(“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” airs tonight, 6/12/17 at 8:00 EST on TCM as part of their month-long salute to Audrey Hepburn.)
“You mustn’t give your heart to a wild thing. The more you do, the stronger they get, until they’re strong enough to run into the woods or fly into a tree. And then to a higher tree and then to the sky” – Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S.
From it’s hauntingly romantic theme “Moon River” to it’s sophisticated screenplay by George Axelrod, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S is a near-perfect movie. The bittersweet comedy-drama stars Audrey Hepburn in an Oscar nominated performance as Holly Golightly, a New York “party girl” who winds up falling for struggling writer George Peppard. That Hepburn didn’t get the Oscar (Sophia Loren took it home that year for TWO WOMEN) is one of the Academy’s greatest crimes. The film has a very personal connection with me, as I’ll talk about at the end of this post.
We meet Holly emerging from a cab and walking down New York’s Fifth Avenue as dawn’s first rays begin to hit the city. She’s wearing a black cocktail dress and oversized sunglasses, and you know she hasn’t been home all night. One of her many “beaus” is waiting for her at her apartment, a creep begging to be let in, but Holly blows him off. She’s not the kind of girl to let anyone in, metaphorically speaking. Holly knows how to use men to take care of herself, to get what she wants, and isn’t about to allow anyone to own her. She doesn’t even own her cat, a stray “no-named slob” called Cat. He just lives there with her.
Enter Paul Varjak (Peppard), a down-on-his-luck author with one published novel who moves into Holly’s building. Paul has a wealthy benefactor, called 2E ( Patricia Neal ), who pays his way. Paul’s a “kept man”, and the two lost souls hit it off, with Holly nicknaming him ‘Fred’ because he reminds her of her brother. When another “beau” calls on her, banging at her door to be let in, Holly climbs the fire escape to Paul’s apartment. She spies 2E leaving cash on his dresser before leaving, and enters Paul’s bedroom. They sleep together, cuddling, until her nightmares awaken her, and when he pries about the things she said, she leaves.
Paul is obviously smitten with the free-spirited Holly, but their relationship is strictly platonic at first. When Paul finally confesses his love for her, Holly freezes up, turning cold and vowing to marry a rich Brazilian. She equates love with confinement and refuses to be caged. Audrey Hepburn gives a dazzling performance as Holly, outwardly flighty and glib, yet extremely vulnerable on the inside, a frightened child play-acting her way through adulthood in the big city. She’s flirtatious and charming and coy, “a phony, but a real phony”, as Martin Balsam’s character calls her, peppering her speech with French words and holding her extra-long cigarette holder like a magic wand. Audrey combines her naturally girlish qualities with a sexy worldliness, and makes Holly Golightly one of cinema’s most endearing characters.
George Peppard (THE CARPETBAGGERS, THE A-TEAM) has his best screen role as Paul Varjak. Unlike Holly, Paul has allowed himself to become a bird in someone else’s gilded cage, and it’s only after meeting do they learn true love holds the key to their freedom. The two have great chemistry together, and I especially enjoyed the scene where, after selling a short story, they celebrate by “doing things neither one of us has done before”, a series of vignettes that finds them at the venerable Tiffany’s on a ten-dollar budget (with John McGiver sweet as the clerk) and shoplifting Halloween masks from a five-and-ten cent store, ending their evening by spending the night together, which almost ruins their fragile relationship.
There are other fine small performances, in particular Buddy Ebsen as Holly’s older backwoods husband, who shows up in New York to take her home. Ebsen is sad and heartbreaking as Doc Golightly, still in love with this girl-child he married when she was 14, a girl who no longer exists except in his memory. Balsam and Neal are professional as always, and Alan “Fred Flintstone” Reed has a brief bit as gangster Sally Tomato, who pays Holly $100 a week to visit him in Sing Sing and get a “weather report”, which plays a part in the film’s comclusion. Other Familiar Faces include Stanley Adams , Elvia Allman , Henry Beckman, Beverly Hills, Gil Lamb, Joyce Meadows, Joan Staley, Dorothy Whitney, and two-time Patsy Award winner Orangey as Cat, a talented feline I’ve discussed before (see THE COMEDY OF TERRORS) .
The only drawback is Mickey Rooney’s performance as Holly’s apoplectic neighbor Mr. Yunioshi. He’s goes way over the top with his exaggerated Japanese accent and mannerisms, and his slapstick bits just don’t fit. Perhaps a real Asian actor like Keye Luke or Victor Sen Young could’ve pulled the character off. Rooney doesn’t. He’s just bad. Fortunately, his scene’s are brief enough not to distract from the film’s overall quality.
Former actor Blake Edwards takes the director’s chair, and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S was his breakthrough film. Edwards had created the stylish TV noir PETER GUNN, and his resume reads like a list of Hollywood’s best: DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES, THE GREAT RACE, 10, SOB, VICTOR/VICTORIA, and the PINK PANTHER movies. Axelrod’s script is adapted from a Truman Capote novella, though slightly sanitized for the screen. Holly isn’t actually called a prostitute in the film, but that’s exactly what she is; taking money from men for “favors” (For that matter, so is Paul). Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s song “Moon River”, wistfully sung in the film by Audrey herself, deservedly won the Oscar that year. It was later became a big hit for crooner Andy Williams, and became his signature tune.
True Confessions Time: Many moons ago, I played ‘Paul Varjak’ to a real-life ‘Holly Golightly’. She moved into the apartment upstairs from me, and I met her late one night coming up the steps in a black cocktail dress. She was also a “party girl”, and I at the time was trying to be a writer (unsuccessfully, I may add). There was even a cat involved (his name was Stimpy). Like the film’s character, my ‘Holly’ was a wild thing, supporting herself as best she could, moving from man to man frequently. My relationships at the time were not the model of stability, and neither was I, so I didn’t judge. There was a brief romance, but mostly we’d see each other between partners and curl up together to sleep, two lost souls bonded by our loneliness. But life doesn’t always perfectly imitate art. She became a heroin addict, we drifted apart, and time marched on . Many years later, I heard she had gotten into a jam involving a lot of narcotics and went on the lam from the Feds, her whereabouts unknown. Somewhere down south, or so I was told. She was a sweet, troubled free spirit who always wound up with the wrong end of the lollipop. Wherever you are, my ‘Holly’, may God be with you.