As the years have gone by Breakfast at Tiffany’s has become more famous for what it’s not, than for what it is. For all the talk about how it failed to be the film that would’ve turned Marilyn Monroe into a bona fide serious actress (Truman Capote wanted her to play the lead role), or how it doesn’t seem to show any signs of racial sensitivity, little is made about its enduring legacy as a style icon or its timeless encompassing of what old Hollywood star quality was all about. Yet strangely enough the film remains as beloved by audiences as it’s forgotten by critics when mentioning cinema classics.
Based on Capote’s eponymous novella, the screenplay was written by George Axelrod, who curiously wrote the play The Seven Year Itch, which provided Monroe with perhaps her most iconic role in the movie adaptation. Axelrod took Capote’s story of decadence and loneliness and extracted almost every sexual element out of it to the point where audiences who watched the movie never knew for sure what, troubled heroine, Holly Golightly did for a living. In the novella, she’s clearly a call girl, in the movie she’s a free spirited “Hollywood reject” who gets $50 when she asks her dates for powder room money. Those more open to sexualize Holly can think of her as an opportunistic gold-digger, in the manner of the ladies of How to Marry a Millionaire (which also starred Monroe) and given all these coincidences, you wonder what kept Blake Edwards from going with the obvious and giving Marilyn the part.
The legend has it that it was Monroe’s own acting teacher, Lee Strasberg, who kept her from accepting the part, arguing that playing a prostitute would be detrimental for her already too steamy bombshell image. Regardless of the way things went, including Capote’s accusations of Paramount double-crossing him by going with the gamine Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is like a swan song to the way movies were made during cinema’s Golden Age.
One of the bonus features in this superb Blu-ray edition in fact celebrates Paramount Studios. Through a visual tour we gain knowledge of the iconic films that have been made there since the time when movies began and it also provides us with somewhat of an education in terms of contextualizing the main attraction in terms of larger studio values.
Because the truth is that Breakfast at Tiffany’s is by all means an old fashioned studio film, despite the controversies about its casting and gentrified screenplay, the film is remembered for its magnificent use of Technicolor, its surreal studio settings (the alley in the last scene is a perfect example of self-contained filmmaking), and the way in which it used big stars to evoke specific reactions from audience members. Take the actor who plays writer/gigolo Paul Varjak, for example. Beside his stunningly good looks, George Peppard didn’t really have enough qualities to make him a superstar (director Blake Edwards said “[Peppard] wasn’t my cup of tea”), which bodes him the perfect “victim” for the character of Mrs. Failenson (played with audacious voracity by Patricia Neal). As an established stage and screen actress, Neal has little to do but enunciate differently, in order to stand high above Peppard.
This remarkable use of actors making the most of their established screen personas is something we don’t see much of anymore. Obviously the most fascinating example of this in the film is Holly Golightly herself. By casting Hepburn, not only where the filmmakers inserting ambiguity into Holly’s sexual career, they were also toying with the image of a character that couldn’t be more American if it tried.
Capote’s Holly is a creature who craves self improvement — even if her means contradict established societal values — as she travels from poverty to a more sensitive economic situation. Hepburn’s Holly on the other side, with her nondescript European accent (gotta love how she says “marvelous”) and undeniable class, makes us doubt she ever really had a hard time getting anywhere. Even during one of the film’s biggest plot twists we are surprised to realize that Hepburn never succeeds in making Holly completely human.
Instead, she turns her into a beautiful archetype of tragic misunderstanding. Holly moves us and touches us, not because of her troubled personal history but because of the honesty with which the dreamlike Hepburn plays her. We feel that they had nothing in common (other than their love for Givenchy) and then we see her singing “Moon River” holding her sad little guitar and refusing to be dubbed and Audrey has become Holly. The strange accent and lanky seductiveness no longer stand in her way, they become assets. Holly isn’t really a person yet, she’s a work in progress.
This Blu-ray edition features countless bonus material and can be called the best edition of Breakfast at Tiffany’s released so far. The movie looks spectacular, the high definition upgrade makes the colors come to vibrant life and the actors look even more beautiful.
Additional featurettes explore the insensitive way with which the Asian character, Mr. Yunioshi, was played by the legendary Mickey Rooney (kudos to them for approaching this head on this time around). There’s also a moving piece on the Oscar winning composer Henry Mancini, where we learn that “Moon River” was almost scraped out of the movie!
Another short film takes us through Hepburn’s long history with Hubert de Givenchy, who apparently refused to work with her at first because she was an unknown starlet. Another feature concentrates on the film’s centerpiece party, a complicated, stunningly choreographed sequence that captures the glamour, fun and decadence of Capote’s New York. It also might’ve inspired Edwards to make The Party later during the decade.
When it was first released, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was perhaps just meant to work as a star vehicle for Hepburn and a surefire moneymaker for Paramount. As the years have gone by, the film’s themes have matured and no longer do we find ourselves in the presence of a mere romance flick. Instead, we are given a snapshot of transitions in filmmaking, societal sensitivity and star power.
Viewers should be grateful because they get the opportunity to analyze the film under modern filters while enjoying its naive lack of self-consciousness. In a letter she wrote to Tiffany’s, Hepburn said “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”, perhaps unaware that she was also describing the film she’d made.