Audrey Hepburn was among Hollywood’s top box office attractions during that uncertain period – roughly 1948 to 1968 – between the glittery studio era and the brash New Hollywood period, when scruffy, Brandoesque young bucks took center stage. In Hepburn’s day, women reigned alongside men as ticket-buying draws, but that era seems a quaint memory now, as does Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a charming confection from the jet set JFK-era America. Breakfast at Tiffany’s has now been released in a deluxe two-disc package, as part of Paramount Pictures’ “Centennial Collection”, and fans can start drooling now.
Hepburn’s provocatively named character, Holly Golightly says early in the film, “I’m crazy about Tiffany’s”, but we know this already from the opening scene, when the creamy-complexioned Holly, in a gorgeously slinky black evening dress, steps from a taxi, then prowls longingly outside the window of the fabled Manhattan jewelry emporium Tiffany & Co., coveting the priceless baubles inside, or so we think. The scene brings to mind How to Marry a Millionaire or the late Eartha Kitt’s sultry “Santa Baby”, suggesting that our heroine is no more than a kraven golddigger, hoping to hook a big fish.
Soon after, Holly, a failed actress, meets with the appropriately Waspy Paul Varjak (played by future A-Team head honcho George Peppard), a fiction writer with a discreet ‘arrangement’ with an heiress, the impeccably coutured Patricia Neal. Peppard’s Paul, as Holly’s new neighbor, quickly becomes enmeshed in Miss Golightly’s fizzy, effervescent life, and learns more about her delicate situation. Holly is what may be politely termed, a “party girl”. Don’t say hooker…shhh…although some will argue just that.
She’s dependent on the favors of wealthy gentlemen, who may slip her 50 bucks – not exactly pocket change in the early ‘60s – “to go to the powder room”. She lives modestly, but has a chic wardrobe, and is always glamorous on her evening jaunts. She flits from soiree to soiree, dines at “21”, and imagines her beloved Tiffany’s as an enchanted place where nothing bad ever happens. Still, she’s no demure shrinking violet, but more of an impish free spirit, the Pippi Longstocking of the Upper East Side, if you will.
Her relentless sociality may endear her to most men, but it drives her landlord, Mr. Yunioshi, to utter distraction. For the unaware, the Japanese-born Yunioshi is played by Hollywood perennial Mickey Rooney. I’m tempted to avoid any conversation of this performance, but it remains a stupefying caricature that utilizes admittedly brilliant physical humor to present an archaic Hollywood stereotype of the goofy, high-strung Asiatic, screeching at all passerby through buck teeth. Rooney’s antics recall the broad Asian archetypes depicted in Disney classics such as The Ugly Dachshund and The Aristocats, two films ‘Ol Walt himself had a hand in.
Director Blake Edwards confesses to great regret over this casting in a making of featurette, though also musing that perhaps a Japanese actor should have been cast, and that would have eliminated the issue. No, Blake, the entire part should have been re-worked. Sad that it should end up one of Rooney’s most memorable roles, if only in infamy.
As one might expect, Breakfast at Tiffany’s inevitably becomes a “boy-meets-girl, boy loses girl, how does boy win her back”? romantic comedy, but there’s a definite pathos beneath all the frivolity, more than you’d ever find in the Hudson-Day pairings of the same period. Holly suffers personal losses in the story, all the while trying to avoid genuine emotional attachment. This is hardly a novel device for this genre nowadays, but perhaps it seemed fresher in 1961. And not surprisingly, the film sidesteps the fact that Holly surely sleeps with some of her well-heeled benefactors. Does Holly find true love? Do Holly and Paul get together? Must you even ask?
In many respects, the film is a love letter to a tony, cosmopolitan New York which perhaps never existed, a Big Apple devoid of muggings, racial strife, or transit strikes. One can almost picture Eva Gabor swooning from her penthouse terrace, as Holly pursues her champagne wishes and caviar dreams. Hepburn pulls it off beautifully, radiating a sort of feline grace, which in real life made her a darling of the apparel industry and its assorted fashionistas. Before this film, screen sirens tended to be full-figured, all hips and chest, sporting elaborate coiffure. I won’t say that Hepburn started the slight, waifish look, but Holly Golightly definitely helped popularize it, for better or worse.
Besides Hepburn and Peppard, Martin Balsam is amusing as Holly’s neurotic agent O.J., Patricia Neal’s manipulative society matron looks good enough to frame, and Buddy Ebsen, seemingly prepping for his role as Jed Clampett in the soon-to-be-filming The Beverly Hillbillies, whose appearance reveals more details of Holly’s past.
“Baubles, bangles, and beads”, Sinatra crooned in a gentle bossa nova tune, and that’s what you’ll find on Disc 2 of this special release, more bling than Tiffany’s at Xmas. Among the trinkets: a reunion gathering of extras from the film’s raucous party sequence, including comments from noted film historian A. Ashley Hoff, a discussion – featuring Asian-American actors – of the Yunioshi character, an examination of Hepburn’s aforementioned influence on the rag trade, and, oddly, a backlot tour of Paramount Pictures, an incongruous and unnecessary feature.
Breakfast At Tiffany’s, with Mancini’s lush, melancholy “Moon River”, urbane luxe stylishness, and calculated evasion of any dark currents bubbling in postwar America, is undeniably an artifact from a more innocent time. It may seem a fluffy frivolity when compared to the meatier stories which would supplant it in theaters at the end of the ‘60s, but there’s nothing wispy about Audrey Hepburn’s mesmerizing, kittenish performance, which dominates every scene she’s in. The girl – can I still say that? – had the goods, and one need not be a bored housewife, a ‘gay drama queen’, or the late Bosley Crowther to appreciate that. Think of it as a dance. Just let her lead and you’ll go…lightly.