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Monday, April 11, 2011

"Two drifters, off to see the world...."

I need to watch Breakfast at Tiffany's again, because I've only seen it once and it's just silly to allow a film you loved the one time you saw it to go unwatched again. I've just read a new book called Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M., by Sam Wasson, about the making of the movie. Interestingly, the book takes a wider view of the making of Breakfast, by showing us the lives of the principals involved in the film leading up to the project that would bring them all together. He gives biographical sketches of Truman Capote and Audrey Hepburn, of screenwriter George Axelrod and costumer Edith Head, of Mel Ferrer and Blake Edwards and many others who came to make the movie. Wasson's approach is almost novelistic, and if it's not an exhaustively detailed account of a single film's production, it compensates for that by being more of a portrait of sorts of the film's genesis.

It's not a portrait in which all the particulars look perfect, either. Truman Capote was apparently a fairly odd individual with a train-wreck of a childhood; Audrey Hepburn is seen as something of a tragic figure as well, enduring multiple miscarriages in a marriage that doesn't appear terribly happy. For all the skill Blake Edwards brought to the film, he is not without fault: he cast Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi. And though he is only in the book briefly, George Peppard -- the film's male lead -- was apparently a colossal jerk on the set.

Here is an excerpt from the book, detailing Henry Mancini's efforts at coming up with a song for the movie...and more specifically, a song for Holly Golightly, Audrey Hepburn's troubled and wounded character.

For a full month, slouching on the rented piano he kept in the garage, Henry Mancini agonized over the song. What had he gotten himself into? Over and over again, he replayed, again and again, Audrey's voice in his head. He caught Funny Face [a musical Hepburn had done previously with Fred Astaire] on TV a few nights earlier, and with the short range -- her range -- of an octave and one, tried riffing on Audrey's rendition of "How Long Has This Been Going On?" I could cry salty tears....Everything he tried died on the second or third note. I could cry...But for lack of an alternative, he stuck to it. Cry salty...cry salty tears...But the stucking didn't stick. Nothing did. If Mancini didn't deliver on this, what would he say to Jurow and Shepherd [the film's producers], or to Blake [Edwards, the director], who'd had faith in him, who stuck his neck out? Even worse, what would he tell himself the next tim ehe sat down with a pipe at the piano? "You'll do it, Hank"? There were only so many times his wife, Ginny, could say it to him. Only so many more times he would let himself go on to her about what kind of song this girl would sing. Was a Broadway-style melody actually the right choice for "travelin' through the pastures of the sky"? That didn't seem to fit with the private moment on a fire escape. But maybe the blues would. Where have I...Maybe like a jazzy pop thing. Or a country thing. Was that what was in her heart?

This was a time when Holly would cut through the pretense and show, for the length of a song, who she really was beneath all the sophistication. Right: beneath the sophistication. Whatever that sounded like, it had to be simple.

And then -- as these things tend to happen -- it came suddenly. Three notes: C, G, F. It was promising. Not a song, but a beginning. Staying within the range of an octave and one, and being careful to keep the melody all in the same key -- much simpler that way -- Mancini turned out the next several notes, all on the white keys. They didn't sound bad -- actually, they sounded good. At first, he went ahead carefully, mindful of not leaping too far beyond his flow, and then, as he gained momentum, proceeded half consciously. Now it was all falling out of him. A moment later it was automatic -- he was taking dictation. As if they knew just where to go, as if they had been there many times before, the remaining notes obediently assumed their place on the page. Twenty minutes later, the composer looked up from the piano. The song was written.

The next day, Mancini made a record of it and took it in to Edwards. Blake loved it. Then it was to Paramount to play the tune for Shepherd and Jurow. "Hank brought a 78 record up to our office," recalls Shepherd, "and he said, 'Let us know what you think of it.' He just laid it down and left. Marty and I listened to it and we thought it was terrific."

"Who do you want to write the lyrics?" they asked.

"Johnny Mercer," was the reply. Mancini didn't even have to think about it.

The result, of course, was "Moon River".

Maybe I can't hold myself up as any kind of expert, but this surely has to be one of the perfect moments in all cinema. This woman is having a moment all for herself, on the fire escape at the back of her apartment. We first saw her in an elegant black dress, but now she's in jeans and a sweatshirt with her hair beneath a towel. She has no idea anyone's listening, and maybe she doesn't even care; all she is doing is singing this simple tune with its lyrics that are both sad and hopeful. And the setting of the music is so wisely done, the way the muted strings rise up underneath the song in the second verse. Hepburn's Holly Golightly seems so sad here -- but the nature of the sadness isn't spelled out at all. Does she miss something or someone? Does she feel that her life has gone awry? The film will fill in some of those blanks, but the song is, all at once, sad and hopeful and mysterious.

And that little thing Hepburn does at the end, there, when she's done singing? When she looks up and sees her upstairs neighbor listening? And without a trace of embarrassment, she just smiles and says "Hi"? That's one of those Audrey Hepburn moments, the ones that make me want to give her my heart, just because.

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