Saturday, February 13, 2010

My "Breakfast at Tiffany's" Conundrum

I've never really understood why "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is as beloved as it is. Yes, Audrey Hepburn is her most incandescent and stylish, and yes, her Holly Golightly has become an icon. I also like the cat. A lot. And the view of New York and Tiffany's in 1961.

But the movie is so brittle, with its depiction of fashionable 60s "cafe society," and the people are so morally ambigious. Ambiguous is charitable, really, since both Holly and "Fred" (his name is really Paul, even though she calls him Fred) are paid for their company by richer, older "patrons." Holly seems to keep financially afloat based on fifty-dollar powder-room tips proffered by men in nightclubs, while Paul gets an apartment and a lot of nice suits in return for keeping company with a wealthy woman called 2-E. Holly hosts wild parties and tries to latch onto sugar daddies, while Paul attempts to break his writer's block on a typewriter without a ribbon. I guess it's supposed to be sophisticated and daring, but their lives strike me, when watching "Breakfast at Tiffany's," as more sordid than sophisticated, more empty than fizzy or fun. One of the men who advises Holly, an imprisoned gangster named Sally Tomato, says as much when he looks over the little notebook in which she keeps track of her finances. "This is a book would break the heart," Sally says. I'm with Sally.

I'm not even going to discuss the horrific performance by Mickey Rooney as Holly's much-beleaguered upstairs neighbor, a Japanese man named Mr. Yunioshi. It's so racist and appalling there's just nothing to say. You can hold your nose or hide your eyes when he's on screen. Or maybe they can photoshop a different neighbor into some future edition of "Breakfast at Tiffany's." We can only hope.

Screenwriter George Axelrod and director Blake Edwards changed quite a bit from the Truman Capote novella, most notably turning the unnamed narrator into a straight romantic match for Holly, and giving it a semi-happy ending. At least they saved the cat this way. (Yes, I admit it -- the cat is the one I want to live happily ever after.)

Still, Hepburn does a beautiful job hinting at the vulnerability, fragility and depth under Holly's shallow exterior, and George Peppard is fine as her straight man (pun intended). Also on the plus side -- they both look fabulous (her gowns were by Givenchy, while his wardrobe was done by Edith Head, and co-star Patricia Neal got Pauline Trigere outfits that are pretty nifty, too) and it's refreshing to see Audrey paired up with someone age-appropriate. Plus, you know, I love the cat.

But there's just something so melancholy about this movie, even with the Hollywoodized ending. It's not just the influence of "Moon River," either. Henry Mancini's Oscar-winning song does make you want to cry, but that seems like true emotion. It's real phony, as one of Holly's friends would say. The problem for me is the plain old phony phony parts, like Holly's party where a drunk guest takes a header and somebody almost sets the cat on fire, the bizarre idea that Audrey Hepburn could ever be believable as someone who grew up dirt-poor in Tulip, Texas and got married to Buddy Ebsen at 14, or the "Breakfast at Tiffany's" song in the score, with its cheesy, swoopy, plastic chorus, or poor Mickey Rooney doing racist slapstick upstairs. But I promised I wouldn't discuss that, didn't I?

Oh well. That's why "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is a tough call for me. My romantic heart wants to buy into the idea that a shallow celebutante could really be Audrey Hepburn inside, that she could fall in love and realize that Cracker Jack prizes are just as good as a Givenchy wardrobe, that the cat and man you love should be held onto and treated properly, not just tossed out the door of a cab in the rain... I want to believe it. I just can't quite make it over the threshold of disbelief.

I invite you to see "Breakfast at Tiffany's" yourself, playing tonight and tomorrow night at the Normal Theatre, and let me know if you think I'm being too nice, too mean, or somewhere in between.


  1. Hmmm. Well, much as I want to see Audrey again, and hear "Moon River," this reminds me of some things I wouldn't like to experience again!

  2. Alas, I won't be able to go to the showing at the Normal Theatre. And it's been years (no, decades) since I saw it -- on network TV back when primetime showings of years-old movies were common. But even then I was mortified by Mickey Rooney. And I thought (though I might not have been able to phrase it this way) that it really had trouble maintaining a consistent level of reality: sometimes it hinted at something disturbing and real (Holly's past), but the next scene might be broad slapstick, and the next might have her (or worse, an invisible cheery chorus) break into song. Now that I think about it, isn't this a problem in most of Blake Edwards's movies?

    As for why the movie's so beloved, I think that a lot of people recall only their favorite scenes from favorite movies, and just kind of slough off the rest. (Think of how many people say they adore the original Producers movie, when they mean they love the 3 or 4 classic scenes and have forgotten the dull stretches.) And even though she doesn't really make sense as the character, the sight and memory of Audrey as she was here can sometimes be enough.

    So when is this theatre showing Two for the Road??

  3. Scott has pointed out that I didn't mention Johnny Mercer's lyrics for "Moon River," so... Mention!

    Anyway, I *do* like some things about the movie, and I am not sure I'm not overstating my case. The problem is that some of the worst bits -- like Holly getting rid of some drunk guy who thinks he should get to sleep with her since he gave her a fifty for the powder room, not to mention a lot of Mr. Yunioshi -- are at the beginning, so when I'm getting acquainted with the movie, I'm kind of put off from the get-go.

    A note of trivia, since I am clearly obsessed with the cat -- his name was Orangey, and he won two Patsy awards, the "animal kingdom equivalent of the Oscar." He's the only feline to have won two. (The other one was for "Rhubarb," where he played... Rhubarb.)

    But there's no question that the fashion in the movie was incredibly influential and I think that may be why so many people think fondly of it. They may have put the icky parts out of their minds and just focused on the dresses and the jewelry and the hair.

    I read somewhere that Truman Capote (whose name is pronounced Ca-POAT in the movie's trailer, which is included on the DVD I have) wanted Marilyn Monroe to play Holly Golightly. The mind boggles.

  4. Oh, no "Two for the Road" on their schedule for now. But I will let you know if I see it, so you can fly in for that one, Jon. I know how you feel about "Two for the Road."

  5. I immediately had to try to look up the PATSY awards, but apparently there's no comprehensive list online -- there's one through the 50s, but the other links (it was discontinued in 1986) don't work. (I would have thought Morris the Cat got more than one, after all those commercials plus the Burt Reynolds movie.) Anyway, Orangey's trainer ended up with 40+ awards, what with that cat plus Arnold Ziffel the pig (also twice), Benji, Lassie, and more.

    By the way, is posting here a 3-step process for everyone? 1. I click and it tells me it failed, try again. 2. I try again and it asks me for a word confirmation. 3. It works.

  6. I can only post comments (on my own blog!) if I a) use Explorer instead of Firefox, b) sign in, and c) come through my blogger dashboard.

    But I don't have to confirm words, so that's a plus.

    On the Patsy awards, I wonder if Arnold Ziffel is the only pig to have won two? I bet Rin Tin Tin and Lassie won bunches. Have you seen Rhubarb? I have. The cat was better in BAT if you ask me. Plus he got all wet and who knows how many takes that took? That's just mean, to have the cat soaked and soaked and soaked again. It gives me one more reason to step back from BAT.

  7. By the way, in comments outside this blog, I have two votes for the novella over the movie. I can see that. And I would like to see a movie version that is more faithful to the novella and shows the characters for who they really were, rather than the prettied up, Hollywoodized one. Is that possible, I wonder?

  8. Is it ok to post "me too"? I share your feelings for this film in so many ways. Audrey is lovely and the cat steals the show. But it's just a weird tale any way you dice it. The first time I ever saw it I was disappointed. And yet whenever it airs on a movie channel, I watch it anyway. Go figure.

  9. Thanks, Margaret. It's good to hear from you. Like you, I find it strangely compelling, even as I cringe at the same things every time. Plus, you know, there's the clothes. And the cat.