Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) Directed by Blake Edwards. Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Patricia Neal (114 min).
A kooky party girl who lives off the rats and super rats who give her money for the “powder room”, Holly Golightly is one of Hepburn’s signature roles. Generations of romantics have identified with the melancholy under her glamorous veneer. “Any moviegoer worthy of the label cherishes the memory of Audrey Hepburn’s face as she rushed through the rain to rescue her cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s“(David Hofstede).
I once heard the distinctive character of New York City ascribed to being the place where all the high school outcasts came to live out their fantasies and show the folks back home just how wrong they were. This certainly is the New York City of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s author Truman Capote fled from Monroeville, Alabama, to the New York City of his dreams. He later said that Holly Golightly was his favorite creation, an amalgam of the frivolous women he had befriended: Doris Lilly, Carol Marcus, Phoebe Pierce, Oona Chaplin, Gloria Vanderbilt–and they (and more) took credit for being his inspiration. But Holly is really Truman Capote, like him “her whole life is an expression of freedom and an acceptance of human irregularities, her own as well as everybody else’s. The only sin she recognizes is hypocrisy.” But would she be the same character if named, as in earlier drafts, Connie Gustafson?
Reading Capote’s novella will be a familiar experience to anyone who knows the movie, although in the book the hero’s sexuality is ambiguous, the language is a bit more frank, and there is no happy ending. You’ll recognize the speeches, like when Holly tells the (unnamed) hero what she does about the “mean reds”: What I’ve found does the most good is just to get in a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.”
Holly is so closely associated with Hepburn, it’s hard to believe Capote insisted that he wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the part. He’d sold the film rights for $65,000 to Paramount and the studio hired George Axelrod, author of The Seven Year Itch, to adapt the book for Monroe. She wanted Holly badly, but her acting coach Paula Strasberg nixed the part on the basis of its immorality. 20th Century Fox wouldn’t lend her out for it, anyway. Capote said, “Paramount double-crossed me in every way and cast Audrey. She was just wrong for that part.” He also detested the film for prettying up the plot . Yet, here is how Capote described Holly: “She was still on the stairs, now she reached the landing, and the ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino blond and yellow caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim, cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. Her mouth was large, her nose upturned. A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman. I thought her anywhere between sixteen and thirty; as it turned out, she was shy two months of her nineteenth birthday.”
Hepburn was reconsidering the direction of her career. Recently the mother of a much longed-for baby, she was 31 years old, and no longer an ingenue. She felt it was necessary to bring her film image up to date with the times, although she hesitated to play what was, essentially, the part of a call girl, however sanitized. But, the studios were still in the business of protecting the images of their stars. If there is one perfect glimpse of Audrey Hepburn, it is her standing on Fifth Avenue at daybreak eating a danish (which she loathed) and drinking coffee from a paper cup while framed by a Tiffany’s window. “After this introduction, nobody could possibly think anything bad about Holly Golightly” (Walker).
Hepburn hesitated at first. “Holly is so contrary to me. She frightens me. This part called for an extroverted character. I am an introvert.” But she was pleased with the result, “This is the best thing I’ve ever done, because it was the hardest.” Hepburn said of herself in the role, (it is) “the one I feel least uncomfortable watching. But the things I always think of when I see it are (1) how could I have abandoned my cat? And (2) Truman Capote really wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part?”
The location filming in New York was difficult. The rubbernecking crowds unnerved Hepburn, who didn’t like to be watched while she worked. There was pressure to film the Tiffany’s scene quickly since Russian Premiere Nikita Khrushchev was in the city, and police wanted the crowds dispersed by 7:30 am. If you are out for a walk Holly Golightly lives at 169 East 71st Street, which looks today much as it did in 1961. But, don’t expect Tiffany’s to leave their jewels in the window overnight for you.
This is a publicity shot made inside Tiffany’s immediately after filming the opening scene.
Henry Mancini wrote “Moon River” specifically for Audrey Hepburn, trying to evoke Holly’s yearning for innocence and simplicity under her sophistication. He said, “It was one of the hardest melodies I ever had to write because I couldn’t figure out what this lady would sing. Would it be a pop tune, a folk song, a blues? It took me almost a month to get it. Though the song went on to be a big hit for Andy Williams, and has had over 1000 recordings over the years, no one ever performed it with more honesty, feeling or understanding than Audrey did in the movie.” The song was almost cut after a preview before the studio brass, the new President of Paramount (showing off, no doubt) announced, “Well, I can tell you one thing, we can get rid of that song.” Audrey, uncharacteristically assertive, jumped out of her chair, “Over my dead body!” The song stayed. (Harris). Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics. But, will someone please tell me, what is a “huckleberry friend”? Tiffany’s took out an ad after Hepburn’s death to bid her farewell using that phrase, forever identified with her, as is the song. Mancini won the film’s only two Oscars for the score and for “Moon River.”
The major addition to the screenplay is that the hero becomes a kept man; the character of Patricia Neal’s decorator is no where to be found in the book. Hollywood convention demands the hero should be more interested in girls than in his writing. And, it was important that Paul’s morals be no better than the Holly’s. She admits to only 11 lovers, because before you’re 13 years old doesn’t count.
Patricia Neal wrote in her autobiography, “2-E just about squeezed through as a decent part. The director, Blake Edwards, was beautiful to work with, as was Audrey, who was the Queen of Hollywood in 1960. Only gorgeous George seemed to be champing slightly at the bit. His character was written with a battered vulnerability that was totally appealing, but it did not correspond to George’s image of a leading man. He seemed to want to be an old time movie hunk. Gone were the humble days of truth at the Actor’s Studio” (where they studied together). “He and Blake locked horns through most of the filming, almost coming to blows at one point. In the end, George played the role as he wanted, and I always felt had Blake stood his ground the film would have been stronger.”
It’s hard to imagine that at the time Peppard was considered to be a possible successor to James Dean. He may have felt, for his career’s sake, he should play the role without any hint of the famous author’s effeminacy. After all his Method analysis, he comes off as rather a stiff. Hepburn had been looking forward to playing opposite George Peppard, a man more her own age, since she had so often been paired with more fatherly figures. But his intense Method acting preparation made her insecure about her instinctive approach to acting.
Edith Head, by contract, received costume credit for every Paramount “A” picture. But, Audrey Hepburn’s clothes in this film were designed by her great friend, Hubert de Givenchy. Their partnership (she remained his muse throughout his career) redefined both movie wardrobes and standards of beauty, as he said, “There is not a woman alive who does not dream of looking like Audrey Hepburn.” Not only would Hepburn’s pared down wardrobe and her streaked beehive be imitated worldwide, and “Moon River” become a standard, but pounds and pet stores alike were innundated for requests for orange tabby cats. As the author of Audrey Style asserts, “Felines aside, the Hepburn Givenchy partnership reached the apogee of rafine elegance as Holly Golightly’s hangover chic caused a run on triple strand faux pearl necklaces, sleeveless dresses and oversized dark sunglasses that continues to this day.” It’s hard to believe that the costumes were not even nominated for an Oscar, the prize going to West Side Story.
No building is riper for romance than the Upper East Side brownstone where Holly and Paul live in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. As James Sanders points out in Celluloid Skyline, the “inherently contradictory nature of the building–as a home for solitary young people, yet a domestic environment that encouraged neighborly relations–continued to make it an obvious locale for romance, stories that by their nature tracked the gradual victory of connection over solitude.” While the front of the house is real, the rest is a stage set; row houses don’t have tenement fire escapes like the one on which Holly strums her guitar. But Sanders points out that it is an instinctive, if not literal truth. The brownstone is a single-family residence broken into apartments, yearning for wholeness. “Superimposing a domestic unity atop otherwise solitary paths, of linking the lives, and perhaps even the hearts of New York’s ‘huckleberry friends.'”
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a film that is almost perfect, if I could recast the blandly handsome George Peppard and ax the racist caricature of Micky Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi, a character he said he hated. And, for me, the sentimentalization of prostitution is a problem, as well, although many a Manhattan migrant has found sexual liberation to be one of the more intoxicating aspects of urban life. Of course, we do NOT want it to turn this into Midnight Cowboy. “While it may be the archetypical Audrey Hepburn film, it’s nowhere near her best. Blake Edwards’ notion of life in the early sixties is stunningly inauthentic–his idea of a swinging party animal is Martin Balsam” (Thompson).
Why has this film maintained its popularity over the years? Perhaps, because it represents virtually the last moment in American movies where an actress was glamorized for glamour’s sake. Audrey Hepburn is evoked as an inspiration by someone or other in almost every issue of Vogue; and Audrey Style is full of tributes to her ineffable and inimitable elegance. She is invariably linked with her exact contemporary, Jackie Kennedy. They represent 20th century style in a way no subsequent icons do. “People associate me with a time when movies were pleasant,” she once said, “when women wore pretty dresses in films and you heard beautiful music. I always love it when people write me and say, ‘I was having a rotten time, and I walked into a cinema and saw one of your movies and it made such a difference.'”
If you would like to read more about this film, let me recommend Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. by Sam Wasson, subtitled, Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the Dawn of the Modern Woman. He discusses how Holly Golightly was the first movie heroine who was not punished for having sex, leading to a gradual reinvention of the cinema’s ideal female. He also speaks at length about how Edwards was encouraged to cut Micky Rooney’s racist charicature, Mr. Yunioshi, out of the film. In 2008, a screening of the film was even cancelled by a protest in Sacremento, California. Wasson writes, “Blake Edwards has apoligized–publicly, on various editions of the Breakfast at Tiffany’s DVD–for casting Rooney in the part.” Will I feel differently about Mr. Yunioshi the next time I watch it? Time will tell…
(Photos from the Museum of Modern Art. Sources include: Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, Audrey: Her real story by Alexander Walker, Audrey Hepburn by Warren G. Harris, Audrey Hepburn a bio-bibliography by David Hofstede, Blake Edwards by Peter Lehman and William Luhr, Audrey Hepburn: An Intimate Portrait by Diana Maychick, Audrey Hepburn by Barry Paris, Celluloid Skyline by James Sanders, Capote by Gerald Clarke, People Magazine obituary, 2/1/93, by Susan Schindehette, American Film, May 1990 Frank Thompson.)