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.