Saturday 27 November 2010
Dylan Jones: 'Turning Truman Capote's bittersweet novel into Hollywood fare was never going to be easy'
What then, exactly, is a kook? According to Sam Wasson's engaging book, Fifth Avenue, 5am (Aurum, £15.99), which recounts the making of Breakfast at Tiffany's, it is a very particular thing indeed.
Turning Truman Capote's bittersweet novel into palatable Hollywood fare was never going to be easy, especially as the central character was little but a conniving, if charming, hooker. Not in 1960, anyway. As Wasson says in his book, despite all the precautions taken by the producers to ensure that Holly Golightly would appear well behaved, it was difficult to forget all the evidence to the contrary, from Capote's book to Givenchy's little black dress, that suggests Holly is a wild thing at heart.
So to reassure the public, Paramount built a campaign around the word "kook", the derivative of cuckoo that was designed to give nonconformist eccentricity (and general wickedness) a positive spin. The press release was a piece of disinformation designed to put clear blue water between call girls and party girls, and it was so successful that it was repeated almost verbatim wherever the film was shown (the British version of Photoplay reminding their readers that Hepburn was nothing but "a real kookie dame").
This was a wonderful sleight-of-hand, and managed to disguise Hepburn's character's real motivations with such whitewashed aplomb that her rather unorthodox lifestyle appeared completely normal. After all, who wouldn't bring a different man home every night, who wouldn't have a gigolo living directly above them, one you eventually fall for?
Predictably, there were some who just weren't ready for Audrey Hepburn's new guise and weren't prepared for "deviancy" of any kind. Irving A Mandell's letter to the Hollywood Citizen-News was typical: "The Tiffany picture is the worst of the year from a morality standpoint. Not only does it show a prostitute throwing herself at a 'kept' man but it treats theft as a joke. I fear 'shoplifting' will rise among teenagers after viewing this." I saw the film last week, and it's unwatchable, but the back story of the film's development is fascinating, especially its effect on its audience.
Sometimes, 50 years ago really does seem like 50 years ago.
Dylan Jones is the editor of 'GQ'
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