Wednesday, 26 January 2011

BFI Screen: Breakfast At Tiffany's (Blake Edwards, 1961)

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961)

Although not as racy as Truman Capote's 1956 novella of the same name, Breakfast At Tiffany's is still a romantic treat in its own right. Screenwriter George Axelrod has gone some way to taking the edges off of Capote's 'it girl', catering for the casting of the ever-lovable Audrey Hepburn by making her a frothier, perkier presence, as opposed to the shrill and complex society gal of the source material (only 94 pages itself). Stunningly shot by DoP Franz Planer, Breakfast At Tiffany's the movie is an exercise in technicolour richness; a film that refuses to make any sort of social commentary when it could just as easily be shopping for jewelry or drinking bourbon. This in itself isn't a problem, however, as the film has no pretense of substance. Indeed, the films biggest flaw is the woeful casting of Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, who turns in one of the most cringe-inducing stereotypes the cinema has ever seen, and remains an offensive embarrassment that sticks out like a sore thumb in a film of subtlety and class; most characters speak softly and assuredly, where he makes indistinguishable screams down a staircase, hopping around like he's on hot coals. It would be outdated even for a parody, which this isn't.

Of course, to compare Edwards' Tiffany's to Capote's is perhaps unfair. As an adaptation it's awful, completely disregarding the bite of the source material, dramatically shifting focus into safer, formulaic romantic territory. It indulges in whimsical pitter-patter where the book makes great use of narration and non-linear narrative, as well as page-long monologues, to wallow in the life of Miss Golightly, who is much harder to warm to without a face as pretty and recognizable as Hepburn's. The basic plot is all the same, but the events and character arcs are sufficiently different to see this as more of a reinterpretation of the characters most basic wants and needs; her attitude and style. It's initially easy to separate yourself from the original material too, because this is such an absorbing fantasy; visually beautiful and with a lulling, dreamy score by Henry Mancini. The fantasy, though, is an insufficient one, lacking the intelligence, class awareness and social insight that would have been so welcome.

The opening sequence says perhaps all that need be said. Holly Golightly pulls up in an ordinary yellow cab to the window of Tiffany's, the poshest jewelry store in New York. She's dressed head-to-toe in black; a gorgeous dress, pearl necklace, hair up and sunglasses hiding any insecurity that may be revealed by her eyes. She's every bit the bourgeoise dream, but she stays outside, peering in. A low angle shot takes in the entire building when Holly first steps out of the cab, perhaps implying that she is still beneath this world, despite how much of her own bullshit she chooses to believe ("she's a real phony"). She eats her breakfast and drinks her coffee as the score swells over her contended face - this is a place of meditation for Holly, a place of peace and fulfillment. Retail therapy, without any buying.

The centerpiece of the film is the emerging romance between Holly and new neighbour Paul 'Fred' Varjack (George Peppard), a near-failing writer with one success that can be found at the public library, where Holly has never been before. Although this isn't a bad focus, it is a protracted one - extended to 112 minutes where the 94-page novella barely gives it breathing room. It would have been nice to further explore Holly's party-going lifestyle, her relationships, inhibitions, self-obsession, short temper and lies; her humanity, if you will. It would have been nice to learn more of her history, her relationship with her brother and husband. It would have been nice to visit Joe's Bar, or even have a mention of the place. But the romance plays first fiddle, and while it's perfectly fine (funny, fizzy and finally uplifting) it's an empty entertainment. The only shot that really holds resonance is the heartbreaking fade-out, feathers floating around Holly sobbing on her bed, as she learns of the death of her brother Fred, who was in the Army. The ending is both the films most rewarding moment and its most significant betrayal. Holly runs from her cab through the rain and takes a stray cat back into her care, falling into the arms of Paul and ending on a kiss. It warms the heart, and is undeniably lovely. But it's not as satisfying as the mystery of Holly Golightly as written by Truman Capote. I know I started this review trying to separate book and film, stating that a lack of substance was fine given the quality of the style, but comparisons are inevitable between two such rightful classics. I loved this film, it made me laugh and leave the cinema with a smile. But it also left me with a tinge of disappointment - perhaps because of its conformity, its neatness and effervescence. But more because Breakfast At Tiffany's the film is a glass of champagne, where the book is a shot of bourbon straight from the heart and, unavoidably, all the better for it.


  1. You're wrong. This movie is one of the best out there. Capote was a bit off his rocker, and this movie saved the storyline. Sure, it doesn't follow his novel to the letter, but was made all the better for it. Audrey is amazing (as per usual) and you should get off your high horse and accept the fact that this movie is classic for a reason.

  2. @ Anonymous
    Disregarding that the mere idea of subjectivity is seemingly lost on you, I would say that this is nowhere near one of the best movies out there. Classic status is a reflection of popularity, not quality, and if you'd read my review a little more carefully you'd have seen that I do recognize some quality in the film. It's just that the story is weaker without Capote's bite and there are no high horses needed to recognize that. I shall accept that the movie is a classic, but on the aforementioned basis that that doesn't mean it's particularly great.