Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s would be Audrey Hepburn’s defining role, establishing her status as one of the greatest screen legends and style icons of all time. Even modest Audrey admitted it was the movie she felt least uncomfortable watching, adding …But the two things I always think of when I see it are how could I have abandoned my cat? And Truman Capote really wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part. Despite the diplomatic congratulations Capote sent to Audrey on learning of Paramount’s casting decision (see lot 120), he had in fact wanted Monroe in the lead role Marilyn was my first choice to play the girl, Holly Golightly. I had seen her in a film and thought she would be perfect for the part. Holly had to have something touching about her… unfinished. Marilyn had that. Reportedly Monroe was in the running, but pulled out when her acting coach Paula Strasberg advised her not to play a lady of the night.
Hepburn too was reluctant to take on the role, fearing the character was out of her range. Holly is so contrary to me, Audrey confided to agent Kurt Frings, she frightens me. In order to commercialise the storyline, placate the censors, and persuade Hepburn to accept the part, screenwriter George Axelrod rewrote Capote’s Holly, who was essentially a hooker, and turned her into a whimsical kook. Frings pressed her, venturing that Holly was …not anti –Audrey, but the first step to the new Audrey. Audrey, recognising that she needed to transition from the gamine ingénues of her twenties into more complex, sophisticated roles, cautiously agreed to take on the riskiest challenge of her career; later admitting to Frings …this is the best thing I’ve ever done, because it was the hardest.
According to Axelrod, Audrey kept fighting to have the character softened, to sugar-coat some of the innuendo, suggesting they tweak the reference to collecting fifty dollars for the ladies’ room to ‘powder’ room. We see Audrey make further efforts to downplay the more salacious aspects of the character in her working script, crossing out lines of dialogue in which Holly makes reference to her saucy undergarments. According to Sam Wasson in 5th Avenue, 5 A.M., Audrey was so concerned with assuring the public that she was only playing a character, that Paramount were required to issue a press release to that effect: If there’s one fact of life that Audrey Hepburn is dead certain of, it’s the fact that her married life, her husband and her baby, come first and far ahead of her career…. This unusual role for Miss Hepburn brought up the subject of career women versus wives, and Audrey made it tersely clear that she is by no means living her part.
The film was a moderate hit at the time, nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Actress for Hepburn, although only Henry Mancini won on the night for his jazzy score and haunting ballad Moon River. The New Yorker was perhaps the most prophetic in their review, declaring millions of people are going to be enchanted by this picture. Decades later, the image of Hepburn as Holly Golightly with her high chignon, pearls and cigarette lighter is one of the most recognisable of the 20th Century. As the highlight of a dazzling array of costumes designed for Miss Golightly, Givenchy gave us the Little Black Dress, which would influence the style of women all over the world for years to come. Wasson believes the movie had another, far more significant, effect on women, initiating a gender shift in 1960s Hollywood: There was always sex in Hollywood, but before ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s,’ only the bad girls were having it…. all of a sudden, because it was Audrey who was doing it, living alone, going out, looking fabulous and getting a little drunk, it didn’t look so bad anymore. Being single actually seemed shame free. It seemed fun…. A glamorous fantasy life of wild kooky independence and sophisticated sexual freedom.
Hepburn’s portrayal of the real phoney Holly Golightly also had a pivotal impact on her career. Writing for Time, Richard Corliss declared: ‘Breakfast at Tiffany's’ set Hepburn on her 60s Hollywood course. Holly Golightly, small-town Southern girl turned Manhattan trickster, was the naughty American cousin of Eliza Doolittle, Cockney flower girl turned Mayfair Lady. Holly was also the prototype for the Hepburn women in ‘Charade,’ ‘Paris When It Sizzles’ and ‘How to Steal a Million’: kooks in capers. And she prepared audiences for the ground-level anxieties that Hepburn characters endured in ‘The Children's Hour,’ ‘Two for the Road’ and ‘Wait Until Dark.’