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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: Breakfast At Tiffany's

* * *

Winner: Best Original Song, 1961

Director: Blake Edwards
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Patricia Neal

Isn't it strange when a movie inspires as much love in you as it does loathing? For example, I love Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany's and there are many things about the film itself I find admirable but I can't ignore the flat out racist presence of Mickey Rooney as Holly Golightly's upstairs neighbor. It's an ugly, ugly aspect of the film and seriously hinders my ability to watch and enjoy it. I know that it was a different time and everything but damn.

Hepburn stars as Holly Golightly, a party girl looking for her golden ticket in the form of a rich man who will see to her needs and set her up in the lap of luxury. She has several contenders for the role but has yet to land one perhaps because, deep down, she's not really that kind of girl after all. She gains a kindred spirit when Paul Varjak (George Peppard) moves into her apartment building. He's a writer with one novel under his belt who is being kept by the wealthy Mrs. Failenson (the always great Patricia Neal), a fact which essentially puts him and Holly in the same social position. Their unique understanding of each other's lifestyle, and their natural attraction to each other, prompts them to develop a friendship that inevitably progresses to love.

In many ways Holly and Paul are perfect for each other. They're both young and beautiful and have learned to make the most of the value that others have placed on their youth and beauty, and they genuinely enjoy each other's company. The problem comes down to economics: they can't afford each other. Paul is willing to give up the meal ticket he has in Mrs. Failenson, but Holly continues trying to secure herself a wealthy husband and sets her sights on Jose da Silva Pereira (Jose Luis de Villalonga). Her decision naturally causes a rift in her relationship with Paul and the two go their separate ways but, since this is ultimately a love story, they will of course eventually find their way back to each other after a few trials and tribulations.

Loosely based on the novella by Truman Capote, who reportedly disliked the adaptation and especially Hepburn's portrayal of Holly, the film is by turns frothy and quite serious. Holly parties a lot and her lifestyle occasionally seems frivolous but it's all really a mask for her insecurities. Afraid that she herself isn't good enough, she has invented herself as Holly Golightly and puts on a show for her friends, acquaintances and lovers, playing the part of the carefree girl who flits from room to room and relationship to relationship, a shimmering mirage that disappears as soon as you reach out for it. The truth is that she's struggling inside, torn between her desire to stay in one place and be real and her fear that if she does the real her will be rejected. I'm a big fan of Hepburn's in general but I particularly like this performance because it allows her to display a bit of edge and take on a character who is more complex than the characters she had played up until this point in her career. Always an engaging screen presence, she seems especially so as Holly, who is so flawed and tries so hard to mask it. I'm less keen on Peppard's performance, as I find him a bit dull, but between them Hepburn and Neal, who tackles her role with a relaxed feistiness, save the day as far as the acting goes.

While I like Breakfast At Tiffany's quite a bit, I have to admit that it hasn't aged quite so well. Parts of it play like a time capsule capturing a social scene that may only ever have existed in fiction - a forgiveable sin offset by the less forgiveable presence of Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi, Holly's excitable upstairs neighbor. Despite the fact that Hollywood often likes to crow about how much farther ahead of the times it is than the rest of the world, this sort of thing isn't terribly unusual in older films. Katherine Hepburn played a Chinese woman in Dragon Seed, Paul Muni and Luise Rainer played Chinese characters in The Good Earth, Marlon Brando played a Japanese character in Teahouse of the August Moon - long after blackface became outmoded and acknowledged as offensive it was still considered just fine for white actors to play at being Asian. That's bad enough but the portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi stands out as worse than some of the examples I just gave because it is so mean spiritted. The makeup in films like Dragon Seed and The Good Earth might be offensive, but the characters are still defined as being noble and heroic. Contrast that with the buck-toothed, "me so solly" Mr. Yunioshi who exists solely for race based mockery. It takes me right out of the movie every time it shows up and it's a major drag on a film that is otherwise pretty enjoyable and well put together.


Anonymous said...

I love this movie, I also loved the novella it was based on even though the two are very different. I can inderstand Capote's dislike for the film.
And while I do adore this movie, I completely agree with you about Mr Yunioshi taking you right out of the film and the atmosphere it creates. For me, it doesn't ruin the movie, but it does take the shine off.

Norma Desmond said...

I've never read the book, but I've heard that they're very different. From what I understand Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe to play Holly, which would have made for a very different film.

The Mad Hatter said...

I read the book last summer (or the summer before...where does the time go?).

I vote you give it a look see and do a post on the comparison sometime. They're very different, and had Hepburn's performance not been so legendary, I might vote for an eventual/more faithful remake!

Norma Desmond said...

@Mad Hatter: The book has been on my list of books to read for a while, but it's a pretty long list so, you know...

I can't imagine a remake ever being attempted because Hepburn's performance is just so iconic - I mean, what actress in her right mind would try to match it?