Marilyn as Holly: Through the Looking Glass

Perhaps the most famous role that Marilyn rejected heads up Geoffrey McNab’s list of alternate casting possibilities over at The Independent. Her friend Truman Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, had wanted her for the role, and she even worked on a scene from the novel at the Actors Studio (apparently, Truman saw her performance.) She is even thought to be one of several women whom Capote had in mind when writing his 1958 novella.

Personally I have always thought Breakfast at Tiffany’s a great story and character for Marilyn, but an overrated film, elevated by Audrey Hepburn’s charming performance but also hampered by censorship – not to mention Mickey Rooney’s dire ‘yellowface’ turn as Holly’s Chinese landlord. So I can see why Marilyn turned it down, although she was already committed to other projects when offered the role. However, Bert Stern’s images of her in a slinky black gown – shot for Vogue in 1962, after the film’s release – suggest she may also have wondered about what might have been.

“Picture the scene: it’s Marilyn Monroe at her most alluring. Dawn is rising over New York. After a night on the town, the blonde star finds herself alone on Fifth Avenue. She is outside the big, swanky jewellery store, looking glamorous but as pale as the morning light.

This is the film adaptation of Truman Capote’s 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s as it might have turned out. Capote himself was convinced that Monroe was ‘exactly right for the part’ of Holly Golightly, the out-of-towner who comes to the big city to try to build herself a life.

‘She [Holly] was such a symbol of all these girls who come to New York and spin in the sun for a moment, like mayflies, and then disappear,’ Capote said of one of his most famous fictional creations. ‘I wanted to rescue one girl from that anonymity and preserve her for posterity.’

There was something ‘touching’ and ‘unfinished’ about Holly that Capote felt Monroe could convey better than anyone else. The star, who was in her thirties, was the right age for the part. She had endured hard knocks of her own and perfectly understood what it was like to be preyed on by lonely, lecherous men who wanted her on their arm at the best nightclubs and restaurants. Monroe had exactly the right mix of experience and vulnerability for the role. Instead, Paramount cast Audrey Hepburn in the film, released only a year before Monroe’s untimely death in 1962.

The delicate, elfin, effortlessly stylish Hepburn, in her sparkling jewellery and Givenchy dresses, enjoyed enormous success as Holly Golightly. But she was nothing at all like the tough character, close to a prostitute, originally described by Capote. With Hepburn at its centre, the Blake Edwards movie turned into a gleaming and romanticised version of a story that started with plenty of grit.

“Paramount double-crossed me,” Capote states in Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s new film about Capote and Tennessee Williams, Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation, out later this week. The Monroe version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s joins that very long list of films that we can only see in our mind’s eye. ‘That whole concept of the call girl would have had a different vibe if it was Marilyn Monroe as an actress,’ Immordino Vreeland says.

It’s an obvious observation, but casting switches like the one on Breakfast at Tiffany’s utterly transform films. All the other elements might be in place but when the lead actor is changed, so is the tone and the very meaning of the movie. You can’t help but wonder how things might have turned out if the producers had stuck with their original choices.”