob.

SW: Did he let you go from there or did he work closely with you on the treatment?

PR: At the time, I was sharing an office with Scotty Bushnell, who was his right-hand person, who was casting all the time, so all these actors were running in and out. Ed Ruscha was around a lot, and various other sundry people. I was upstairs and Altman was downstairs, and he would come up all the time and we would go over everything, about every ten pages or so. But mostly he just let me go. It wasn’t like most writing—a collaboration between left brain and right brain. With this, I tried to use my left brain very little—I tried to dream it also.

SW: How did he give notes on a piece of unconscious writing based on a dream?

PR: He wasn’t a real note giver. I don’t think I ever got a written note from him on anything ever. Generally, conversations would be more about what he was seeing. I’d show him pages, and he’d say, “Okay, good, but I really want a run-down bar with all this crap out in the back, with shit piled up. I want that.” That was an Altman note. You know what I mean? He wasn’t a reader. Trying to get him to read a book or script was impossible. I wondered in later years if he might have been dyslexic, not seriously, but he was that averse to the printed word. His process was completely anti-intellectual. I remember at one point there was a film he wanted to make, a film based on a book, not a particularly good one, and it was set in a factory. He liked the idea, visually, of the factory—and that did it. He went from there to try to make a movie around it, but it didn’t go forward. That’s sort of how we worked on 3 Women. He’d like something and in it went.

SW: How long did the treatment take you?

PR: About a month. I wrote it quickly. When I finished, he was very happy with it, and he went to Fox, which decided to go ahead with it. And then a couple weeks later, he called me into his office and said, “I’m really sorry, but I’ve decided not to do a screenplay. I’m going to have the actors do it. But I’ll have you work on the movie in some way, as an extra or PA or something.” He knew I needed some kind of job. I was only twenty-two, twenty-three, and without any other prospect. So I was pretty devastated. Altman was the only Hollywood connection I had.

Continue reading at Criterion