#461) Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

#461) Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

OR “Manic Pixie Dream Girl: The Motion Picture”

Directed by Blake Edwards

Written by George Axelrod. Based on the novella by Truman Capote.

Class of 2012 

The Plot: Writer Paul Varjak (George Peppard) moves into his Manhattan apartment, where he meets his new neighbor, socialite and downplayed call girl Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn). The two develop a strong relationship, hampered by Holly’s desire to marry rich, and Paul’s status as the “kept man” of decorator 2E (Patricia Neal). Holly and Paul continue to be friends, sharing a series of episodes involving wild parties, Holly’s estranged husband Doc (Buddy Ebsen), and a morning trip to Tiffany & Co. If you’re looking for a movie that respects its source material, keep looking.

Why It Matters: Although the NFR details the film’s departures from the novella (and Truman Capote’s disapproval for casting Audrey Hepburn), the write-up highlights the more modern praise of Hepburn, her characterization of Holly compared to other female leads of the era, director Edwards, composer Henry Mancini, and the song “Moon River”.

But Does It Really?: For every iconic moment in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, there’s two that have aged terribly. Audrey Hepburn is giving a justifiably memorable performance, and “Moon River” is an undisputed classic, but this movie continues to get bogged down by its dated views on the sexes, to say nothing of Mickey Rooney’s performance (more on that later). The film survives thanks to Hepburn’s work and its overall positive misinterpretation of the source material. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” deserves its status in the National Film Registry, but any modern viewing will question that distinction.

Shout Outs: 2E references “Love Finds Andy Hardy“, starring Mickey Rooney, which theoretically should have caused a black hole in this universe.

Everybody Gets One: This is Buddy Ebsen’s only NFR appearance, but that’s not his fault. A veteran of ’30s MGM musicals, Ebsen was originally cast as the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz”, but was replaced when his reaction to the makeup led to his hospitalization. Ebsen’s career faltered after that, but his appearances on the “Davy Crockett” TV series, and his excellent turn here, helped get him his most famous role: Jed Clampett on “The Beverly Hillbillies”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Let’s see, this movie has typewriters and landlines and checks and physical library index cards….yep, that’s it. That’s all that’s dated about “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”….

…okay fine. This movie has the YELLOWFACE WARNING to end all Yellowface Warnings. White actor Mickey Rooney plays Holly’s Japanese landlord Mr. Yunioshi with makeup and prosthetics to make him look like a cartoon stereotype. It’s bad, it’s very bad. Blake Edwards was adamant about casting Rooney in the part, and lived to regret the decision.

…oh, and this movie definitely has issues with its depiction of women. How is this still a classic?

Seriously, Oscars?: Despite mixed reviews (especially from those who had read the novella), “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was a hit, and received five Oscar nominations. The film lost a few categories to NFR entries “West Side Story” and “Judgment at Nuremberg“, but Henry Mancini took home the Oscars for Best Score and (along with Johnny Mercer) Best Song for “Moon River”. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is one of the rare non-musicals to win both awards.

Other notes 

  • As George Costanza would not be able to explain, the novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is vastly different from the film. For starters, Paul is an unnamed narrator in the book and there’s no love story (the narrator is a stand-in for Capote). The book goes into more detail about Holly’s dates with men, though it’s made clear she’s not a hooker, but rather an “American Geisha”. The story overall is more a cautionary tale about the cafe society lifestyle than a celebration of it. Capote gave the film his blessing, but called the final product more “a creation of its own than an adaptation.”
  • Capote lobbied for Marilyn Monroe to play Holly Golightly, but she opted to make “The Misfits” instead. Names like Shirley MacLaine and Joanne Woodward were mentioned, but Audrey Hepburn (always a strong contender) was cast. Side note: Hepburn found the role quite challenging, and admits to losing a lot of weight during production due to stress, so maybe we shouldn’t make her the standard for what all women “should” look like.
  • The $50 Holly gets for “going to the powder room” is about $433 today.
  • Shoutout to the supporting cast, who all do their best with their limited screen time. Patricia Neal excels as a character more commanding than her usual roles at the time. Martin Balsam turns a cameo as Holly’s agent into comedy gold. Even the cat is good!
  • The party scene is definitely Blake Edwards’ brainchild. Many of the comic setups here will appear in his later work, especially the “Pink Panther” series. It’s fun, but does stick out a bit.
  • “Moon River” is, of course, a beautiful song, and almost makes you forget this movie’s problems. Almost. This song also proves that Audrey Hepburn can sing, but she’s no Marni Nixon.
  • Doc says he married Holly in 1955 when she was “going on 14” (!). Assuming the film’s setting is 1960, that makes Holly 18-19; Audrey Hepburn was 31. No knock against Hepburn, but watching a 31-year-old be this flaky and make terrible life decisions is very different from watching a 19-year-old do so. This ultimately explains why I have such difficulty watching this movie. You’re all lucky Audrey Hepburn is so charming.
  • Wow, this movie has a lot of cat abuse. Cat gets tossed around the apartment, Holly pushes it out of a cab into the pouring rain. Where’s PETA? For the record: noted humanitarian Audrey Hepburn later stated how much she hated doing these scenes.
  • Oy, that ending. First of all, Paul saying that Holly belongs to him is very cringe-worthy today (I agree with Holly’s then-radical stance “People don’t belong to people”). Secondly, these two must have gotten some pretty bad pneumonia from making out in the rain. It’s a wonder this scene didn’t make Capote shoot his screen Elvis-style.

Legacy 

  • Everyone benefited from the success of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. Blake Edwards would go on to direct (among others) “Days of Wine and Roses” and “The Pink Panther“, while Audrey Hepburn pivoted to more quirky comedies like “Charade” and “How to Steal a Million”. And if you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire…George Peppard.
  • Audrey Hepburn’s black dress from this movie sold for $807,000 in 2006, and her shooting script (complete with handwritten notes) sold in 2017 for $846,000, the most ever spent for a script. The winning bidder: Tiffany & Co.
  • “Moon River” has become a standard, though Henry Mancini always called Hepburn’s rendition his favorite. Easily the most famous cover: Andy Williams!
  • There have been a few attempts to turn “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” into a play, most infamously the 1966 musical adaptation. Despite the talents of composer Bob Merrill and stars Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain, the show never worked, and producer David Merrick shut it down after four previews, rather than subject an audience to, as he put it, “an excruciatingly boring evening”.
  • And finally: Rock band Deep Blue Something was inspired to write their hit song “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” after watching….”Roman Holiday“? Todd Pipes has stated that while “Roman” served as his inspiration, he felt “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” made for a better song title.

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