"There once was a very lonely, very frightened girl. She lived alone except for a nameless cat." - Paul Varjak describing Holly Golightly
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), the Blake Edwards film of Truman Capote's novella and adapted by George Axelrod, had been previously out on DVD via Paramount Home Video in April 2001. Now comes a 45th "Anniversary Edition" with special features and a remixed soundtrack. This reviewer never saw the earlier edition, but the new one has a very strong picture as well. The much-beloved film is probably the signature starring role of Audrey Hepburn's career, even above My Fair Lady (1964), and better (Two for the Road, 1967) and more influential (Roman Holiday, 1953) ones. Breakfast at Tiffany's is a strange animal: at times it's transcendentally charming, sophisticated, and effective, while in other ways it's embarrassing, crude, and cheaply melodramatic.
The film sticks to Capote's story fairly closely. Holly Golightly (Hepburn) is a chic and well-paid if flighty escort for Manhattan's jet-setting elite. She becomes friends with a new neighbor, Paul Varjak (George Peppard), a once-promising novelist now living as a kept man for married socialite Mrs. Failenson (Patricia Neal). Paul is fascinated by Holly's strangely carefree attitude, one that shuts out a past that refuses to go away and has no consideration for tomorrow, and which also stifles genuinely intimate personal relationships.
Breakfast at Tiffany's is all over the map, with a great film trying to break free of obvious Production Code-imposed restrictions on its content, a charming but miscast leading actress, and occasional crude attempts at humor that work against other elements that were quite adult by 1961 Hollywood standards.
Though the film is fairly explicit in stating that Paul is screwing Mrs. Failenson for money, that she's married, and that she's paying for his ornately decorated apartment and wardrobe, Holly's career as a high-end call girl is bandied around so sheepishly that it becomes thoroughly unreal. The film never actually comes out and says so; the most explicit statement about Holly's profession is that she makes "$50 for a trip to the powder room," an arch euphemism if ever there was one. The film dances around this to such a degree that the dark side of prostitution isn't just not shown, there's virtually no implication of a dark side at all, like the similarly ridiculous depiction of the profession in Pretty Woman (1990). It's highly probable many Americans in 1961 walked away from the film without ever realizing just what Holly did for a living.
Audrey Hepburn was never more beautiful and charming, but a far cry from the Marilyn Monroe type author Capote had originally envisioned. Early on we learn that Holly is actually a backwoods girl, transformed into a passable chic Manhattanite by Hollywood agent O.J.Berman (Martin Balsam) and others. Needless to say, it's near impossible to imagine Hepburn the ex-hillbilly, straining her character beyond all credibility. Conversely, Hepburn has since become so engrained in the public's mind as Holly Golightly that it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role, but others (Kim Novak reportedly was considered) might have been better-suited.
Another big problem with the film is its occasional lapses into crude slapstick, especially all of the scenes involving Holly's beleaguered upstairs neighbor Mr. Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney), a grotesque Asian stereotype, complete with round glasses and gigantic buck-teeth. Sticking this type of appalling stereotype into the otherwise mostly sophisticated film is rather like plunking Jerry Lewis into the middle of Titus Andronicus.
Had Breakfast at Tiffany's been directed, for example, by Mike Nichols in 1967 (The Graduate closely matches its sensibilities), instead of by Blake Edwards in 1961, the result might have been vastly superior in some ways while losing a lot of its charm in others.
The picture does work in many respects and there is much to like, even in scenes that are appealing in spite of their misguidedness. The evocative (and, for 1961, unusual) opening titles, with Henri Mancini's lovely "Moon River" heard over otherwise silent images of Holly's early morning window shopping at Tiffany's, coffee and croissant in hand, is beautifully done. Edwards shows his stuff in a lengthy party sequence that, while broadly done, is undeniably funny and effective.
But the film's real strength lay in how it explores the darker sides of Holly and Paul and their eventual romance (not a part of the book). Her self-destructive nature rings true in the final act, while scenes involving Paul and Doc (Buddy Ebsen, an inspired casting choice), a man from Holly's past, are handled with impressive sensitivity and verisimilitude.
Video & Audio
For a 1.85:1 movie of this vintage, Breakfast at Tiffany's looks quite impressive on DVD in a 16:9 enhanced transfer that has impressive clarity and color. Indeed, scenes shot on location in New York are especially vivid with a wonderful time capsule quality yet almost look like they could have been shot yesterday. Also impressive is the new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, which makes Henri Mancini's beautiful score sound even better, and which subtly adds some directionality to the sound effects. A "restored" mono track is available, as well as a French track and optional English subtitles.
Supplements include a screen-specific Audio Commentary by co-producer Richard Shepard, but that's less interesting than the (4:3 standard) mini-documentaries, all of which are quite good. The Making of a Classic runs 16 minutes and features interviews with Shepard, director Blake Edwards, Patricia Neal, Robert Wilder (Hepburn's late-in-life companion), Sean Ferrer (her son), and several others, and they're all frank about the film's shortcomings as well as its appeal.
It's So Audrey! A Style Icon is a surprisingly entertaining look at Hepburn's impact on the fashion world. It runs eight minutes. At six minutes Brilliance in a Blue Box offers a nice overview of Tiffany's, while Audrey's Letter to Tiffany features a preface the actress wrote for the company's 150th anniversary. Finally, a 16:9 Theatrical Trailer is complete with narration and text, and includes brief footage of Hepburn not in the film.
Breakfast at Tiffany's is a substantially flawed but still worthwhile and partly very effective film with much in its favor, and Paramount's Anniversary Edition DVD is equal to its classic status.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.