PCA Retro Review: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

PCA reminds you the the world’s best movies are not in the new release section at Blockbuster!

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) – Originally a dirty little novella about the friendship between a gay writer and a prostitute, Truman Capote’s 1958 best seller Breakfast at Tiffany’s was transformed by Hollywood into one of the most charming and beloved romantic comedies of all time, and giving Audrey Hepburn her most iconic role.

Screenwriter George Axelrod was given a near impossible task of transforming Capote’s crass and edgy novella into a friendly Hollywood film, but with cleverly placed innuendos and subtle sexual subtexts, despite contrary belief, was able to maintain the basic original story of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  The only thing that was different is the added romantic plot between the main characters Holly G0lightly, played by the mesmerizing Audrey Hepburn, and writer Paul “Fred” Varjak, played by future small screen tough guy George Peppard.  Suprisingly the added romance worked, and became the glue that bound this film together, melting the hearts of audiences and even getting Truman Capote’s approval. 

Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard as Holly Golightly and Paul Varjak in a publicity shot for "Breakfast at Tiffanies"

When writer Paul Varjak moves into a New York brownstone he becomes fascinated by his downstairs neighbor Holly Golightly, a high paid call girl who lives in a bare apartment with her nameless cat.  As their friendship grows, Paul begins to develop feelings for Holly and begins to unravel the truth behind her little black dresses and eccentric “high society” antics.  As her manager OJ, played by Martin Balsam, asks Paul, “Well is she or isn’t she?”  The answer is that Holly is a woman who can’t even help herself.  But when Paul decides that he is the man that wants to help Holly find herself  he has to face a number of obstacles including the rich woman who he is “servicing,” played by Patricia Neal, the country veterinarian claiming to be Holly’s husband, played by Buddy Ebsen, the convict who has Holly delivering “weather reports”, played by Alan Reed, and the fact that Holly would rather marry a millionaire that can support her and her brother Fred instead of a writer who can’t even buy his own ribbon for his typewriter. 

Although the role was originally intended for Marilyn Monroe, it is impossible to imagine anybody but Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, which became Hepburn's most iconic role

There is no doubt that Holly Golightly is Audrey Hepburn’s most famous and beloved role.  However, on many occasions Hepburn stated that the role was one of her least favorites.  Originally intended for Marilyn Monroe, who would have been closer to Truman Capote’s vision of the character, Monroe turned the film down when her acting coach, Lee Strasberg, advised her that the role of a prostitute would damage her career.  As a result Strasberg did the world a huge service.  Technically Hepburn is miscast as Holly Golightly, but through her charm, her elegance and her beauty she manages to brilliantly make the part her own.  The idea of anybody other then Audrey Hepburn playing Holly Golightly is unimaginable.  Hepburn is superb, creating a multi-dimensional character that can be funny, charming, beautiful, disturbed, cruel and pathetic.  Fusing a combination of comedy and dramatic acting together in a cocktail dress and a tiara, Audrey Hepburn performance is the essential ingredient that makes Breakfast at Tiffany’s the greatest romantic comedy of all time.

George Peppard gives the greatest performance of his career, before opting to become a third rate "Hollywood tough guy"

George Peppard gives the greatest performance of his career as the cynical yet sensitive Paul Varjak.  His performance is beyond brilliant, but sadly he decided after Breakfast at Tiffany’s that he would rather be a “Hollywood tough guy” instead of a “romantic lead.”  The rest of his career would be spent gritting his teeth and uttering things like “I love it when a plan comes together”  Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an example of the heights George Peppard might have hit if he had stuck to what he did best instead of reducing himself to being a third rate Clint Eastwood.  

"Miss Golightly! I protest!" Mickey Rooney's racial humour as upstairs neighbour Mr. Yunioshi mars what is a nearly perfect film, gaining mass criticisim from the Asian community, most noteably action film legend Bruce Lee

Breakfast at Tiffany’s  also succeeds with a brilliant cast of co-stars assembled for the film.  Buddy Ebsen gives one of the film’s most sensitive and emotional performances as the country doctor that can’t accept the fact that Holly has been lost to him forever.  Although he was planning on retiring from acting after Breakfast at Tiffany’s, his performance gained the attention of TV producer Paul Henning who offered him the role of Jed Clampett a year later in The Beverly Hillbillies, reviving Ebsen’s career and turning him into a television icon.  As one of the great dramatic actresses of the 1950’s, an aging Patricia Neal gives a positively creepy performance as the high society maven Peppard is ‘servicing” and Martin Balsam is delightful as Holly’s fast talking “manager” O.J. Berman.  Unfortunately, the film suffers and dates itself by an unfortunate comic relief performance by Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, a blatant racial sterotype which has been criticized throughout the decades by the Asian community, most notably Asian action star Bruce Lee.  While nearly the entire cast and crew of Breakfast at Tiffany’s have apologized and acknowledged the mistake of the racial humor associated with Mr. Yunioshi, who is a non comical character in the original story, Mickey Rooney continues to defend his performance to this day, refusing to recognize that the role was in bad taste.  However, Rooney’s performance doesn’t manage to mar the splendor of the film, which charms outweighs the bad judgment surrounding Rooney’s character.

Director Blake Edwards uses the city of New York effectively as a backdrop to the film.  Shooting all of the exterior scenes on location, for the exception of the dramatic final scene in a rainy alleyway, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a true love letter to the city of New York.  Furthermore, Edwards keeps the film being chic and elegant while both exalting and satirizing New York hipster society.

Audrey Hepburn sings "Moon River." Both the song, and Henry Mancini's score, would win the Oscars in 1962

It would be impossible to write about Breakfast at Tiffany’s without mentioning the Academy Award winning score by Henry Mancini.  Filled with a combination of sentimental melodies, jazzy mambas and fifties theme music, Mancini’s score to Breakfast at Tiffany’s is possibly the best of his career.  Of course the film is famous for introducing the song Moon River to the world, which has become a musical standard.  Legend has it that during a screening of the film prior to the premier a studio executive exclaimed “First thing we need to do is get rid of that stupid song” which prompted a usually reserved Audrey Hepburn to jump to her feet and hiss “Over my dead body.”  The song remained, and won the Academy Award for best song along with Mancini’s Oscar for best original score.

There is no wonder that Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a film classic.  It is fun, romantic, charming and beautiful while still remaining to be slightly titillating and risqué.  It is filled with memorable lines, incredible performances and beloved characters.  That is why Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of those movies that can be watched over and over again. 

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