How Audrey Hepburn Shaped Sex
"There was always sex in Hollywood," Sam Wasson writes in the introduction to his new book, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. "But before Breakfast at Tiffany's, only the bad girls were having it."
Equal parts production history and biography, creative nonfiction and cultural critique, 5 A.M. is most fascinating as an examination of how Hollywood's institutionally mandated, self-censoring Production Code was slowly eroded from within, in part by Audrey Hepburn's heavily-coded call girl.
We met Wasson at Hollywood's Hepburn-themed Café Audrey to discuss Tiffany's strange cocktail of sex, style and social change.
WASSON: It's as big as anything — Casablanca, Citizen Kane. Yet what makes it more interesting to me is that it's the No. 1 cliché slumber-party video rental. The other iconic movies don't engender the same kind of enthusiasm. Until I really got into the book, Tiffany's just seemed materialistic and shallow and frivolous. But really the shallowness is the mask, and that became very poignant for me.
L.A. WEEKLY: The Audrey Hepburn look is just as pervasive.
WASSON: It's a turnoff for me — I'm a Carole Lombard guy — but her impact is enormous, which is something that I wanted to look at. I was genuinely fascinated with the Cult of Audrey, and kind of tired of the platitude sort of surrounding her icon. Glamorous, sophisticated — all of that is stuff that has lost its meaning and really doesn't do justice to whatever she means. So what does she mean?
L.A. WEEKLY: You position Hepburn as Holly Golightly as a kind of bridge figure, leading the way into the sexual revolution.
WASSON: When I spoke to women who saw the movie when it came out, they would say, "We had never seen a woman like that [on-screen]." Well, what is it that they had never seen? Suddenly it really became clear, and all the literature on Audrey leaves this out: She was really the anti-slut slut.
I'm surprised that no one wrote about this when Sex and the City was so hot — it clearly sprang from the same tradition. But you know, Audrey doesn't look like a feminist. It's not completely apparent. She wasn't like Jane Fonda, so politically hot.
L.A. WEEKLY: Do you think that lack of "heat" plays a role in Hepburn's endurance as a style icon?
WASSON: I think she presents a way to be sexy without losing sophistication, feminine without being girly. I think she brings man and woman together.
L.A. WEEKLY: More so than Coco Chanel?
WASSON: Yes, because it was youthful, simple. And that simplicity allows it to evolve through the eras.
L.A. WEEKLY: And all without showing skin. The gamine gets coded as being attainable, but there's grace to it. I look at Audrey and I see a woman with breeding.
WASSON: But they sold it as if everybody could have it — that's Hollywood. But her body, without having those curves of movie stars like Marilyn, could read to a girl as, "Like me."
L.A. WEEKLY: The book is narrative nonfiction — you're shaping the facts into a story that's engaging and accessible but still has some real meat to it, which sets it apart from so many books about classical Hollywood. Sometimes it seems like it's either a coffee-table book or it's academia, and there's little in between.
WASSON: I know, and both of them turn me off. When I first started, the first thing my editor said was, "Are you ready to come down from the ivory tower?" I look seriously at movies — that doesn't make me some kind of esoteric, abstract, pretentious looney. It's a dance that I'm still trying to negotiate: how to write smart books that don't alienate.
L.A. WEEKLY: One of the things that makes Tiffany's special is the way the film handles that swerve into a downbeat and comes right back up to light comedy again. That's so hard to do and is so rarely done well today.
WASSON: Well, yeah. You know comedy, I think, is really impoverished right now, and within comedy, romantic comedy is the lowest of the fucking all. People don't allow for that space of discomfort in romantic comedies anymore. And that's so much of what falling in love is about. Blake Edwards really gets that. It's in all his movies, and it's what makes Tiffany's.
Sam Wasson will sign copies of Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. and participate in a Q&A after the 7:30 p.m. screening of Breakfast at Tiffany's at the Aero on Wednesday, July 14.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.