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Vintage Sundays Retro Review: Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)

Allegra Mullan reviews the 1961 classic that although charming, hasn't aged well

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures


Director: Blake Edwards

Starring: Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard

Length: 1hr 55 mins                                                                                                            

Rating: PG

The subjects of Blake Edwards 1961 romance were never new: love, money and New York City. Despite this, his adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s has become one of the most visually recognisable films of all time. Audrey Hepburn plays the whimsical call-girl, Holly Golightly. Although it was Marilyn Monroe that Capote had wanted for the part, Hepburn’s blend of innocence and acute social awareness earned her an Oscar nomination. Her love interest, George Peppard as yet unsuccessful writer Paul Varjak, lives in an almost parallel situation to Holly’s. Both are put at the mercy of powerful players in the city. They have to perform, socially and sometimes sexually, for others - for money. Holly is given $50 by men for ‘the powder room’ whilst Paul receives $300 from a married ‘decorator’ for his time. The film makes it clear that these are characters who can be bought. At one point, Holly sits on the counter with her feet in the sink and tells Paul, ‘I need money, I’ll do whatever I can to get it.’ Living with threats on all sides and a past that threatens to maintain its grip on her, Holly is driven by fantasies of wealth, often leading her to veer close to disaster.

Parts of the film rely on the visual and especially the clothes that were chosen for Golightly. Hepburn described designer Hubert de Givenchy as a ‘creator of personality’ and even if his clothes do not create Holly, they certainly define her. The little black dress that he designed for her is perhaps the film’s best remembered outfit. It is this dress that she wears to stare into the window of Tiffany’s, to visit an incarcerated Mafia boss, and to drink milk out of a champagne glass. It is usually this dress that Hepburn is remembered in. This and the disarming beauty of the city (filmed on location) make stunning shots.

The film captures the fever of late fifties and early sixties New York, notably in a party scene in Holly’s apartment. One clear example of this growing mania is given when the camera pans once past a woman, who laughs hysterically at her reflection in a full-length mirror. When it pans back she is weeping in front of the glass. As Golightly and Varjack begin their friendship, and then begin to fall in love, her lifestyle raises problems for them, especially as her desire to marry rich leads her into painful situations.

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

The film, of course, features one of the best known all songs written for the cinema. ‘Moon River,’ written with Hepburn’s vocal abilities in mind, shows how important it is for filmmakers to see their production as a whole. It is perhaps because of the composers’ consideration of the singer that this rendition becomes a hauntingly beautiful melody that is as famous as the film itself.

However, Breakfast at Tiffany’s has not aged unproblematically. Mickey Rooney plays Golightly’s neighbour,  Mr. Yunioshi, in facial prosthetics and face paint to render an unacceptable and extreme racist depiction of a Japanese man. It is a role that must have been jarring even to the contemporary audience. These scenes punctuate the film and are both repulsive and unnecessary; this is not structurally a film that requires ‘comic’ relief. Rooney’s character is one that even the director admits to regretting. Each scene that ‘Mr. Yunioshi’ features in takes time to recover from and contaminates the rest of the film. It is a bleak thought that this was ever acceptable, and a bleaker one that directorial decisions like this might continue in today’s Hollywood. It is true that nowadays these casting decisions are not aimed to ridicule, unlike in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but whitewashing roles such as Johansson’s in Ghost in the Shell and Tilda Swinton’s in Doctor Strange show that the ignorance of producers and actors continues.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a film that at moments shows the best, and at moments the absolute worst, of 1960s Hollywood. Hepburn is balletic and glamorous, but Rooney’s scenes cast a shadow over her, however nice the dresses are. It would be easy to choose to view the scenes as separate and try and ignore the confident racism in the film. But we must view it as a whole. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was designed to be about love, money and New York, never to open conversations about what is acceptable in the film industry, but maybe now it can do the latter.

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