Sunday, 6 April 2014

Review: Breakfast at Tiffany's

I don't know if Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961, trailer) is the prototype of the romantic comedy movie, but it is certainly a famous example of it.


Writer Paul Varjak (George Peppard) moves into a Manhattan apartment where he befriends and falls for his neighbor, the happy-go-lucky glamour girl Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn).

As if you're thinking of any other image right now.

My Take

My beef with Breakfast at Tiffany's is that it is a bland, formulaic mangle of a complex and interesting source novel. First off, Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's is neither romantic, nor a comedy. In fact, the story's male protagonist and narrator (unnamed in the book, but nicknamed 'Fred' by Holly) is a closeted homosexual. 

'Fred' is single, lives alone, and never hints at any attraction to women in speech or narration. He does, however, go into much detail to describe a man he encountered on happenstance:

'...I was charmed. He'd been put together with some care, his brown head and bullfighter's figure had an exactness, a perfection, like an apple, an orange, something nature has made just right. Added to this, as decoration, were an English suit and a brisk cologne and, what is still more unlatin, a bashful manner.' (Capote 46-47)

In case these reasons seem too subtle to confirm 'Fred''s homosexuality, there is a scene where, shortly after meeting him, Holly climbs into 'Fred''s bed - 'Do you mind? I only want to rest a moment. So let's don't say another word. Go to sleep.' (29-30) - and he lets her sleep next to him. This told me that 'Fred' and Holly share a platonic relationship.

Later in the book there is another scene where 'Fred' obliges Holly's request to spread tanning oil onto her nude body. The fact that Holly doesn't mind 'Fred' seeing her naked like this implies to me that she knows he isn't straight.

A throwaway reference to 'Fred''s sexual orientation is when Holly casually calls him 'Maude' (93), which in the gay slang of the time refers either to a male prostitute or a homosexualPlus, Truman Capote himself was a New Yorker, a writer, a socialite and a gay.

In the Breakfast at Tiffany's film, Paul's apartment is a love-nest paid for by a wealthy woman (Patricia Neal) who is having an extramarital affair with him. I guess this development is the filmmakers' way of making it abundantly clear that their leading man ain't no fruit.

Whaddaya mean gay? Don't you see this woman standing near me?

This woman barely figures into the story and never interferes with Paul's desire to pursue Holly, so as far as I can tell she's nothing but a 'get out of Gay free' card.

Breakfast at Tiffany's tries to have its cake and eat it too with the gay/straight thing: It lifts most of the book's scenes and dialogue of a gay character, then in the final reel: Bam! Romance! To illustrate just how much this misses the point of the book, I invite you to imagine if someone did a Great Gatsby adaptation where Gatsby and Nick Carroway lightheartedly pal around, then fall in love at the end. A ridiculous and stupid idea, right?

So if the Breakfast at Tiffany's novella isn't the romance story that everyone associates the title with, then what is it about?

Well, it's about a the friendship of two complex characters. 'Fred' is a cynical neurotic who is drawn to Holly's optimistic free spirit:

'...For I was in love with [Holly]. Just as I'd once been in love with my mother's elderly colored cook, and a postman who let me follow him on his rounds, and a whole family named McKendrick. That category of love generates jealousy, too.' (71)

'Fred' both admires Holly and envies her. When Holly shares her fantasy of moving to Brazil, starting a family, and triumphantly visiting New York with a brood of children in tow, 'Fred''s reaction is:

'And I said: 'do shut up', for I felt infuriatingly left out - a tugboat in dry-dock while she, glittery voyager of secure destination, steamed down the harbor with whistles whistling and confetti in the air.' (78)

Holly Golightly is bubbly, sociable and adventurous; but the flipside of this is that she is irresponsibly trusting, has a tenuous grasp on reality, and invests huge importance in maintaining her shallow, glamorous lifestyle:

'Do me a favor, darling. Call up the Times, or whatever you call, and get a list of the fifty richest men in Brazil. I'm not kidding. The fifty richest: regardless of race or color.' (94)

While 'Fred' is heavily anchored to his grim reality, Holly is so unattached that she doesn't own furniture, she has a business card that read 'Holiday Golightly, Travelling', and she refuses to name her pet cat because '...I haven't any right to give him [a name]: he'll have to wait until he belongs to somebody...he's an independent, and so am I.' (39-40)

Holly's desire for complete independence reaches an ugly crescendo when, on the way to the airport, she stops the cab and drops the cat onto the street.

'I was stunned. 'Well, you are. You are a bitch.' We'd travelled a block before she replied: 'I told you. We just met by the river one day: that's all. Independents, both of us. We never made each other any promises. We never-' she said, and her voice collapsed, a tic, an invalid whiteness seized her face. The car had paused for a traffic light. Then she had the door open, she was running down the street; and I ran after her.'

'But the cat was not at the corner where he'd been left...children emerged from doorways and ladies leaned over their window sills to watch as Holly darted up and down the block, ran back and forth chanting: 'You. Cat. Where are you? Here, cat.'...The limousine had followed us. Now Holly let me steer her towards it. At the door, she hesitated; she looked past me, and she shuddered, she had to grip my arm to stand up: 'Oh, Jesus God. We did belong to each other. He was mine.'' (98-99)

Breakfast at Tiffany's screenwriter George Axelrod takes this sobering and symbolic scene and ladles schmaltzy goo all over it. Now, when Holly's just about to lose all hope of finding the cat, the music swells, and - meow - the cat appears!


Movie Holly Golightly is absolutely the whimsical, superhumanly perfect fashion plate that pop culture says she is. This required a lot of modification from the source material.

In the original novel, Holly is only nineteen years old, and had run away from her Texas hometown and the husband she had married when she was only fourteen. Audrey Hepburn was 32 when she played Holly, and this Holly's marriage 'was annulled ages ago, but he just won't accept it'. Hepburn-Holly's advanced age dodges any implied underage sex theme, and the 'annulment' part is a carefully wholesome whitewash that sidesteps any scandalous divorce- and runaway bride-business.

Capote's Holly Golightly was promiscuous: '...I've only had eleven lovers - not counting anything that happened before I was thirteen because, after all, that just doesn't count.' (76) and the 'powder-room money' she received for her high-class escort work is implied to - at least some of the time - pay for sexual favors. Needless to say, the Tiffany's film never addresses this. We can't have Holly Golightly prostitute herself; then she wouldn't be the cute and spotless girl who adorably keeps perfume in her mailbox.

Capote's Holly was also cattily combative with fellow society-girl Mag Wildwood, and sometimes made vaguely homophobic and racist declarations. Movie-Holly is a harmlessly zany fantasy girl who never causes trouble and is pretty much perfect.

Instead of delving into the darker underbelly of the source material, Breakfast at Tiffany's pads out its runtime with a lovey-dovey Disney-esque score and wacky slapstick comedy. There's an extended party sequence featuring both a drunk woman having a lively conversation with her own reflection, and Holly's long cigarette holder accidentally setting another woman's hat on fire. Later, when Holly tries her inexperienced hand at home cooking, the pot loudly blows its lid off and ruins the dinner. D'oops!

Mention the title Breakfast at Tiffany's to anyone and, regardless if they have seen it, they will picture the iconic one-sheet of Audrey Hepburn with the Little Black Dress, pearls, sunglasses, gloves and long cigarette holder.

When I think of Breakfast at Tiffany's, the image that comes to my mind is this one:
Birth of a Nation Part 2: Breakfast at Tiffany's

This alarming caricature is Mr. Yunioshi, a man living in Holly's building. In the source material Yunioshi is a regular, Fresno-born American who just happens to be ethnically Japanese. The pictured Yunioshi is white American comedian Mickey Rooney in yellowface, squinty-eye makeup and oversized prop teeth. His recurring comedy bit is that he is always angry at Holly's loud parties, and he yells about it.

At the beginning of the film we see him rouse from his floor-mattress, hit his head on a paper lantern, then march out into the hallway. 'MISS GORIGHTRY! Dis time I'm a-warning you! I am definitery dis time going to calling da porice!' Then he turns around and - in an inspired comedy twist - walks into his door.

All of these complaints elaborate why I dislike Breakfast at Tiffany's, but the reason I hate it is because the movie's dopey, two-dimensional love story is the definitive version that exists in the cultural unconscious. A few years ago I saw an Anna Friel-starring stage production of Tiffany's that seemed to follow the Capote original until, sure enough, the plot doglegged into romance in the final act. I lament that this dreck outshines the original, and that there may never be a real Tiffany's adaptation.

Why couldn't the filmmakers have made up an original ditzy-girl love story, and given it a different title? Why isn't this adaptation as derided as other mutated misfires like The Scarlet Letter, The Bonfire of the Vanities, or the Jack Black Gulliver's Travels?

As I found out on the comments on the film's IMDb page, Tiffany's fans just love its syrupy sentimentality:

'I like Holly. She's too beautiful to dislike.' 

'Audrey Hepburn would never play a hooker.'

Happy happy Holly Holly romantic perfect classic lovely Audrey. They must get together at the end. She would never be a hooker. No divorce. No infidelity. No nasty conflict. No lost cat. No occasional curse word. No references to sex or drugs. Absolutely no references to homosexuality. T
his film is much too classy for all those sorts of things.

Truman Capote's novel Breakfast at Tiffany's is available at all good bookstores and online retailers.


Further Reading

Breakfast at Tiffany's is one of my 'big ones' - either the obscure films that I have a serious appreciation for, or the popular ones with which I have a serious bone to pick.

For other big ones, see my posts about Across the UniverseThe Fall, Kick-Ass, Into The Wild and Drive.

For more about 1960s cinema, you can see my post about Peeping Tom.

Capote, Truman. Breakfast at Tiffany's. St. Ives: Penguin, 2000. Print.
Breakfast at Tiffany's was produced by Jurow-Shepherd. The UK DVD was distributed by Paramount Pictures Corporation.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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