In which I poke at a kooky classic
With all this extra time on my hands lately, I figure I might as well get as much of a cinephile’s education as Netflix will allow. Leading me, the other night, to watch the 1961 Blake Edwards-directed Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Based on Harper Lee’s best work.
A quick fact that exposes me for the real phony I am: I like to say that I like Truman Capote, but I have yet to read anything of his in full. I don’t have the stomach to finish In Cold Blood, and I was never interested enough in the idea of Tiffany’s to pursue it. Most of what I know about him concerns his life and personality, which made Tiffany’s much more compelling when I did even a little research into its genesis. According to some sources, he modeled Holly Golightly on his own mother as she moved herself and toddler Truman between Alabama and New York. He then wrote himself into the story as the character of Paul, invariably coding him gay. And thus the novella is essentially a family fanfiction: what would have happened if Capote had met and befriended this woman during her younger and more desperate years?
All that said, I did this research only after seeing the film, which contributed further to my feeling that this is a fundamentally misunderstood piece of cinema. Because I couldn’t help being deeply unsettled as I watched—and not merely on account of the horrifically racist caricature portrayed by Mickey Rooney. (From what I understand, the novella doesn’t even include a Mr. Yunioshi. Whose idea was this?)
Having been rather ignorant of the plot going in, I couldn’t help wondering if all the people with dorm-room posters of Audrey Hepburn, outfitted with tiara and cigarette holder, have actually seen this thing. There’s no other way to know what’s really at play—and at stake—here. It’s the troubling story of a young woman who has been effectively robbed of her youth by a bogus marriage to a man I can only describe as a somewhat sympathetic villain, who attempts to fashion a new identity in the city while suffering from limited career opportunities and a total lack of hobbies except partying. The partying fuels her alcohol habit, the defining feature of her life and her primary means of escape from herself. Pretty dark, if you ask me. (And this was 1961. We were still in Camelot.)
Speaking of the year, and the Production Code being in its heyday (Hays-day?), there was no possibility of Paul opposing Holly as anything but a securely masculine love interest. Capote’s original queered concept went out the window (and he was famously dissatisfied with the adaptation) in favor of a big final scene with a kiss in the rain. Even so, they make an unconventional couple, as two high-end sex workers searching for a more substantial connection in a world that is ready to punish them both. Paul (played by George Peppard, who is not, as I assumed from his name, a dashing Frenchman) aspires to be a writer, despite the skepticism of his client/sugar mama Mrs. Failenson (a winning Patricia Neal; I could have watched her for twice as much screen time as she had). And Holly keeps insisting on an ambition to marry well, flitting from one wealthy bachelor to another, although Paul ultimately calls her out on what she’s really after—misguided as he may be in his phrasing.
Holly, as buffs and critics have observed, is the prototype of the manic pixie dream girl I mentioned a couple weeks back: fast-talking, wildly gesticulating, amusingly childlike in her perceptions of the world, presumably unaware of her standard-upholding allure. (I want to smack the screenwriter who wrote the line “We’ll have to go somewhere they’ll let me in looking like this” for one of the most naturally gorgeous women in Western media history.) Except that Holly probably is aware of her own attractiveness, because she exploits it on a daily basis to keep herself alive and to get what she wants. Nonetheless, her beauty permits her to be a ‘kook,’ climbing in and out of windows, keeping a disastrous apartment, playing quirky songs on her guitar, and cohabiting with a cat whom she refuses to name until (or unless) she settles down.
Once Paul falls in love with this kookiness, he describes it to Mrs. Failenson in terms of ‘help’: Holly can’t help herself, but he can help her, and in so doing gain some autonomy over himself. What’s problematic in hindsight is Paul’s association of help with ownership. He tells Holly she belongs to him because he loves her (couldn’t they have Taylor Swifted the line to be “you belong with me”?). In another scene she asks if he thinks he owns her, to which he says…yes. Despite being perhaps more clearheaded than she is, he’s in no real position to provide for her, at least not financially, as Mrs. Failenson acerbically reminds him.
Besides, at the end of the day the only way he can truly help her is by getting her professional help. But there were far fewer resources for alcoholics back then. (For context, this was also the year Ernest Hemingway shot himself.)
Anyway, it all supposedly winds up happily ever after for the lovebirds, which was one of the issues Capote took (aside from that of Hepburn herself; he had envisioned Marilyn Monroe in the role). What began life as a cautionary tale about running from oneself and indulging in excess had become a romanticized paean to New York, teaching viewers that it was glamorous to be damaged.
I suppose Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the way it stands, is categorized as a rom-com, although I can’t say I found it all that funny. Nor all that romantic, really, as it follows people who cling to each other out of an increasing need to be saved from themselves. Maybe it’s one of those films I’ll return to years from now and muse on its ever-changing meaning. For now, here are some live tweets on its peculiarities:
- Wow, that’s Audrey Hepburn’s real voice! The only other thing of hers I’ve seen is My Fair Lady, in which she affects a very obvious accent. And still there’s a bit where a character alludes to having given her dialect coaching to help her shed her Texas-country-bumpkin identity. What is it with people trying to change the way this woman talks??
- She is alarmingly thin. Oh God, her collarbone. It’s like 13 Going On 30, except the face is thirty and the body is thirteen. Let me look this up. Okay, her family moved around a lot during World War II and she was malnourished enough that she couldn’t pursue her original dream of being a ballerina. That checks out.
- Why is she calling him Fred? It weirds me out that she’s calling her clear potential love interest by her brother’s name.
- Who puts a phone inside a suitcase???
- This party is way too crowded. Disease Central right here. Don’t be crawling under one another like that, please. Does ‘six feet apart’ mean nothing to you people?
- “Moon River” needs to be longer. Two verses aren’t enough.
- Okay, I don’t know this song, but I predict that the last two words of this last line are “and me.”
- Boom! Called it! Do I know my Tin Pan Alley lyrical tropes or what??
- The two of them have a bit of the same vibe as Liz and Floyd on 30 Rock. Oh man, I liked Floyd. Liz should have stuck with him. What am I watching again?
- So Doc Golightly is a statutory rapist, but he seems like a nice guy…what am I saying?? Note: this movie does not make the viewer a better person.
- This score is very Mancini. Sneaking-around music is his brand, and they’re definitely sneaking around inside this shop.
- (Chandler Bing voice) Could they be any more guilty?
- STOP. YELLING. IN. THE. LIBRARY. Gallingly disrespectful. Maybe I’m not rooting for either of them anymore.
- Yup, could have seen that coming about old Fred.
- That cat could not actually have done that stunt. Impossible. Right?
- Is this what I’m supposed to want for them? I guess…
- I think this is the first kiss I’ve seen with a cat sandwiched in there. Animal inclusivity? Cue “Stuck in the Middle with You.”
Image: from the trailer