Sam Wasson’s new book, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman (204 pages, HarperCollins, $19.99), is the story of how the revolutionary film Breakfast at Tiffany’s was sewn together with passion, finesse and luck—and why it shocked the nation in 1961.
Above all, Wasson highlights the real reasons why we should remember and cherish this film: It broke new ground for both single women in the cinema and the types of subject matter depicted on-screen. As Wasson notes, “There was always sex in Hollywood, but before Breakfast at Tiffany’s, only the bad girls were having it… [In the film] living alone, going out, looking fabulous, and getting a little drunk didn’t look so bad anymore. Being single actually seemed shame-free. It seemed fun.” The film also launched Audrey Hepburn’s career into new territories, making her a role model and beauty icon for many generations to come; her portrait still hangs on the wall of many a teenage girl’s bedroom.
Of course the movie is not without its flaws. The clichéd ending was obviously tacked on to appease the studio (and their wallets). Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of an Asian man is wincingly racist and the film cowardly tiptoes around Holly Golightly’s profession as a call-girl, but after reading Wasson’s remarkably detailed account of the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I can’t help but feel a sense of genuine appreciation and, well, pride in the film. From its colorful aesthetics to its new picture of an independent socialite, or “dawn of the modern woman,” as Wasson calls it, Breakfast at Tiffany’s has undoubtedly stood the test of time.
The book would be convincing as fiction; Wasson’s writing is both witty and sophisticated, and forges a bond between reader and film. The amount of research Wasson collected is impressive, especially since he’s able to turn this material into a coherent story—and a page-turner at that.
Wasson takes us from the motivation behind Truman Capote’s novella through Oscar night in 1962 (Tiffany’s only won for Best Song and Best Score, though it was nominated for three other awards), and adds many tasty morsels of information in between. Golightly’s cat, for example, was actually played by more than 12 different felines. “The production held an open cat call at New York’s Hotel Commodore, at which 25 orange-furred hopefuls appeared freshly preened and plucked,” Wasson writes.
Wasson’s history of Hepburn’s iconic black dress is also enjoyable. There was a lack thereof from the 17th century to the mid-1950s, when “only the bitches wear black,” he says, and the connotation of the color speaks for Golightly as well: “It’s the choice of someone who needs not to attract. Someone self-sufficient. Someone more distant, less knowable and ultimately, mysterious. Powerful.”
Despite the dress’ cloak of confidence, Hepburn was surprisingly hesitant and insecure in her ability to portray Golightly with the savoir faire and dynamism that Capote intended. “It was all so nonsensically difficult, down to the Danish pastry in the bag beside her. How would she eat that thing?” Wasson notes.
But the book is more than just pieces of interesting information. Wasson offers insight into the studios’ modus operandi (Paramount released the film), the social order during the late 1950s and an indirect “how-to” for screenwriting based on the methods of George Axelrod, who adapted Capote’s novella for the big screen. Wasson does well in placing things in context, using both historical and cultural backdrops. It’s a light and easy read, with something for everyone.