Monday, August 9, 2010

Breakfast at Tiffany's: Goodbye, Ms. Neal

We lost a great actress and a strong character yesterday - Patricia Neal.  She died of lung cancer at the age of 84 at her home in Martha's Vineyard.  So to honor her, I thought I'd talk about one of my favorite films costarring Ms. Neal - the iconic "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

Based on the novella by Truman Capote, "Breakfast" tells the tale of the friendship and romance between a young novelist (George Peppard) and the prostitute living downstairs from him in New York City.  The girl, of course, is the now-famous character Holly Golightly, played by the beautiful and iconic-in-her-own-right Audrey Hepburn.  Released in 1961, it has become one of the most influential films of pop culture, from fashion to music and beyond.  It also received five Oscar nominations, including one for Hepburn for Best Actress, and won two of them, Best Original Score and Best Original Song ("Moon River"). 

Patricia Neal plays "2-E", Peppard's wealthy (and married) lover.  In other words, his sugar mama, a small costarring part but a strong role.  I believe this was the first film I ever saw with Neal, and I remember hating her character for being mean and cruel to Peppard.  Such an innocent romantic I was.  Now, I can't remember exactly when the first time was I saw this film, but I know I was a little girl because much of the movie went right over my head.  I have to admit I didn't really get everything, like the prostitute part and Mickey Rooney's horrible portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, until I was much older.  But I still loved it, because it was this strange little romance between these odd, eccentric people...and a cat.  Also, my absolute love of Audrey Hepburn helped in solidifying this film as a favorite.  Yet, what I love about this film now is that, as I've grown older, I have discovered all these different layers of the story that I never noticed or understood before. 

Much of that is due to the fact that Hollywood had to tone down Capote's novella for the film standards of the time.  They could never officially call Golightly a prostitute, even though she is.  In the book, she actually "swears like a sailor" too, which could not be used to its extent.  There is even a bit about her dabbles with bisexuality in the novella, something Hollywood cut out completely.  They might have been able to get away with a little bit more if everyone's first choice to play Holly had accepted the role - Marilyn Monroe.  Monroe was not only Capote's first choice but screenwriter George Axelrod's and original director John Frankenheimer's too.  However, Monroe's acting coach Lee Strasberg insisted she turn down the role because he thought playing a prostitute would not be good for her image.  So after Kim Novak turned down the role too, the studio got Audrey Hepburn instead, something Capote was never happy with.  Hepburn also insisted that they change directors when she came onboard, so Frankenheimer was fired and Blake Edwards was hired.

Almost all the exterior shots were filmed on location in New York, including the famous opening scene of Hepburn eating her breakfast as she stares into the window of Tiffany's on 5th Avenue.  There are several stories about how difficult it was to get this seemingly simple shot.  Evidently, there was a crowd of onlookers and Hepburn fans watching the filming off camera, making Hepburn a bit nervous.  Also, she absolutely hated Danish pastries, the breakfast she had to eat, so it was difficult to muster.  And finally, somehow while trying to get the shot done, a crew member was nearly electrocuted.  However, on a recent anniversary DVD edition, Blake Edwards said that the scene was actually filmed rather quickly thanks to a break in traffic at the time.  So who knows what really is truth versus myth.  The only outdoor scenes they did film in California were the ones between Holly, Paul and Cat at the end of the film.  You know, the ones in the rain.  Throwing Cat out the taxi was one of the worst things Hepburn felt she ever had to do in her films, according to her in later years.

Patricia Neal mainly had scenes with only George Peppard though.  Even though they had met before and got along, Neal said that working with Peppard on "Breakfast" was very difficult and frustrating.  Yet she still pulled off a great performance.  However, the next few years turned out to be very difficult for her and her family.  Married to writer Roald Dahl ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), they had three children at the time.  In 1961, horror struck when their little 4-month-old boy Theo was hit by a taxi while in his baby carriage.  Luckily, after much care, he survived.  However the next year, the couple's oldest child Olivia died suddenly from measles at the age of 7.   They managed to survive the tragedy and have another baby girl (and Neal won her Supporting Actress Oscar for "Hud.").  Yet, in 1965, while pregnant with their fifth child, Neal suffered a series of strokes, leaving her in a three-week coma.  She was only 39 at the time.  When she woke up, she required an extensive amount of physical and speech therapy.  She still managed to stay strong, though, giving birth to a healthy little girl named Lucy.  Neal then worked vigorously to recover, and successfully managed to do it in two years, a task that many doctors today call miraculous. 

Patricia Neal used to proclaim that she survived her personal tragedies because she was "born stubborn."  Well, I hope I have a little bit of stubbornness in me too then, like her, because she was a class act.  According to her family, the night before she died she said "I've had a lovely time."  So have we, Ms. Neal, so have we.  Until Friday, everyone.

(Post-tidbit:  Audrey Hepburn's famous black dress from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" sold for $807,000 in 2006, making it the second most expensive piece of movie memorabilia ever sold.  The first, you ask?  "Gone with the Wind"s Oscar for Best Picture.)

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