When she arrived at Paramount’s Stage 9 in early November of 1960, Audrey was drawn into a party that had been in full swing for days. For all of the verbal refinery Axelrod gilded into the script, Blake maintained that Breakfast at Tiffany’s, if it were to satisfy the second half of the hybrid genre “romantic comedy”, would have to have bigger laughs, and more of them. That’s how Mickey Rooney - for better or for worse - got Mr. Yunioshi, and that’s why Blake decided to turn Holly’s swingin’ cocktail party into an all-out slapstick extravaganza.
“The general party was only indicated [in the screenplay]”, Blake recalls, “and I had to improvise it on the set and I had a good time doing it. I asked the casting office to hire only actors - no extras. I said that there must be a lot of unemployed actors around - not important names, not the usual background faces that you see in films. I wanted real actors because I didn’t know who I was going to give things to and I wanted to be sure that they could handle it.”
(…)It took him [Blake] the better part of November 2 to November 9 to get what he wanted, but it would last only thirteen minutes on film.
First to arrive on the scene was choreographer Miriam Nelson. Blake had summoned Miriam to help him fit into place the precarious human puzzle that lay ahead. (…)”Blake wanted to dream up some crazy things to do at the party”, she said. “I think he wanted somebody to come and play, someone to try things with. That’s when he was discovering all sorts of things to do, like putting the telephone in a suitcase, and having Marty Balsam kissing a girl in the shower, and that other stuff. Because I was a choreographer, I helped him with some of the staging. There were no dance numbers, but we discussed stuff like who should go where and when. It looks crazy when you watch it, but these actors had to hit their marks, and be in the right position for the dialogue to play.”
That’s how it went for [Miriam] Nelson. “After we finished working that day Blake said, ‘Well, you oughta be in the party scene…’ So the next day, he gave me an entrance, and then he teamed me up with Michael Quinn, who he asked to wear an eye patch, and he said, ‘Go in and have an argument.’ Halfway through the argument, he said to the fella, ‘Lift your eye patch and just keep arguing’. So we did, and neither one of us knew what the hell we were saying. We were just making it up as we went along.” And like any real party, people got tired, but rather than fight it, Blake used it. “When we were shooting”, Nelson remembers, “I had on my own gold brocade suit, and matching gold shoes. After a while, those shoes began to hurt me, so in between takes, I would take them off and just hold them. Blake saw this and said, ‘What is the matter with your feet?’ I said, ‘Well, those shoes hurt.’ He said, ‘Then don’t put them back on. This is that kind of a party. Just carry your shoes’. So that’s what I did the rest of the scene.”
(…) Actress Fay McKenzie was given one of her own. She said, “Blake came up to me and said, ‘Hmmm… What am I going to do with you, Fay?’ And he was thinking, and thinking, and then he said, ‘I know! Fay, you’re always laughing. I’m going to put you in front of a mirror and you can laugh your head off!’ So then we shot the scene, I returned to being an extra in the background, and a few days later, I said to Blake, ‘Hey, she chould have a crying jag, you know’. He said, ‘Do it.’ That’s how it happened.” Unbeknownst to McKenzie, Blake had gone to great lengths to make her laugh. Beside him at the camera, he had stationed actor Stanley Adams, who was wearing one of the combustible hats worn in a previous scene by Helen Spring. When McKenzie was ready to go, Blake called action, cued the fire on Adam’s head, and Fay - as she was told to - burts out laughing. (…) “It went like that for the rest of the week”, Fay McKenzie said. “Blake would just kind of walk around the set and you could see him thinking up shtick that he was going to do. Of course, the scene was written by George Axelrod, but everything in it was pure Blake Edwards.”
(…) For the next seven days, Blake led his partiers through 140 gallons of tea and ginger ale, in addition to cold cuts, dips and sandwiches, over sixty cartons of cigarettes and over $20,000 worth of production costs later, at least he had the party he wanted. “People were everywhere”, said Joyce Meadows. “Blake had planted us in practically every room throughout the set and signaled us with his hand when and where to move about. He would say, ‘Okay everybody, when the music goes on, I want this group of people to cross into here and mingle with this group over here.’ But as far as our personal movements were concerned, that was up to us. He didn’t give the party people especific notes, but at the beginning he said, ‘You’re all a regular part of Holly’s life. This is not a downhome party, but a typical Golightly party, so don’t let anything surprise you. No matter what happens, stay in your characters and stay in the scene’”.
(…) If this was going to look like a real party, then it had to evolve like a real party, and that meant bringing in a bee smoker - used by beekeepers to calm the bees - to enhance the smoky ambiance to a suitably thick end-of-evening cloud. On the last day of shoot, Edwards replaced the ginger ale with champagne. But be warned: The trick to playing drunk, he told his cast, was to play the scene with the intention of seeming sober. Audrey, though, drank very little. The alcohol would soften her focus, and focus is what she needed to keep up with Blake.
(…) Blake’s revisionist spin had a satirical adge. Each punch line - from the eye patch, to the phone in the suitcase, to the couple in the shower - was pointedly drawn for Holly’s central theme; that the way things appear is not always the way things are. For as Holly’s agent, O.J Berman says, “She’s a phony. But she’s a real phony.” More than simply jokes, Edwards’s party gags implicate all those present in the charade, gently mocking everyone too hip, drunk or fashionably blasé to notice what is made obvious to Paul Varjak - that these nuts may be glamorous, but they don’t have a clue. It’s the cosmopolitan façade cut down to size, and in Edwards’s comedic terms, it’s sophisticated slapstick.