Sunday, July 02, 2017


Or, daring to dislike a movie that everyone else loves...

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...

                                    Drum-role, please! 

                                                        ..."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.

My hunch is that the charm attributed to the film has more to do with its beloved star, Audrey Hepburn, than with the material at hand.

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.

And the film's final scene involving a rain-drenched Orange Tabby named Cat is a heart-tugger. However, while it's genuinely touching, the moment comes seemingly out of nowhere and has the quality of being tacked on. It doesn't feel organic, but then, again, nothing in this film feels very organic.

Perhaps that's a polite way of calling it a mess. That said, sincere apologies to both Audrey Hepburn and Orangey, who played Cat.
Much more interesting than the movie itself are tidbits about its production. For example, about that aformentioned black dress...

It was one of only four dresses Hubert de Givenchy created for Hepburn, who had nixed wearing anything by Edith Head, the legendary Paramount designer assigned to do the film's costumes. Hepburn brought in de Givenchy, who kept things simple with his handful of designs. Clever accessorizing is what gives the impression that Hepburn's wardrobe here is extravagant, a conceit compatible with the designing poseur she plays in the film.

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.
*  *  *  *  *

~from top: Orangey as Cat in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" 
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures 1961 ©

An opening credit for "Breakfast at Tiffany's"
~cinematography: Franz Planer

The party scene in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and a still of Mickey Rooney in the film 
~photography: Paramount Pictures 1961 ©

Audrey Hepburn and Orangey 
~photography: Paramount Pictures 1961 © 

Another opening credit for "Breakfast at Tiffany's"
~cinematography: Franz Planer 

George Axelrod and Marilyn Monroe on the set of "Bus Stop"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1956 ©

~below: Hepburn, Orangey and George Peppard in the final scene
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures 1961 ©


Deanne said...

Agree! And wasn't her character basically a prostitute? Same with how over-romanticized young women drooled over "Pretty Woman."

joe baltake said...

Deanne- Of course, she was. But Audrey Hepburn was playing the character, so the politically correct description of her (in those days) was "party girl." Audrey was too classy and elfin to be called anything else. It's a dysfunctional movie, in spite of Hepburn's invaluable presence.

Joey said...

I find the movie hard to get through as it has always committed to basic sin of just being boring. Your call on the opening and closing sequences are correct though. New York never looked so romantic that early in the morning. Can't wait to read what the rest of this week's films are.

k.o. said...

Of course, I totally agree with all you said about "Tiffany's." As for "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "To Kill a Mockingbird (or any type of bird)," I never saw them either!

Sheila said...

I also agree about the film's opening and closing. There's a line in your favorite musical "Gypsy," Joe: "They'll forgive you anything if you have a big finish." Seems to me that the sappy ending really got to the public and the critics. And, yes, the opening credits are lovely. But everything in-between! Oh my!

mike schlesinger said...

Yup. I adore Blake Edwards, but this is the one film of his I really don't care if I ever see again.

Ditto on AFFAIR (the original is so much better), WONDERFUL LIFE and 2001, to which I would add SHANE, ZHIVAGO, CASABLANCA (specifically Bergman's scenes; the rest is fine) and pretty much everything made by Godard.

(runs for exit)

joe baltake said...

Michael- Don't get me started on either "Casablanca" or Godard, although I plan to do just that.

Marvin said...

Fabulous column, Joe. Thank you! I have always LOVED Breakfast at Tiffany's; however, I hate Godard and I hated 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have never seen To Kill A Mockingbird. And I have never been able to "get through" Casablana (always nod off). As far as Citizen Kane goes, have never particularly liked that film either. Can hardly wait to read the rest of you columns this week. Marvin

S.M. said...

I feel the same about Tiffanys. Muddled plot and Hepburn is least convincing professional call girl in movie history. And Rooney is just too painful to watch. Even though it was 1960 when they shot I can't believe that they didn't see just how bad and insulting Rooney's character was in the film

As for classics I don't like that everyone thinks are brilliant classics I'll give you two The Searchers and Rio Bravo. Hey could someone wake me up when those films are on?

Michael O'Sullivan said...

I agree too, though I like the start and ending quite a lot. Totally false to Capote's original though, where Holly does go to South America and the narrator searches for the cat and finally sees him, sitting happily in someone else's apartment window.
Joe (Peppard) and Holly are both prostitutes really, and the Patricia Neal character is really meant to be a rich old queen who is keeping Joe - but of course all that could not be put on screen then. But when the heavenly chorus sings "Moon River" as Cat miouws and is squeezed between Holly and Joe in the rain - did any couple ever look better wet ? - one is in movie heaven. The rest of it and the middle sections drag - but what other 1961 movie is screened all the time ?
I actually see Kay Kendall in the role of Holly - Audrey knew Kendall when they were both showgirls in early 50s London and seems to be aiming for that zany madcap quality Kendall (who died 2 years before TIFFANYS in 1959) had in movies like LES GIRLS or THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE, or maybe that's just me.

Michael O'Sullivan said...

Plus of course in Capote's story there is no romance between the gay (one imagines) narrator and party girl Holly, they are just good friends. Its rather like Isherwood's creation of Sally Bowles - another high-living party girl - and his narrator of the original Berlin stories which became the stage show CABARET and then of course Fosse's film.

joe baltake said...

Michael- Many thanks for providing the invaluable comparisons between book and film. Given that Hollywood continues to produce so many remakes, I keep waiting for one of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and also "Pal Joey," this time done right (read: true to their sources). But for some reason, these two movies in their current form appeal to audiences and, so, no one seems to consider a re-do of either. -J

j.p. said...

On my list of overrated movies? "Casablanca" and "It's a Wonderful Life." Never liked corny Jimmy Stewart. In its place is the quintessential Christmas - and feminist -- movie- "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." I never care much for Breakfast at Tiffany's either but in my world, Audrey Hepburn can do no wrong. I love her.

joe baltake said...

FYI. Inspired by Michael O'Sullivan's response, I added a phone from the final scene in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"

Qalice said...

I would never expect to agree with anyone on everything, but here's to knocking BaT! How did it get so over-rated?!

mike schlesinger said...

A question for Sergio: Do you like westerns as a rule? Because SEARCHERS and RIO BRAVO are such absolute opposites in almost every regard that for someone to hate both seems to indicate they just don't care for the genre itself. Or perhaps it's John Wayne that's the problem?

joe baltake said...

Mike- So glad you stepped in here. "The Searchers" is an absolutely brilliant film, in many ways non-traditional for a Western, considering its emotional delicacy. One doesn't have to like Westerns to appreciate it. And "Rio Bravo" is simply great, wiley fun. As for Wayne, he's awesome in both. -J

Jimbo said...

I remember seeing "Breakfast at Tiffany's" as a child in the theater and being so totally entranced by it I walked on air all the way home. As an adult I have since seen the movie dozens of times and still adore it though I'd have to say that I'd have to agree it's pretty weak in the rom-com department. The film is firmly rooted in NYC in the early 60's and this sense of place and time combined with Hepburn's persona, and clothes, and Mancini's music, all together weave a superficial sense of nostalgia of more importance to its enduring popularity than any of the various silly plots in the movie. It's an evocation of a gentle world of elegance, sophistication, and adventure that we long to be part of even though it probably never really existed. It has only a passing resemblance to the original source, but that's ok. It has its own story to tell.

After reading the novella on which the movie is based I have longed for someone to do an authentic film adaptation of "Breakfast at Tiffany's". The original book was set in the world of the 40's and Holly was "a modern geisha", to use Capote's term, somewhere around the age of 17. The story dealt with an important theme not even hinted at in the film—the ephemeral nature of those young, lost characters who are draw to the big city in search of their dreams only to disappear just as quickly as they appeared once their disillusion sets in. It's an interesting story that has never been told and a theme that would not belong in Hepburn's movie.

joe baltake said...

Jimbo- You nailed it. "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is very much a film of its time. It's almost a period piece now and it belongs more to Audrey Hepburn than to Truman Capote. Given its "classic" status, however, I don't see anyone doing a remake any time soon. But, I agree, one is necessary.