Women in Film Feature #5 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

breakfast-at-tiffany-sBreakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Directed by: Blake Edwards
Written by: George Axelrod (Based on Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote)
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Patricia Neal, Buddy Ebsen, Mickey Rooney

Audrey Hepburn has the distinction of being one of the most instantly recognizable film actresses in the history of the medium.  Hepburn (no relation to Katharine) was associated with beauty, elegance, and class during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and is still remembered for those qualities today.  The Brussels-born actress starred in some of the biggest and most acclaimed movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s, being nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards five times, picking up the win once – for Roman Holiday in 1954.  Though her acting career did not have the longevity of her contemporaries, Audrey Hepburn made incredible contributions to the world in other ways.  Her humanitarian work with UNICEF throughout the late 1980’s and until her death in 1993 saw the actress travel around the world to spread the word and lend a helping hand.  She had UNICEF missions to Ethiopia, Turkey, Central America, Vietnam, and many more countries dealing with natural disasters, widespread poverty, and malnourishment.  Hepburn’s humanitarian efforts were recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences soon after her death, as they honored her with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in March of 1993. Hepburn’s legacy as a loving and caring humanitarian and an incredible actress of stage and screen have ensured her place in the history of Hollywood films. Her most famous movies include Best Picture winning My Fair Lady, Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, William Wyler’s Roman Holiday, Stanley Donen’s Charade, and Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story.

One of the most famous women in film of all-time in what is widely considered to be her trademark role, Audrey Hepburn took the world by storm in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and her influence is still being felt today.  Director Blake Edwards, the mind behind The Pink Panther series starring comedic genius Peter Sellers, created what would prove to be arguably his biggest mainstream hit with the Audrey Hepburn vehicle.  Loosely based on a novella by the famous and highly acclaimed Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was praised by critics and audiences for being a funny, modern, stylish, and incredibly romantic picture that transcended the famous melodramas of the 1940’s and 50’s.  Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly would go on to become one of the most iconic characters in the history of the medium, mostly due to her bizarre lifestyle and attitudes towards modern city life, her impeccable style choices, and the air of sophistication she gives off throughout the film.  The film’s beautiful score by composer Henry Mancini is instantly recognizable, and his song “Moon River” still sounds as wonderful as ever, even more than fifty years later. Mancini took home two Oscars for his compositions in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, one for Best Original Song for the aforementioned “Moon River”, and the other for Best Music.  The film was also nominated for Best Actress (Audrey Hepburn), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Art Direction – Color, but ultimately lost all three nominations. Breakfast at Tiffany’s went through something of a reexamination through the 1980’s and 90’s, and the “yellow-face” performance of the notorious Mr. Yunioshi by Mickey Rooney has faced a great deal of criticisms.  The character and its portrayal are regarded as perhaps the biggest detractors of an otherwise timeless modern classic. Other than some of the troubling racism found throughout, the film has endured the test of time, and Holly Golightly’s influence on fashion can still be found in mainstream culture today.


Audrey Hepburn as the iconic Holly Golightly in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s begins with the young and seemingly wild Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) returning home from a disastrous night on the town in New York City.  She is later awoken by her new neighbour, Paul Varjak (George Peppard), who uses her apartment to use the telephone.  The two neighbors become acquainted as Holly readies for her weekly trip to Sing Sing prison, where she regularly visits accused mobster Sally Tomato (Alan Reed).  Holly’s visits are paid for by Tomato’s lawyer, as long as she delivers the “weather report” given to her by Tomato.  One night while trying to elude a much too eager man, Holly climbs into Paul’s window through the fire escape and the two fall asleep together.  They’re woken up when Holly has nightmares about her brother Fred, who is currently in the US Army.  The two become closer, and Holly inspires Paul, an out of work writer, to begin working on his passion again.  Paul eventually meets Doc Golightly (Buddy Ebsen), and finds out that Holly’s name is actually Lula Mae Barnes, and that she and Doc were married when she was just 13 years old.  Holly eventually tells Doc that she won’t be returning home with him, and instead decides to marry Rusty Trawler (Stanley Adams), who is the “ninth richest man in America under 50”, for his money.  Soon enough, Holly finds out that Rusty has married somebody else instead, and Paul takes her out for a day of things that neither has ever done before.  Will the eccentric and elegant Manhattan socialite go with her heart and settle down with the man of her dreams, or will she go with her instincts and run away to something less complicated?  Find out in Blake Edwards’ timeless classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Though I initially wasn’t sold by Blake Edwards’ colorful, silly, and sentimental Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it very quickly won me over with its effortless charm and excellent lead performance.  It’s easy to see why the film has been so incredibly influential on both film and popular culture as a whole in the years since its release, as it feels so very modern.  Audrey Hepburn’s performance as the delightfully frustrating Holly Golightly is without a doubt the highly of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and most critics seem to agree with this sentiment.  The simple country girl turned elegant socialite is an age-old tale told time and time again, but Hepburn really brings both aspects of the character to life in her best moments.  She’s entirely believable as a free-spirited dreamer who does everything at a whim, never settling for anything or anybody. Hepburn’s performance is the solid foundation of what becomes a truly touching and wonderfully fun picture, and I doubt any actresses of the time could have had the same effect.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s completely sold me on an actress I wasn’t too sure about beforehand, and now I fully understand why she has had such a terrific influence on American pop culture.  Starring beside her is George Peppard as Paul Varjak, who despite not being great in the role, is perfect as a mostly silent and charming witness to the eccentricities and zaniness that comes from Holly Golightly. Hepburn’s real co-star comes in the form of a small, furry, and entirely lovable cat, known simply as “Cat”.  If it weren’t for Cat, the film’s final act would be without the drama and heartbreak that makes it truly standout. The movie features bright and vivid photography from Franz Planer, who makes every scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s pop off the screen and make it feel as if it were shot just last year.  Also behind the camera is director Blake Edwards, whose success with this film would lead him to excellent and highly influential projects like The Pink Panther series, The Party, and Days of Wine and Roses. The direction by Edwards is never overly energetic or distracting, and instead serves as a nice counterweight to the energy brought to the film by Hepburn’s performance.  It’s never flashy or remarkable, but it serves its purpose and has an excuse for its normalcy.  And of course how could any review of Breakfast at Tiffany’s be without a nod to Henry Mancini’s incredibly romantic score. I’ve been humming and singing “Moon River” in its many forms to myself all week long, and I couldn’t be happier about it.  His score adds weight and drama to the film’s more romantic scenes, and never sticks out as being obnoxious or overplayed.  It all just feels so right.


Holly Golighty (Audrey Hepburn) and Paul Varjak (George Peppard) in Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s has so much going for it that it’s impossible not to acknowledge its massive influence on pop culture and modern films.  Audrey Hepburn is absolutely delightful as Holly Golightly, despite my not always agreeing with her choices or actually liking her as a character.  She’s never annoying or unbelievable, she’s just a modern woman trying her absolute best to find herself.  The film is important in many regards, and will live on in the history books forever because of its many terrific elements.  Its beautiful score and photography, subtle and unpretentious direction, and excellent performances have carved out its incredible legacy in the mainstream. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a beloved classic for a reason, and it comes highly recommended from me.

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Filed under Reviews, Women in Film

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