À propos my Daoist ritual spinoff of Strictly, the brilliant (ethnographer!) Stacey Dooley‘s recent waltz reminds me what a brilliant song is Moon river:
Pace Andy Williams, the classic sung version is that of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961):
Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, “a love song to wanderlust” (cf. Roaming the clouds), are complemented by Henry Mancini’s melody. I just love the leap of a major seventh:
I’m crossing you in style some day / There’s such a lot of world to see,
always effective—as in the finale of Mahler 9 (introduced by quintuplets!) and, um, Raindrops keep falling on your head! Indeed, there’s another brilliant touch: following “We’re after the same rainbow’s end“, when that sequence returns with
Waiting round the bend, My huckleberry friend,
for the first phrase the melody omits the low tonic, making us nostalgic for the missing major-7th leap (waiting, indeed), until it returns for the second phrase.
So Moon river (nearly cut from the film, PAH!) makes a perfect expression of Holly’s persona—and indeed that of Stacey Dooley, with her documentaries from around the world.
The dominant interpretation currently seems to be that Hepburn’s screen characters make her some kind of feminist role model. But “it’s complicated”—certainly in this film, which largely replaces the edgy feel of Truman Capote’s novella (1958, set in 1943) with a “sugar and spice confection”; indeed, Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part! I tend to side with more critical reviews, such as this, this, and this. After I cited some dodgy sexist terms to describe talented female performers, gamine and ingénue are among those for which there are both male and female equivalents, but the latter are far more commonly used, and flawed. Oh, and how ahout “elfin waif”…
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Capote describes Holly as an American geisha—rural child bride Lulamae, reinventing herself in New York. Film adaptations can be effective, but in this case the novella portrays her with more nuance and depth. So—not least because I’m so averse to Hepburn’s “elfin waif” shtick—I find Capote’s silent invisible original far more moving, and Holly herself far more poignant and (as she would say) sympatique.
Inevitably, at the end of the film the narrator and Holly fall in love and stay together, whereas in the novella their relationship remains platonic, and Holly disappears.
Lending significance to Moon river, the name-slot for Holly’s mail-box reads:
Miss Holiday Golightly, travelling
She reflects on how she demurred from a break in the movies offered by a Hollywood agent:
But he’s got a point, I should feel guilty. Not because they would have given me the part or because I would have been good: they wouldn’t and I wouldn’t. If I do feel guilty, I guess it’s because I let him goon dreaming when I wasn’t dreaming a bit. I was just vamping for time to make a few self-improvements: I knew damn well I’d never be a movie star. It’s too hard; and if you’re intelligent, it’s too embarrassing. My complexes aren’t inferior enough: being a movie star and having a big fat ego are supposed to go hand-in-hand; actually, it’s essential not to have any ego at all. I don’t mean I mind being rich and famous. That’s very much on my schedule, and some day I’ll try to get around to it; but if it happens, I’d like to have my ego tagging along. I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany’s.
And Holly does indeed sing and play guitar:
Don’t wanna sleep, don’t wanna die, just wanna go a’travellin’ through the pastures of the sky
With a Brazilian suitor in tow, she takes to Linguaphone:
Oh screw it, cookie—hand me my guitar and I’ll sing you a fado in the most perfect Portuguese.
That would surely have rivalled Carminho’s exquisite song.
In the novella, I note with proprietoral pride that Holly’s fellow-geisha Mag Wildwood (intriguingly, Capote gave her the full name of Miss Margaret Thatcher Fitzhue Wildwood)—as if being a redhead over six feet tall isn’t enough—is a stammerer (Marilyn Monroe might have resented the competition):
Even the stutter, certainly genuine but still a bit laid on, had been turned to advantage. It was the master stroke, that stutter: for it contrived to make her banalities sound somehow original, and secondly, despite her tallness, her assurance, it served to inspire in male listeners a protective feeling.
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Amy Winehouse (see my tribute here) may seem an unlikely exponent of Moon river, but she was grounded in ballads, as we can hear in her “late” sessions with Tony Bennett. Here she is, subverting the waltz, making the song sugar-free—maybe it doesn’t quite work, but even at the age of 16 she was always exploring, discovering new personal connections:
Click here for a discussion of the song in the BBC Radio 4 Soul music series.
Just another reminder that a global view of musicking invites us to delight in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse!