Edmund Wilson once remarked, apropos his soon-to-be-sundered friendship with Vladimir Nabokov, that he felt for the great author "warm affection sometimes chilled by exasperation." That phrase springs to mind sometimes when I read my pal Richard Brody. Aside from being an unfailingly kind and generous person, Richard's also a critic and cultural enthusiast of incredible vivacity and perceptiveness. But my, can he sometimes say the darnedest things.
I am grateful, for instance, for the canny, erudite digging that led Richard to a dishy interview with Shirley MacLaine in the German paper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and his translated quotes from that interview. But my exasperation sets in when he discusses the fact that MacLaine turned down the role of Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany's. MacLaine says she wouldn't have done as good a job as the 1961 film's actual star, Audrey Hepburn. Richard begs to differ. "I think she'd have been much better. What's utterly implausible in Hepburn's performance is the backstory; MacLaine would have been persuasive as the former Lula Mae Barnes and Doc Golightly's fugitive wife."
Well, indeed, she might have. In a different movie. And by that I don't even mean the different movie that Breakfast At Tiffany's necessarily would have been had MacLaine played Holly. No, I mean a movie rather entirely different from Paramount and adapter/director Blake Edwards' conception of it. Part of that conception being that it's a movie in which Lula Mae Barnes is never seen. I haven't read any accounts of the making of the film in which the issue is discussed, but it always seemed to me that part of the power of the revelation of Holly's past, and part of what makes Buddy Ebsen's single, lonely scene (and an exquisitely performed scene it is, of course) in the film so powerful, is how it preserves the Hepburn portrayal of Holly, a clear case of how Screen Presence=Character, while at the same time challenging the audience's perception of her. Whether or not Hepburn "is" or could have made a "plausible" Lula Mae Barnes is not the point. Edwards' genius in handling the matter is in asking the audience to make an imaginative leap: that is, to picture the poised, insouciant but also sad and, in the word of the character so delightfully incarnated by Martin Balsam, "phony" Holly as a barefoot and possibly even pregnant teen bride. The viewer may go as far as he or she wishes in this exercise; and whether you take it to an ad absurdum level or don't even bother to mentally limn the difference, nothing detracts from the believability (which is, I might add, something entirely distinct from the rather banal "plausibility"—there's a good reason Alfred Hitchcock, a director recalled with fondness by MacLaine in the interview Richard cites, had a dubious attitude to viewers who relied too much on said quality) of Hepburn's portrayal, from what is so actually and gorgeously there on the screen whenever she fills it.
I remember once, in the midst of a multi-format spat/discussion of the Duplass brothers' use of zooms in Cyrus, Richard saying that the zoom was an "expression of the filmmaker's desire." I think sometimes we cinephiles and critics have a tendency to underestimate the extent to which filmmakers gauge, and honor, the desire of the audience. I think Blake Edwards' use of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's is an absolutely stellar and still exceptionally rewarding example of that. As for MacLaine, I love her too, but I don't blame her for not taking the Holly Golightly role, and one rationale for her refusal may be inferred by looking at her filmography in the late '50s and early '60s. So I'll end by saying that had Ginnie Moorehead dodged that bullet, ditched that mopey Dave Hirsch when he failed yet again to complete A Great American Novel, and caught a bus to New York, well, she coulda given Holly Golightly a run for her money.