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Holly Golightly: Breaking Rules In A Little Black Dress

Holly Golightly. Just saying the name of that free spirit from Tulip, Texas -- for whom life wasn't exactly care-free -- is bound to produce a smile.

The character Audrey Hepburn brought to life in Blake Edwards' 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's captured the imagination of an America on the cusp of the sexual revolution. But Hepburn's Holly is only a partial interpretation of the Holly that Truman Capote created in his 1958 novella of the same name.

In Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. -- Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, writer Sam Wasson shows how Paramount made a Hollywood hit out of a story about a call girl when some magazines deemed it too shocking to serialize.

One of the first hurdles, Wasson says, was how to handle the sexual orientation of Truman's characters at a time before the sexual revolution.

"One of the things that people forget about Holly in Truman's novel is that she had a bisexual streak and in fact the character of the narrator -- who George Peppard played in the film -- was himself gay," Wasson tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "We know for sure that Paramount had a great deal of difficulty translating that aspect of the novel into a mainstream heterosexual romantic comedy."

The man in charge of that translation was writer George Axelrod, who had to develop a more conventional romantic interest and storyline for Hepburn's Holly -- something closer to the 1950s romantic comedies where the goal is to get two characters together or married so the movie can end. A tricky task, considering Capote's original storyline.

"When you're dealing with a call girl, they're already getting together," Wasson says. "So what's the conflict that you're going to build into the story to actually make it a feature-length film?"

Axelrod's solution, Wasson says, was "brilliant."

"If Audrey [Hepburn is] playing a call girl and George Peppard is playing a gigolo, the problem is not a lack of sex; the problem is too much sex -- such that they're so tired by the time they actually do get together that they don't get together," Wasson says. "You see that in that scene when [Holly] first climbs into bed with [Paul]. They're not sleeping together -- but they're two gigolos -- because it’s the end of a long day's work. And George [Axelrod] is clever about suggesting all of this. He can't come right out and say they're gigolos, obviously, but the implication is strong. And it's because of that that the movie has the conflict that it has and the legs that it does."

But there are clues that Axelrod was in fact out to create the kind of sophisticated romantic comedy that he had always dreamed of writing. Take, for example, the scene in which Holly and Paul go to Tiffany's -- Holly's place of retreat and imagination -- to get a Cracker Jack ring engraved. They hand the ring over to the restrained salesman, played by John McGiver, and a memorable exchange follows:

Salesman: "Do they still really have prizes in Cracker Jack boxes?"

Paul: "Oh, yes."

Salesman: "That's nice to know. It gives one a feeling of solidarity, almost of continuity with the past. That sort of thing."

Holly: "Do you think Tiffany's would really engrave it for us? I mean, you don't think they would feel it was beneath them or anything like that?"

Salesman: "Well, it is rather unusual, Madame, but I think you'll find that Tiffany's is very understanding. If you will tell me what initials you would like I think we could have something ready for you in the morning."

Holly [to Paul]: "Didn't I tell you this was a lovely place?"

The scene shows an innocent side to Holly -- a character Wasson views as the beginnings of the modern woman because, unlike Scarlett O'Hara or Cleopatra, Holly isn't punished for her sexuality. She gets away with her man and -- in that little black dress -- she looks good doing it.

"She's being rewarded -- that's what the black is all about," Wasson says. "There were not many young women, girls, who got to wear black in the movies. You think of Debbie Reynolds, for instance, and most women of this era, [they] were wearing these ... little cute things with bright colors and patterns -- the poodle skirt aspect of femininity. Yet here's Audrey Hepburn with a slight element of danger coming out of this cab in this sleek sophisticated black gown."

There's a touch of danger in Holly, Wasson says, "and we love her for it. She makes it OK. [Holly is] a girl that you can become."

And with the arrival of the sexual revolution, many women did.

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NPR Staff