Friday, September 16, 2011

Breakfast At Tiffany's

' When I get the mean reds the only thing that does any good is to jump into a cab  and go to Tiffany's. Calms me down right away. If I could find a real place to make me feel like Tiffany's, then I'd buy some furniture and give cat a name.'

Holly Golightly.

 My local museum has regular screenings of independent, foreign and, crucially for me....classics!!! In 2007 it played 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's. I will remember that day for the rest of my life!! It dragged like no other I can remember as I was so enthusiastic about seeing this film. It was one of only three screenings and believe me I wasn't going to miss out. Since 2007 this cinema has began to play more classics. And whilst I wouldn't say the flood gates have opened, I can say in the last four years I've seen more classics on the big screen than I had in the previous 37!!

 Well I loved every minute of Breakfast at Tiffany's. I honestly just didn't want it to end! But that is the power of watching a classic film on the big screen for a film aficionado.

 The film is of course loosely based on Truman Capote's 1958 novella of the same name. I have actually read it. But maybe because its subject matter isn't as shocking as when it was published, I didn't think much of it. I've read other Capote works including In Cold Blood , but I honestly don't think a great deal of him as a writer. Horses for courses isn't it? Capote's literary rival ( who I prefer over Capote ) Norman Mailer said of him and the novella, " the most perfect writer of my generation, and he " would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany's."

 Capote's story is a hedonistic tale of a short term friendship between 18-19 year old Holly Golightly and an unnamed narrator. It is based between Autumn of 1943 and 1944. Holly is a country bred girl turned New York cafe society girl who courts and entertains rich men in the hope of gaining a marriage proposal. According to Capote himself she isn't strictly speaking a prostitute being more an " American Geisha." The story unfolds as she reveals herself to the narrator who is fascinated by her lifestyle. Holly Golightly is now considered Capote's best creation and a cultural icon. Capote himself has said that she is his favorite character.

 On release the novella caused a storm of outrage. It is now interesting to wonder ( since it was considered so outrageous ) that anyone even contemplated adapting it to film. It was, but suffice to say the screenplay trimmed out the novella's more lurid moments, and toned down the language. For instance at one stage Holly is considering the idea of bi-sexuality and uses the word 'dyke'. Out that went! In all reality the film is very sanitised next to the novella. In fact on release many naysayers considered it too superficial and upbeat against the novella. Ever since the film and novella have been locked in this debate as to which one people prefer. Me?? I prefer the film.

 The film on release met mixed reviews but was a commercial succes making US14 million in the US alone on it's US$2.4 million budget. Also compare Hepburn's salary of US$750,00 against the US$15,000 she received for Sabrina, a mere 7 years before. She was by now a major star.

Sing Sing here I come!!
 Besides being such a short novella the film had to make many changes just to fit the medium of cinema. Firstly the story was shifted from the 1940's to the then more contemporary era. Secondly the unnamed narrator is given the name Paul Varjak, even though Holly still calls him Fred, as in the novella. The character of Emily Eustace Failenson ( 2E ) was created so that Varjak is seen as a 'kept' man. Thirdly there is a romance between Holly and Paul that isn't in the novella. And finally the novella's wistful ending was changed to a typically more happy, Hollywood style ending.

The iconic cigarette holder!
 Even with changes though the screenplay was nominated for an Oscar! When Capote sold the rights of the novella to Paramount he envisaged Marilyn Monroe in the role of Holly. First script drafts were written with her specifically in mind. But Marilyn, when offered the role, turned it down on the advice of Lee Strasburg. He warned her that playing a prostitute would be bad for her image. Marilyn herself also considered the role too racy. When Capote found out he blew his top and considered himself 'betrayed'. But this is ludicrous from Capote, because how was he betrayed if Monroe herself turned the part down??

 Unfortunately I cannot find anything ready to hand without some serious digging on how Audrey Hepburn came to be offered the role (I believe Shirley McLean and Jane Fonda were among those considered ). Suffice to say it was and at first Hepburn had serious reservations as well. She said to Marty Jurow, co-producer of the film 'I can't play a hooker '. Also Hepburn, by nature, was an introvert and she was riddled with doubts as to whether she could play such an extrovert as Holly Golightly. Later in life she called the role "the jazziest of my career." and yet admitted " I'm an introvert. Playing the extroverted girl was the hardest thing I ever did ". But she took the role as she felt it would stretch her acting abilities beyond those of just the ingenue. It comes then as no surprise the role, and her performance, saw her nominated for her fourth Oscar.
Ah!! Moon River!!

 It proved to be not only a bold decision but also a career defining one. The role of Holly Golighty not only cemented Hepburn as a film star, but as fashion icon in the process. But it was more than this. Remember this is the next film she made after 1960's The Unforgiven. In between she had given birth to her first child, son Sean. And with it, at the age of 31, she couldn't keep making films playing the characters of old. What Breakfast at Tiffany's done was to open up the 'kooky' roles she was to play throughout the 1960's. Without question this film is a reference point in her career. Son Sean has written a lovely book on his mother entitled Audrey Hepburn :  An Elegant Spirit. He states categorically that Holly Golightly is Audrey Hepburn's 'signature piece' ( pg 160 ).

What do you have for $10!!!
 I agree. It is her best known role and one that defines her whole career. But in saying that even though it is now an iconic, much loved character, it is not Hepburn's best role acting wise. I'm sure most would agree that Sister Luke in 1959's The Nun's Story ranks as her best performance. Even Roman Holiday must rate as a better piece of acting. But it is as the naive, eccentric, and quirky Holly Golightly she is best remembered for.

 The film is of course remembered not only for Hepburn as Golightly, but also for one of the 20th Centuries greatest fashion statements. For me Ursula Andress' Dr. No white bikini is the only piece of cinematic fashion that eclipses that 'little black dress'. Of course the dress is that worn by Hepburn/Golightly in the opening scenes of the film. It was this elegant, simple, graceful epitome of chic from Givency that launched Hepburn as a fashion icon. Even today the term 'Oh, that's so Audrey' is used as a reference point in fashion. Givenchy made three of these dresses. One was sold at auction in 2006 for a staggering US$947,000, seven times the reserve! Consider this against the US$68,000 for Andress's bikini!!

 So the 'little black dress' has gone down as a cinematic icon. But so has Holly's outrageously long cigarette holder. We see the result of its silly length in the superbly choreographed party scene! The film is now a timeless favorite, having reached such cult status that any memorabilia associated with the film commands enormous prices. The diamond tiara Hepburn wears in the poster and publicity shots sold in a Christies auction in 1996 for US$17,825. Even original posters achieve high sums. For instance in 2004 a rare double-sided American poster sold for US$23,500.

 But what of the film itself? It is of course a 1961 romantic comedy and was nominated for no less than five Oscars. Best Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, Best Original Song : "Moon River ", Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Art Direction,and Best Adapted Screenplay. It won for the first two. And in a film that provided so many icons it provided another! Of course it is the sentimental signature tune " Moon River ". But when studio executives first heard it they demanded 'Get rid of damn that song'. But Hepburn and Jurow, among others, stood up stating 'Over my dead body'. Fortunately the song stayed, becoming Holly's theme which showed her vulnerability, sense of innocence and rural background. Written by Henri Mancini and Johnny Mercer it was tailored to suit Hepburn's vocal range based on her singing in 1957's Funny Face. It is now ranked fourth on the AFI's top 100 Cinema songs.

 Whilst the film is known for Hepburn as Holly Golightly it did ( unbelievably!! ) star other actors. Of course George Peppard stars as Paul Varjak, a writer who is 'kept' and 'patronised' by an older woman, Patricia Neal as E2. In all reality this is Peppard's only decent role let alone performance in his career. An actor from the 'method' school of acting after Breakfast at Tiffany's the handsome Peppard became an alcoholic and made the poor career move of seeking out tough guy roles. On set he was extremely difficult. His career reflects this as besides this film, his only other notable role was as cigar chomping 'Hannibal',' in the absolutely awful 1980's television show The A-Team.

 But in Breakfast at Tiffany's he is wonderful and certainly a good looking man. It is such a shame he ruined his obvious talent with booze. Interestingly Blake didn't want Peppard and the role was offered to a relative unknown called Steve McQueen. But he had to decline because he was still contracted to his television series Dead or Alive. Thank goodness for posterity's sake McQueen wasn't cast as I seriously doubt he would have proved suitable for the role. But whilst Peppard went on to an otherwise undistinguished career the film resurrected one that was past decline.

 Buddy Epsen was 63 at the time and a former dance and song man. He of course plays Holly's rural vet husband Doc Golightly, who she had run out on. It was this role that brought him to the attention of the casting director of CBS's sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. Of course he is best known for this role as Jed Clampett. But funnily enough if it wasn't for an allergic reaction to aluminium dust of a certain tin man suit he would have forever been immortalised as the Tin Man out of 1939's The Wizard of Oz. He was initially cast as the Scarecrow but changed roles. After his reaction he left the film entirely and outlived the major stars of the film by 16 years!

 Oh yes, 'Cat's off screen name was Rhubarb!

 Breakfast at Tiffany's, although a much loved film, is marred somewhat by the ill-advised, ill-thought role of Mr. Yunioshi, played by Mickey Rooney. Rooney was cast as Yunisohi because he was a close friend of director Blake Edwards. The funny thing is that it wasn't until the 1990's that the portrayal of Yunioshi began to gather criticism. Up until then Rooney's caricature of a buck toothed Japanese man was considered acceptable. Rooney has said he had many Asian fans of the film compliment him, and found his role funny. But in hindsight it was a poor decision in not casting an authentic actor of Asian descent. Edwards had gone on record stating he deeply regrets the decision and wishes he had never cast Rooney. Rooney himself sees nothing wrong with the role, but has stated if he knew people would become so offended, he would never have done it.

That little dress!!
 I personally find it mis-guided even though I recognise the spirit in which it was done. The criticism really has only come about in the last two decades but it is valid. When I saw he film in 2007 I didn't know of the Rooney scenes, and when I saw them for the first time I instantly went, ' uh-oh that isn't right'. But whilst it is mis-guided it isn't racist. The film must be watched in that context of light heartedness it was meant to be. It does put a flaw on the film but not to the point of being its focal point. There are enough enjoyable, iconic moments and images, that Rooney's scenes can be put side, even though flawed.

 I love Breakfast at Tiffany's. It cannot be regarded as a masterpiece, but it is a fine film none the less. For me the party scene is my number favorite in any film I've ever watched. It is superbly choreographed and still immense fun. Honestly I laughed like hell when I first saw it. I mean how can you not laugh at the drunken woman, who Holly yells out a warning 'timber', before she falls flat on her face??! It is a wonderful scene with so much going on.

 The other great scene is of course its famous opening shots of Holly outside Tiffany's, with that dress, eating a Danish Pastry and a cup of coffee. Surprisingly this scene was filmed with very little fuss. Edwards envisioned massive crowd problems etc. But fortunately there came a freak break in the traffic and the scene went off without a hitch. Oh, except for the near electrocution of a set member! The scene is also known for the fact that Hepburn couldn't stand Danish Pastry and found it difficult to eat it while filming. But for me that opening scene is one of the most satisfying, well known, and iconic in cinema history.

One of the many publicity shots actually taken inside Tiffanys.
Notice the tiara which sold at auction for US$17,825
 Well what else can I say?! I do love this film and it was a real pleasure watching the remastered version on the big screen in 2007. It is flawed, but even so it has one of cinemas most memorable, kooky characters in Holly Golightly. And isn't 'Moon River' just memorable?! The film with its many iconic images propelled Audrey Hepburn beyond just a film star into an enduring fashion icon, whose influence is still felt 60 years later.

 Breakfast at Tiffany's then is a film you cannot fail to put in your ' most loved' basket. That is where it belongs, because whilst a fine film, it is not a truly great one. I can only give it 7.5/10 because it is flawed even though fun and iconic.

Click here for a synopsis and more:

And here for an article from The Telegraph:

And here for a bit more:


  1. It's pretty funny, I'm a big film buff but this film has just never drawn my attention.

    Your write up does such a solid job of capturing what the film is about, I may have to give it a run someday, can't say it'll be soon but someday. Great work as always Brent!

  2. It's horses for courses isn't it? I Mean I like Audrey Hepburn but many don't. I think the types of roles she played aren't to everyone's taste. I think we all have films that don't interest us. Musicals leave me dead no Singin' in the Rain or The Sound of Music for me, even though both are hugley popular and on the AFI's top 100 list.
    This is a flawed film but it is in no way bad, and I personally prefer it over Capote's novella.

  3. A fine fine film. Hepburn is just amazing in it and Peppard was great as well. THe two of them together just really clicked. Other than the Rooney schtick (just bizarre) it's a pretty perfect film. Great review, love all the detail you put into it!

  4. The novella sounds very interesting as well, love musicals by the way, personal taste is a funny thing isn't it?

  5. Really great write up Brent.

    This is a film that I've watched and have in my dvd collection as it was one of those films that people should take the time to watch although I can't say I have any real affection for it!

    There is just something about it I can't warm to but I don't know what it is

    K :-)

  6. Thanks Brent. It is a fine film even though marred by the Rooney role. That is bizarre to say the least! Detailed? Yes...and many, many hours to achieve it!

    Daniel..yeah never finsihed watching the likes of The Sound of Music, Singin' in the Rain, etc. Musicals rate lower in my watching preferances than horrors!

    Karina...any medium has that doesn't it? Just because one likes something doesn't mean the next will. I think the majority like BaT's as it's so iconic and certainly a watershed in Hepburn's career.
    I personally love it, but then it is very rare for me not to love a classic film.