Published on February 9th, 2015 | by Clint Davis
Breakfast at Tiffany’s 
Summary: The iconic costuming and aloofness of Audrey Hepburn's nomadic New York socialite have made this one of the most lasting films of the 1960s. Its characters are interesting to watch but the drastic softening of Truman Capote's book keep it from being outstanding. This one might be long overdue for a remake.
NR | 115 min.
Director: Blake Edwards
Screenplay: George Axelrod (based on Truman Capote’s novella)
Starring: George Peppard, Audrey Hepburn, Patricia Neal
Distribution: Paramount Pictures
U.S. Box Office: $9,551,904
Oscar Wins: Best Original Score, Best Original Song (“Moon River”)
Remember that trivial ’90s radio hit, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” where the singer was trying to connect with a woman by, saying about the movie, “As I recall / We both kinda liked it?” His half-assed sentiments on this 1961 romantic tale do a nice job of summing up my feelings about it as well.
You may have never seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s but, like many people, could probably identify Audrey Hepburn as its star and her wearing signature big-eyed sunglasses as its trademark image. Few stars in cinema history have been as identifiable with one role as Hepburn with Holly Golightly, the flighty New York socialite she plays in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Few people know about Hepburn’s real-life tireless philanthropic work for children in her later years, or the fact that she is one of the most-decorated British actresses of all time, or even that she’s one of an elite group of entertainers to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award in her lifetime — but everyone knows she was a fashion icon thanks largely to this role.
Hepburn’s Holly is not the lead character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s but she most certainly is the star and the character that drives the narrative. Put simply, she is the chief reason people still watch this movie, not because of its storyline or production values.
Plot-wise, this film follows a struggling towheaded writer named Paul Varjak (George Peppard), as he befriends his downstairs neighbor Holly. The pair go to parties, scuttle around the Big Apple and occasionally sleep together. As Paul learns more about this distant, mysterious lady who seems to keep no attachments, he begins to see her more as a frightened child than the independent woman she lets on to be. The film, written by George Axelrod (1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, The Seven-Year Itch), is based, only loosely, on Truman Capote’s short novel.
This adaptation will infuriate Capote enthusiasts due to the drastic changes made to its story. Along with 1988’s The Chocolate War, I’d call Breakfast at Tiffany’s one of the most egregious examples of doctoring a book with an artificial “Hollywood ending” that I’ve ever seen. My wife, a Capote fan, was audibly groaning during the film’s closing scene as the central characters share a tender embrace in the pouring rain. The story this movie tells is a sugar-coated romp that doesn’t celebrate individuality but rather endorses finding a mate, whereas the original story was a cautionary tale with an untidy ending that didn’t muddle its message.
The studio’s choice of Blake Edwards as director is a head-scratcher because his work consisted of lighthearted comedies like Operation Petticoat and the Debbie Reynolds vehicle This Happy Feeling. Edwards would go on to direct seven Pink Panther films and was known as a comedy specialist for the entirety of his long career. The producers of Breakfast at Tiffany’s seemed to know immediately that they wanted to go for romantic fun with this movie rather than the weightier tale its author had intended it to be. I can’t help but wonder what a truer adaptation would have looked like.
Taken by itself though, this movie is an entertaining watch and its lead characters are able to teach a few lessons about identity, self-inflation and values. Holly is an exhausting character but seems to have no inner qualms with her shallow lifestyle. She earns her rent money by dating — and accepting money from — various men whom she refers to as either “rats” or “super rats.” The screenplay makes no explicit references to Holly having sex with these men but it can be inferred. Meanwhile, Paul is spineless and maintains a high self-opinion despite also earning money by carrying on an affair with a wealthy married woman, played by Patricia Neal.
Both characters exhibit their share of contradictions and I would say each is endearing in their imperfections but the film’s cheery ending sunk my respect for Holly, in particular. Through the entire movie, she thrives on being an individual. She doesn’t punch a clock and doesn’t seem to waste her time doing anything she doesn’t want to. For 110 minutes she’s selfish but not harming anyone — then suddenly in the last five minutes, Axelrod’s screenplay undoes all that we’ve learned about her nature and forces her to apologize. Holly is a character whose life was dictated by men since the day she became a bride at 13 years old in her small hometown. She broke free and adopted an independent mindset in New York City only to revert back to apparently “needing” a man at the end of this picture. The conclusion just rings false — probably because it is.
Is Holly Golightly a likable character? I’d say not, although she would be fun to have on your speed dial. This character is not the classy, demure woman you may expect from seeing those iconic stills of Hepburn dressed in Haute couture, with a long cigarette holder. Instead, she’s more like a sorority girl sans the college. Holly parties hard, dates carelessly, loves clothes, sleeps late and has a cat. She can outdrink most men and will accompany you to the strip club to wind down after the regular bars close. In short, she’s a blast. So it makes no sense why Paul sees her as a lifelong mate; why can’t he just enjoy being friends with her? He’s a big pussy.
Any modern review of Breakfast at Tiffany’s would be incomplete without mentioning the painfully racist characterization of Holly’s excitable Japanese neighbor Mr. Yunioshi, played by Mickey Rooney. I don’t fault Rooney for his performance because he goes for broke and is pretty funny but the decision to cast a white actor and turn this part into a disrespectful Asian stereotype makes it downright painful to watch today. Honestly, I can’t imagine it wasn’t awkward to watch in 1961 but today it’s excruciating every time Rooney is onscreen. He’s got exaggerated buckteeth, sleeps on a thin mat under a paper lantern and is constantly screaming at “Miss Go-RIGHT-ree” for her transgressions as a neighbor. It’s brutal and in my opinion, sinks the replay value of this movie.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a critical and commercial success in 1961. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning two that were each related to the film’s Henry Mancini-penned music. To be honest, I didn’t notice the score much but Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s classic song “Moon River” — written for this movie — will be stuck in your head when the end credits roll. Guaranteed. The song fits nicely into the actual narrative, rather than just being jammed onto the credits as many original songs are.
Aesthetically, this movie is a pleasure to watch. The costumes are perfectly done Manhattan chic and come in shades of every color. Whether Holly is wearing an orange pea coat or a bright pink formal outfit, the colors pop off the screen. In one scene, Patricia Neal steals the frame by wearing a royal blue number that makes you think of Betty Draper from Mad Men. Cinematographer Franz Planer knew how to shoot Hepburn perhaps better than anyone. He manned the cameras on Roman Holiday, the film that won her an Oscar, as well as on my favorite Hepburn film, 1961’s The Children’s Hour.
Even with the altered ending, Breakfast at Tiffany’s does represent a strange hybrid between the romanticism that would define blockbuster cinema of the 1960s and the celebrations of individuality that would define 1970s cinema. American moviegoers were still eight years from the raw freedom of Easy Rider but at the hands of another director and screenwriter, Holly Golightly might have been able to ride alongside Wyatt and Billy.
Remakes dominate the Hollywood slate these days and usually they’re a waste of time but I think it’s time for Breakfast at Tiffany’s to get the reboot treatment. If it were made into the drama that Capote wrote it to be, staying true to its rich characters, this could be one hell of a film. Think Steve McQueen’s soul-crushing 2011 film Shame or the edgy 1969 Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy. Holly Golightly would become either a cautionary icon or a saint of individuality for young women everywhere, depending on the audience.
I’d be there opening night.