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When he needed a song for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, director Blake Edwards turned to frequent collaborator and composer Henry Mancini, who would later write the theme to the Pink Panther series.
Cracking the song for Breakfast was quite the challenge, specifically because the character of Holly Golightly was an especially complex one.
Mancini said, “It was one of the hardest things I ever had to write because I couldn’t figure out what this lady would be singing up there on the fire escape.”
After a month of wrestling with it, he found the answer to his problem was, as he put it, a “sophisticated country song.”
Once he knew what was needed, the actual writing only took twenty minutes.
“I knew how to write it the first time I met Audrey. I knew the exact quality the song would take on when she sang it in that slightly husky voice of hers,” he recalled.
For the lyrics, Mancini looked to Johnny Mercer, known for “Jeepers Creepers” and “That Old Black Magic.”
Mercer’s original title was actually “Blue River” but after he found out that title was already taken, he changed it to “Moon River.” The lyrics were inspired by his childhood memories in Savannah, Georgia, as well as discussions with Mancini on the feel of the song.
Once it was completed, the question of who would sing the song came up. Given Hepburn's vocal limitations, it was suggested that Marni Nixon could dub for the star – something she would later do for My Fair Lady.
But Blake Edwards nixed the idea, believing that the song didn’t need a professional polish but an authentic touch that only the film’s lead could deliver.
Hepburn herself was nervous to sing the tune, but Mancini reassured her.
But that’s not the end of the story.
After the initial preview, Paramount’s president was unhappy with the film’s runtime and especially the song. In his opinion, Hepburn couldn’t carry a tune, and the song needed to go.
Edwards wouldn’t have it though, and he fought until the song was secure. Later, when Paramount tried to cut more of the score, Hepburn herself stepped in.
Edwards remembered, “Despite her obvious insecurities, there was a strong core to Audrey.”
Thankfully, the song remained, and everyone found out how right they were when “Moon River” won the Oscar for best original song. In fact, the day after the ceremony, 400 thousand copies of the song were sold.
Hepburn fondly remembered the song and later wrote Mancini: “A movie without music is like an aeroplane without fuel… You are the hippest of cats -- and the most sensitive of composers! Thank you, dear Hank.”
Hepburn and Mancini would work on two other films together, Charade and Two for the Road, which contained his favorite music to compose.
Reflecting on the song once more, Mancini said, “Audrey’s big eyes gave me the push to get a little more sentimental than I usually am. Those eyes of hers could carry it, I knew that. ‘Moon River’ was written for her. No one else ever understood it so completely.”