Catching Up: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

We all have gaps in our cinematic knowledge, films which, if we confess our ignorance of, someone, somewhere will say, “How have you not seen that?!” Catching Up is about these films, and viewing them so long after seemingly everyone else has. Some of these entries may be shocking, some are embarrassing, but all of them are classics.

The Film:

Directed by Blake Edwards, originally released in 1961. Society girl Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) continually tries and fails to gold dig her way into rich men’s hearts, while slowly falling for her new neighbor, Paul (George Peppard).

Wait, you really haven’t seen this?

When trying to decide which film to tackle next for this column, I came to a shameful revelation: I had only seen one Audrey Hepburn movie (My Fair Lady). So I decided it was high time to rectify that, and what better film to use than the one featuring the legendary actress’s most iconic role?

The Legacy:

Winner of two Oscars, member of multiple “best-of” lists, including several of AFI’s “100 Years…” series. But the look of this film is its true stamp on pop culture. Hepburn’s comically long cigarette holder, her sunglasses, her black dress, all of her in this film are absolutely indelible. Everyone knows them, even if they don’t know the movie.

In more recent years, some have (rightfully) taken issue with some rather ugly ethnic caricature in the film, and it’s often held up as an example of older Hollywood’s reliance on stereotypes of minorities. I doubt that’s the legacy the filmmakers had in mind, but them’s the breaks.

What did you know about it beforehand?

I knew about the “look,” because everyone knows that look. I knew that Mickey Rooney plays a Japanese stereotype. I knew that it was based on a story by Truman Capote, and as someone mainly familiar with his stuff through In Cold Blood and the Philip Seymour Hoffman biopic, the subject matter seemed… incongruous, to say the least.

Did what you know matter?

Not really. No one talks about the plot, but it’s a good one. Holly and Paul have a very sweet, affecting little love story here. They’re both odd, slightly broken people who mesh well together, but they’re kept apart by the fact that they’re both sort of prostituting themselves. Holly goes after rich men, while Paul is “kept” by a wealthier older woman. Holly is trying to rebuild herself from an impoverished past to something greater, while Paul, a writer, wants to recapture his creative spark, which has been blocked for years now. You want to see them together both because they are both likable and, more importantly, because they’re even more likable together (something most romance movies seem to not think is necessary for us to care).

I must admit, I was more than a little prepared to reflexively condemn the movie based on the race stuff. While those aspects are awful (and I’ll get to it in a second), everything else was mostly able to win me over.

Also, I was under the impression that Tiffany’s played some kind of larger role in the story beyond two scenes. Like, I was picturing it being a recurring, important location in the film. I have no idea how I formed that expectation.

Did anything surprise you?

There’s a lot more thematic depth to this movie than anyone talks about. Holly Golightly is (justifiably) remembered for her style, but she’s also something of an American fable. She’s come from low roots, a poor Southern child bride, to the big city, remaking herself as something else. That’s a very American idea, transforming oneself through nothing more than wits and determination. Holly is a female Gatsby or Don Draper, and like them (and America, you could say), she misses the point, focusing on wealth and upward mobility to the neglect of love. She’s of the mind that love is something that will come after she gets what she wants, that power itself is a means to that end. It’s actually rather stunning and ironic that so many women have tried to imitate her in style and poise, since she’s not at all a person to aspire to be like.

Even though I was aware of the I. Y. Yunioshi character, I was still blindsided by how terrible he was. In Gene Luen Yang’s terrific graphic novel American Born Chinese, there’s a character named Chin-Kee, who is every Asian stereotype rolled into one agonizingly embarrassing behemoth of yellow peril. Yunioshi is Chin-Kee in live action, except there’s nothing ironic about his existence. He’s Mickey Rooney with dyed skin, buck teeth, and pulled eyes, mixing his l’s and r’s and generally acting the buffoon. Every second he’s on screen is an ordeal, so it’s fortunate that he’s not really in the movie all that much. Of course, that almost makes it worse, that you could cut him out without changing much else in the story. It’s not just ugly racism, it’s pointless ugly racism.

So, did it live up to the hype?

Yeah, mostly. The movie feels longer than it needs to be, running nearly two hours, and it drags somewhat at times. That and the race stuff really pulled things down. But it’s a very funny movie, and it’s a great showcase of how mainstream romantic comedies used to have a better handle on how to be, well, romantic.

I am far, far, far from a “good old days were better” person, but I must admit that there were certain things, mainly when it came to writing, that older Hollywood simply got that new ones just can’t get nearly as often anymore. I do think, mind you, that that’s a matter of systemic mechanics, rather than writers somehow being worse now than they once were.

As just one example, look again at Holly Golightly. One might look at her and be tempted to label her a manic pixie dream girl. After all, she’s exceedingly eccentric and bubbly. Look, she has a cat, but won’t give it a name! She can play the banjo and sing! She sits in the sink and drinks! But look again, and you’ll see that there’s a real personality to Holly, that she’s more than an amalgamation of cutesy quirkiness. The quirk is a mask for the pain she’s suffered, and the loneliness her lifestyle brings. In this regard, she’s quite similar to Fran Kubelik, Shirley MacLaine’s character in The Apartment (By the by, if that’s a classic you haven’t caught up on? Do it. Now). Neither of these women exist only as plot devices to show boring men how to live their lives. They are much more than that, and that’s why we remember them still after fifty years. The same probably won’t be said for most romantic leads today.

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