My Huckleberry Friend: BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (Paramount 1961)

(“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.

The Medium is the Message: Andy Griffith in A FACE IN THE CROWD (Warner Brothers 1957)

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If you only know Andy Griffith from his genial TV Southerners in THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and MATLOCK, brace yourself for A FACE IN THE CROWD. Griffith’s folksy monologues had landed him a starring role in the hit Broadway comedy NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS. The vicious, wild-eyed Lonesome Rhodes was thousands of miles away from anything he had done before, and the actor, guided by the sure hand of director Elia Kazan, gives us a searing performance in this satire of the power of the media, and the menace of the demagogue.

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When we first meet Larry Rhodes, he’s in the drunk tank in rural Pickett, Arkansas, a small town not unlike Mayberry. Local radio host Marcia Jeffries is doing a remote broadcast there, hoping to catch some ratings. The no-account drifter is hostile at first, but when the sheriff promises him an early release, you can practically see the wheels spinning in Rhodes’ con artist head. He strums his guitar and sings the bluesy “Free Man”, and shows a knack for storytelling. Marcia persuades him to host the morning program “A Face in the Crowd”, dubbing him Lonesome Rhodes.  His down-home charm becomes a big hit, and Marcia and Lonesome soon are taking their act to Memphis TV.

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Rhodes is a natural for television and his popularity continues to soar. When he gets fired for making fun of his sponsor’s product, enterprising office boy Joey DePalma gets him a gig in New York, becoming his manager in the process. Rhodes is hired by some Madison Avenue stuffed shirts to promote Vitajex, a flagging supplement that is practically useless. Rhodes comes up with the idea to give Vitajex sex appeal, and the ads make the worthless pill a national best seller. General Hainesworth, owner of the company, sits up and takes notice. He gives Lonesome a coast-to-coast show, and full media blitz, turning the former hobo into a mega-star. Hainesworth has plans to use Rhodes as a “wielder of influence”, a mover and shaker in the realm of politics, to push his pal Senator Fuller into the White House.

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But once a shitkicker,  always a shitkicker, and the flawed Rhodes’ ego can’t handle stardom. He treats Marcia like dirt, professing his love while bedding every pretty young thing in sight. He continues to drink too much, and begins to believe his own hype. After marrying a gorgeous teenage baton majorette he meets at a competition he judges, Marcia begins to see the reality of Lonesome Rhodes. Realizing she’s created a white trash Frankenstein, Marcia finally puts an end to his reign of terror in a powerhouse ending that I won’t spoil for those of you who haven’t seen the film.

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Andy Griffith gives a stunning, spellbinding portrayal of Lonesome Rhodes. He’s charismatic and charming, animalistic and cruel, his flimsy veneer of good ol’ boy barely concealing the rage inside him. It’s a marvelous film debut for Griffith, and he pulls out all the stops as the unprincipled vagabond in an Oscar caliber performance. But Griffith wasn’t even nominated, a snub if there ever was one. I don’t have a problem with the winner that year (Alec Guinness in the superb BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI), but to nominate Marlon Brando in SAYANORA (an inferior film, not one of his best), Anthony Quinn (in the soapy WILD IS THE WIND), and Anthony Franciosa (more of a supporting role in A HATFUL OF RAIN) over Griffith was just ridiculous. In fact, A FACE IN THE CROWD received no nominations in any category that year, proving once again the Academy doesn’t always get it right (though there were no protests or threats of boycotts… but I digress)

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Budd Schulberg based his screenplay on his own short story, The Arkansas Traveller. The novelist had teamed with director Kazan earlier for the classic ON THE WATERFRONT. His script’s sharp as a scalpel in its dissection of advertising, politics, and television, and Kazan directs Griffith to his best piece of film acting.  The rest of the cast is outstanding, with Patricia Neal also giving an Oscar worthy turn as Marcia, the woman scorned by her discovery. Walter Matthau’s on hand as Mel, a writer in love with Marcia. The aforementioned Franciosa also makes his screen debut here as does lovely Lee Remick as the teenaged beauty queen.   Other faces in this crowd were Kay Medford, Marshall Neilan, Diana Sands, and Rip Torn. There are cameos by TV personalities of the day, such as Mike Wallace, John Cameron Swayze, Bennett Cerf, Betty Furness, Faye Emerson, and Walter Winchell.

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With this being an election year, A FACE IN THE CROWD is must-see viewing for a look at how the media manipulates the masses. It’s as on-point as it was in 1957, and packs a kick harder than a swig of White Lightnin’. Oscar nominations be damned, this is a bona-fide American classic, with a tour-de-force acting job by Andy Griffith that will have you in its grip and refuse to let go. You won’t soon forget Lonesome Rhodes or A FACE IN THE CROWD. Highly recommended!