In a piece that ran about a decade ago in The San Francisco Chronicle, the paper's spirited movie critic Mick LaSalle casually referenced the Deborah Kerr-Cary Grant tearjerker, "An Affair to Remember" (1957), confessing that he had never seen it. A seemingly innocent, honest admission, right?
Well, some Chronicle readers were outraged, the situation underlining one of the misconceptions that your average moviegoer has about film critics. In this case, it's the impression that one crucial requirement for the job of reviewing movies is that the critic has seen every film classic ever made.
Mick cleverly responded to his enraged readers with a 2008 column devoted to five other lauded films he had never seen, including (gasp!) the anointed "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962) by Robert Mulligan. Of the five, he was truly enthusiastic about only one and was actually quite tough on "Mockingbird," as well as Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey"(1968), one of the more amusingly overrated titles in movie history.
Mick astutely (and tersely) nails both movies in his essay.
Which brings me to another curious belief embraced by moviegoers - namely, that a critic has an obligation to endorse a film deemed "a classic" by those critics who have preceded him/her. You know, gold-standard titles such as ... "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "2001: A Space Odyssey."
This particular notion provokes my inner contrarian, feuling an idea. The Passionate Moviegoer was conceived as something of a site of dissent - to negotiate on behalf of the overlooked, underrated and misunderstood. It's largely about films and movie people too often dismissed with facile, derisive amusement. You won't find the usual suspects here. There's been no fawning over "Citizen Kane," for example, and there never will be.
While this goal remains intact, I've been inspired to upend it by challenging movies considered sacrosanct - those select films deemed "classics" or described as "iconic." In short, instead of defending underrated films, I'll scrutinize the overrated. And, yes, acceptable boundaries may be violated.
These are classic films/popular movies whose entitled status never fails to befuddle me - works I've seen more than once over the years, largely in an effort to comprehend the decades-long fuss that has surrounded them.
But where to start? There's Arthur Penn's "The Miracle Worker" (1962), a film that's so overacted and theatrical that it makes me nervous, and then there's Frank Capra's "irresistible" charmer, "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), a movie that I find highly resistible. I know, I know. Blasphemy!
Many other titles also annoy me and, while no two are alike, they all have one basic feature in common: Their wide appeal simply evades me.
For the next week, I'll profile one title per day - and, given that my views will be contrary to popular opinions, feel free to disagree. Let's start.
And so, my inaugural pick is...
..."Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961)!
Speaking of charm, it's the one word usually invoked to describe this Blake Edwards film which, for me, is actually rather charmless.
But Hepburn is hardly charming as Truman Capote's heroine, Holly Golightly. For me, it's the first time she wasn't charming in a film - perhaps because she was encouraged to be a little too charming (there's that blasted word again!). Full disclosure: Audrey Hepburn has long been a personal favorite. Nevertheless, she's miscast as a simple hillbilly-turned-outrageous New York party girl and she's not very believable as either.
And yet, somehow, this became Hepburn's Signature Role.
"Breakfast at Tiffany's." Hmmm. Exactly what is it? I've spent years - no, decades - trying to figure this out. I mean, is it a comedy? Not really. It's certainly silly but I could never locate a genuinely witty moment in it.
Or is it a drama? Well, at certain points, it tries to be but it's really not very dramatic either. I doubt if even Edwards himself could have satisfactorily explained what it's supposed to be. It lacks the organic qualities necessay for even a select subgenre such as a "dramedy."
The movie's big scene is a party sequence staged as forced fun (meaning it's no fun at all) and then there's the odd moment when Hepburn sings (rather nicely) "Moon River," a lovely song that has nothing to do with either the film or her character. Cast-wise, George Peppard makes an unusually unpleasant leading man, Patricia Neal is creepy (but not in an interesting way) and Mickey Rooney is grotesque as Hepburn's Asian neighbor, an insulting low point for the talented actor.
But, wait! I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the film's pluses.
There are two of them.
The film's opening credits, accompanied initially by a moody instrumental version of "Moon River," are beautifully evocative: Hepburn on the vacant corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street at dawn, dressed in a simple black gown, with coffee and a Danish in hand, staring with quiet desire into the windows of Tiffany's.
Perhaps that's a polite way of calling it a mess. That said, sincere apologies to both Audrey Hepburn and Orangey, who played Cat.
Also, when Paramount Pictures purchased the screen rights to Truman Capote's novella, the studio's director of choice was then-newcomer John Frankenheimer, who would be making his big-screen directorial debut, after years of working in live TV. And he would be directing a script by playwright George Axelrod. Both Frankenheimer and Axelrod agreed with Capote about who should play Holly - namely Marilyn Monroe. And Axelrod already had a history with Monroe, having written the screenplays for her back-to-back films, "The Seven Year Itch" (1955) and "Bus Stop" (1956).
But Monroe was contracted to 20th Century-Fox, while Paramount wanted its own star contract player in the role - Audrey Hepburn. When Hepburn was signed, Frankenheimer was out of the picture, replaced by Blake Edwards. Rumor has it that Hepburn was aware of Frankenheimer's preference for Monroe and was worried she's be uncomfortable (and hindered) working with him, but it's also been written that she was skeptical about taking on so important a role with someone who had never directed a theatrical film.
Frankenheimer eventually made his directorial debut with the Burt Lancaster film, "The Young Savages," released the same year as "Breakfast at Tiffany's." A year later, in 1962, he directed three huge hits - "All Fall Down," "Birdman of Alcatraz" (also with Lancaster) and "The Manchurian Candidate," on which he collaborated with Axelrod.
Frankenheimer would eventually return to Paramount to direct "Seven Days in May" (with Lancaster again) in 1964 and "Seconds" in 1966.
Note in Passing: Back to Leo McCarey's "An Affair to Remember" and those outraged moviegoers. From where I sit, it's hardly a classic. A "guilty pleasure" would be a more accurate (and generous) description.
Audrey Hepburn and Orangey
~photography: Paramount Pictures 1961 ©