A successful work of pop culture is usually the result of a happy series of accidents that bring together a bunch of disparate, often disharmonious, people who nonetheless manage collectively to produce something notable and enduring. Producing a good movie, or a good TV show, or a good mass-market anything, has to be accounted among the most fortuitous events in the annals of art, popular or otherwise.
The reason that luck plays such a role in popular culture is that, no matter what snake oil its makers try to sell about their aesthetic goals, their ultimate motivation is money, not art. And while you can buy almost anything, you can’t buy the abstract qualities that make a work of art memorable—originality, in particular. Sammy Cahn, one of the great Tin Pan Alley lyricists, used to answer the age-old question, “Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?” with the tart reply: “The phone call.” That phone call came from the man with the checkbook.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose writing and direction of the backstage comedy-drama All About Eve provided us with another Hollywood high-water mark, and whose creative control over his own work should have suggested he might consider himself a kind of artist, turned the very idea into the setup for a self-deprecating punchline. “I am never quite sure whether I am one of the cinema’s elder statesman,” he said, “or just the oldest whore on the beat.”
Pop culture matters; its influence is undeniable, and vast. But individual works of pop culture rarely matter in and of themselves. They are just too thin, too fleeting, too unimportant—more a reflection of the social moment in which they were made than a generator of social change in themselves. This makes it very difficult to subject pop-culture works to study without the study itself coming to seem somewhat ridiculous. Serious examination of pop culture tends to ascribe unwarranted profundity to works that cannot bear the weight of such scrutiny because that weight destroys the very qualities that made them interesting or charming or notable in the first place.
That can even be true of cultural studies that try to keep it light and fluffy. This is what has happened with a new book, a confectionary consideration of one of the most fortuitous Hollywood accidents. Sam Wasson’s Fifth Avenue, 5 a.m.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman (Harper, $19.99) is a 256-page book about a single movie, the gloriously glossy 1961 comedy-drama Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It takes far more time to read Wasson’s exegesis than to watch the source material, even twice over. The book has 150 more pages than the Truman Capote novella from which the movie derives. Imagine that the old Signet Classics paperback you had of Oliver Twist had featured an introduction five times longer than Dickens’s novel itself and you get a sense of the absurdity of Wasson’s project. (Granted, the Talmud has many more pages than the Hebrew Bible, but then, we’re talking about the Talmud and the Hebrew Bible, not Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Fifth Avenue, 5 a.m.)
Wasson doesn’t try, the way an academic film scholar would, to deconstruct the movie or place it under a critical microscope. Rather, the book is an endless behind-the-scenes account of the movie’s genesis combined with a ludicrously airy semi-thesis about the way Breakfast at Tiffany’s heralded a new sexual and social maturity in Hollywood’s portrayal of America, and in America’s understanding of itself. Plus it introduced the little black dress, tailored by Givenchy for its star, Audrey Hepburn.
I suppose if you’re interested in the history of the little black dress, this will either come as news to you or as a nostalgic confirmation of something you already know. But the notion that Breakfast at Tiffany’s represented a leap forward into new adult moviemaking even at the time it was made is silly, no matter that Wasson gets the venerable film critic Judith Crist to say as much. It was part of a wave of pictures, beginning in the mid-1950s, that staged an assault on the social status quo established by Hollywood’s self-censors in the 1930s. It was no dirtier than How to Marry a Millionaire, which came out in 1953 and also portrayed girls on the make for rich guys in New York. It was far from the first movie, or the first comedy, to feature premarital sex; even the relationship between its male lead, Paul, and the woman keeping him was taken directly from An American in Paris, the Gene Kelly musical that came out a decade earlier, in 1951.
What makes Breakfast at Tiffany’s so remarkable, so delightful, and so worthy of repeated viewings even now, 50 years after its release, is its continually shifting tone. It moves from wild comedy (including the best party scene ever filmed) to rueful romance to pointed satire to family melodrama, cast against the backdrop of a wonderfully idealized New York of brownstones and nightclubs full of glamorous models and naïve millionaire industrialists.
The glue that holds Breakfast at Tiffany’s together is Holly Golightly—or rather, the magical way writer George Axelrod, director Blake Edwards, and Hepburn convert Capote’s sordid character, who was basically a hooker, into a classic cinematic dreamer. In the end, Holly is just a backwoods kid living a dreamy big-city life. “She’s a phony,” says her movie-agent friend O.J. Berman in one of the cinema’s most memorable lines. “But she’s a real phony, know what I mean?”
It took all of them working together —Edwards, Axelrod, and Hepburn —to get this right, and they didn’t even know that was what they needed to do. If any of them slipped, got it wrong, missed a beat, Holly’s intolerable qualities would have been revealed and the movie would have turned sour and discomfiting. Instead, their collaboration successfully turns the “real phony” into a madcap heroine. It’s a lie, and a pretty bald lie at that, and one Capote, who was no sentimentalist, didn’t tell in his book. But it’s the kind of lie at which Hollywood, at its best, excels. And it’s probably wisest not to look too closely at it. Certainly not over the course of 200-plus pages.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.