Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Anniversary Edition) (1961)

You can always tell what kind of a person a man really thinks you are by the earrings he gives you.
— Ms. Holly Golightly

Somehow much more than the sum of its parts, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of those flawed masterpieces that almost everybody loves. The question is, why?

The story of a call girl, a kept man, and the redeeming power of love, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is hardly a thrill-a-minute ride of plot twists and turns. In fact, it’s at least half an hour too long for its story and its characters, and its interminably choreographed party scene has aged about as well as a cheap wine with a cracked cork. Moreover, George Axelrod’s screenplay, which bowdlerises the darker realities out of Truman Capote’s original novella, substitutes subterfuge for prostitution, creates a spurious romance for his heroine, and contrives a typically Hollywood happy ending — with George Peppard’s Fred, the novelist with no ribbon in his typewriter — rather than allowing Ms. Holiday Golightly to slip away to Rio, Buenos Aires, Africa, and parts unknown like the true wild spirit she was.

As if this weren’t enough, director Blake Edwards makes the unfathomable decision to cast his friend Mickey Rooney as Japanese photographer Yunioshi, whom he plays as the worst kind of racial caricature. If this choice is “ethnically inappropriate,” as producer Richard Shepherd suggests on the Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Anniversary Edition) DVD, Edwards himself allows that he wishes now he could change what he did then, but his regrets sound unconvincing (this in the DVD’s documentary, “The Making of a Classic”). I suppose we should just count ourselves fortunate Capote didn’t write any Indian characters into Breakfast at Tiffany’s, otherwise Edwards might have asked Peter Sellers to break out the boot polish.

However, quite the worst thing about Breakfast at Tiffany’s is that it didn’t star Marilyn Monroe.

As Audrey Hepburn’s longtime companion, Robert Wolders explains, “Truman Capote had originally visualised Monroe in the part, and she probably would’ve been allowed to play the character as he had created her in the book, but they unfortunately wouldn’t let Audrey do that.” Wolders regrets that Hepburn was not able to show the earthy side of herself that he obviously remembers fondly, but for me, the disappointment is not seeing Monroe in the part that would certainly have won her an Oscar.

It’s unclear from the additional materials here or elsewhere exactly why Monroe didn’t play Holly Golightly. Edwards implies he didn’t want her, but I’ve also heard she was advised to turn the part down for “image” reasons. In any case, once you begin to imagine Monroe’s breathy comic sexiness oozing around Capote’s dialogue, and her special vein of self-knowing sadness catching the camera unawares, it’s hard not to regret her absence.

That said, quite the best thing about Breakfast at Tiffany’s is that it did star Audrey Hepburn.

As Hepburn’s son, Sean Ferrer, quite rightly explains, “She took something which was one way, and turned it completely into something else… up to the point where people forget what the film was really about. She was scared and happy and funny and delightful and spunky and emotional and…” Indeed she was. She may not have been Holiday Golightly as Capote saw her, but Hepburn creates a terrific Holly Golightly. A combination of chic beauty, quick wit, and couldn’t-care-less confidence, leavened with just the right amount of underlying vulnerability, Hepburn’s Holly Golightly has become an icon who approaches Monroe’s own legend.

Of course, much of the credit for her achievement must still go to Capote, for his syllable-perfect dialogue makes up huge swathes of Axelrod’s screenplay, and therefore Hepburn’s characterisation. Her look contributes to the delight as well, her little black dresses and capri pants, her adorable hair, even her bathtub-turned-couch. And that blink-and-you-miss-it moment when she briefly dons a Huckleberry Hound mask at the five and dime in silent tribute, I assume, to Henry Mancini’s “Moon River”.

But the moment that brings it home is the look of sheer anguish on her face just before she pours herself into that famous rain-swept final kiss. That look alone is enough to make you want to believe in happy endings. True to the book, and life, or not.