Wednesday, July 25, 2007

the contrarian: Blake Edwards' "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961)

I've come to realize belatedly that I really don't like "Breakfast at Tiffany's." For the longest time, I thought I did. I don't know why. Perhaps it's because I am so fond of Blake Edwards, its director, or because Audrey Hepburn, its star, was so singular and always so appealing.

It's a strange film - not really a comedy, not really a drama - and while the part of party girl Holly Golightly became Hepburn's signature role, she is wildly miscast in the film. The fact that, after nearly 50 years, people are still so beguiled by her in it says more about Hepburn's star power than the performance herself.

Aside from Hepburn, George Peppard makes a uniquely unpleasant leading man, and, in a performance that was something of a racist disaster even way back in 1961, Mickey Rooney is simply unwatchable.

If there's one aspect about "Breakfast at Tiffany's" that has repeatedly seduced me over the years, it's the film's gorgeous opening credits - Hepburn, dressed in diamonds and Givanchy, sipping coffee from a cardboard container and eating a Danish as she strolls outside Tiffany's on a curiously vacant Fifth avenue at dawn, while Henry Mancini's haunting "Moon River" softly plays on the soundtrack. Magic.

I can watch the film's titles over and over again. But the movie itself, I've come to discover, I can take or leave.


(Artwork: Poster from Paramount's "Breakfast at Tiffany's")

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Anonymous said...

You're crazy. This film is a classic. Get real.

Anonymous said...

You're crazy. This film is a classic. Get real.

Anonymous said...

Nice to read someone who is not afraid to buck the tide. Though i yield to no one in my adoration of Audrey Hepburn, she IS miscast. Some things: 1) Holly Golightly is American, not just American, but a hillbilly; Audrey Hepburn is no hillbilly. 2) Holly Golightly is a tramp and a whore; Audrey Hepburn was never more ladylike than in this movie. 3) Truman Capote was appalled by what he saw, and always said his ideal for the role was Marilyn Monroe.

When i mentioned this on another message board, i was roundly attacked, finally by people saying that who cares what Truman Capote thought. But if the writer who originally conceived of the character says that this is NOT his character, that is significant. (Otherwise, why adapt BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S? Why not come up with another character?)

There are certain things that miscasting cannot get around: if a character is American and the performer cannot even try to look and sound American. If someone is supposed to play a poor American cracker, and that person acts and sounds like they're from Covent Garden, this is called miscasting. (And Audrey Hepburn refused to budge about this: she didn't really WANT to play an American whore, so she had John Frankenheimer - the original director - fired; Blake Edwards was aware of this, and that's why he indulged Hepburn.)

But what Hepburn does is show what a movie star is: she creates a fashion image instead of a character, and that fashion image is so strong, it takes over everything. It becomes what people respond to when they look at BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S.

(This is not to say that Hepburn can't act: she could, as she proved in THE SECRET PEOPLE and ROMAN HOLIDAY and THE NUN'S STORY and CHARADE and TWO FOR THE ROAD.)

The other thing is that the movie is always given a bad rap because of Mickey Rooney's character. But i don't think it was racist, or, at least, it's no more racist than Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. It's the same character: the befuddled foreign-accented guy who's tripping all over himself because of sexual frustration. (In many ways, Edwards was frustrated making BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S because he couldn't go all out with his slapstick ideas, but in THE PINK PANTHER, he went to town, he was able to take his elegant leading lady and have her do pratfalls, something that Audrey Hepburn wouldn't tolerate - and she ruled the BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S set - but that Capucine was happy to oblige.)

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Daryl. I knew that Frankenheimer started the production and then left, but it never occured to me that Hepburn had the clout (at that time) to have him dismissed. Sounds a lot like the Goldie Hawn situation in which Jonathan Demme's cut was reported re-edited to make her character more sympathetic. Who knows. To the best of my knowledge, only David Edelstein saw the original Demme cut.

joe baltake said...

Also, I never thought of the Mickey Rooney character in "Tiffany's" as a variation on Inspector Clouseau. Great info.

Daryl Chin said...

Sometimes, when a movie gets messed up (problems with casting, star-power-plays, etc.), some of the creative personnel try to set it right. The "tone" of the original Axelrod screenplay for BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S was supposed to be rather "dark" (rather like Garson Kanin's script for THE RAT RACE, directed by Robert Mulligan) with weird moments of slapstick. Well... Axelrod and Frankenheimer got together the next year, and they produced a movie which was dark (with weird moments of slapstick), and that movie was THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. And the idea of the all-American feckless tramp, the irresistible girl-who-wants-everything, would be the basis for the mother-daughter team of Lola Albright and Tuesday Weld in Axelrod's own (written and directed) LORD LOVE A DUCK.

So the "tone" that Frankenheimer wanted (a kind of bleak, black-and-white media-obsessed high life) can be seen in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, and how Axelrod wanted Holly to be played can be seen in Tuesday Weld in LORD LOVE A DUCK: a real difference to what resulted.

(And yes, Audrey Hepburn was one of the very biggest movie stars of her era: THE NUN'S STORY had just become the highest grossing movie EVER in Warner Brothers' history! And when she did MY FAIR LADY - another classic miscasting, how can a Baroness's daughter - which Hepburn was in real life - ever play a Cockney? - she did it so that she could become the highest-paid movie star of her time, she was paid $1.25 million, plus percentage! That was at least a quarter of a million dollars more than Elizabeth Taylor's fee for CLEOPATRA. This is not to say anything against Audrey Hepburn, she was a very charming, genuinely good person, i met her, she was a real delight in person, but she was a MOVIE STAR, and she was a real movie star, with all the prerogatives that the term implies.) And yes, Hepburn did have the clout.

(She had the guts to claim that clout from the very beginning of her career as a movie star. After ROMAN HOLIDAY, she was distressed no end by Edith Head, because Edith Head's idea for costuming a star was to do things to hide or disguise the flaws, e.g., Audrey Hepburn had a ridiculously long neck, she was flat-chested, she had big feet, etc. So when Hepburn got the script for SABRINA, and it said that Sabrina comes back from Paris with couture clothes, she asked Billy Wilder if she couldn't go to Paris and get REAL couture clothes... which is how Audrey Hepburn found Givenchy. This was an insult to Edith Head that Head remained furious about until she died! And at the time, Edith Head was one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, she was certainly the most powerful costume designer in Hollywood, but Hepburn went right ahead and insulted Edith Head. So those skinny broads: don't mess with them, because they're tougher than you think! And Edith Head had it in her contract that she would retain the credit for costume design on all Paramount productions... yet by the time of FUNNY FACE, Hepburn demanded that Givenchy be given credit - and damn if he didn't get it!)