By Megan Bianco
The year 2016 marks the anniversaries of two Paramount classics, the romantic dramedies Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Pretty in Pink (1986). While Pretty in Pink has aged relatively well the past 30 years, Breakfast at Tiffany’s has grown to have a rather polarizing reputation since its release 55 years ago. Teenage girls love it, feminists criticize it and men don’t understand the appeal.
Originally written as a novella by Truman Capote about a young, high-class call girl’s friendship with her gay neighbor, Blake Edwards adapted the book as a love story. As funny as it seems to me now, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was one of my most watched old Hollywood movies as a kid in the middle of all the musicals and animated classics I favored. In my parents’ defense, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was produced near the tail end of the Hays Code rules, so the mature content was pretty subtle.
One thing people remember about the film is all the gorgeous, iconic dresses and jewelry Audrey Hepburn displays, the famous song “Moon River” by Henry Mancini playing in the Manhattan background. But the timeless standout is the free-spirited, vibrant characterization of Holly Golightly. Capote and most the book’s readers were taken aback at Hepburn portraying the lead—the author admitting he wrote Holly with Marilyn Monroe in mind. But after seeing Monroe’s own adorable gold digger roles in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), I’m sure a movie star as glamorous and proper as Hepburn playing a society girl was seen as a fresh idea.
Hepburn’s performance is the heart of the film and, in my opinion, the reason the movie became a classic favorite. She doesn’t play Holly as a whore or dumb blonde (or brunette), but as a vulnerable young woman who likes to live life to the fullest. Particularly impressive are the scenes where Holly has a nervous breakdown while learning her brother has died, and the emotional final scene of the film.
The male lead was also apparently controversial. George Peppard’s Paul Varjak went from a low-key gay writer in the novella, to a straight writer secretly having an affair with a rich older woman (played by Patricia Neal), with extra financial benefits, in the feature. Peppard wasn’t Edwards’ ideal choice for the role, and Hepburn and Neal reportedly found him to be a bit of a diva behind the scenes. Nevertheless, the onscreen chemistry between Paul and Holly is magical and captures the relationship perfectly. He is the perfect straight leading man to Hepburn’s colorful ingénue.
In retrospect, I’m surprised I was so into this movie when I was in my single digits, as the film is dialogue-heavy with adult conversation. The story takes an especially dark turn when Holly’s ex-husband Doc (Buddy Ebsen in an appearance) visits her, and Paul learns that she was a child bride at age 14 on a Texas farm.
But the most cringe-inducing and dated aspect of the movie is unfortunately Mickey Rooney as Holly’s and Paul’s landlord, Mr. Yunioshi. Similarly to how Long Duk Dong has become an outdated character in Sixteen Candles (1984), Rooney’s yellowface caricature has become the face of Hollywood racism. The role included makeup for Rooney to look more Japanese as well as an over-the-top accent in the middle of an East Asian-decorated apartment for comic relief.
From what can be seen on DVD/Blu-ray extras and specials on the film, the filmmakers and producers do appear a bit embarrassed and regretful over the casting. And luckily the character only takes up at most five minutes of screen time, even if important to the story. Rooney’s Yunioshi in such an otherwise remarkable movie marks the film a product of its time and reminds viewers of how much progress we’ve made in casting decisions.
Has the 1961 classic aged well? No. Is it still worth watching? Yes. Besides the charming leads, and the romantic direction by Edwards, we also get one of Mancini’s most recognizable scores, and arguably the best and most influential party sequence ever staged. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is iconic aesthetically and sentimentally, and an imperfect gaze into vintage Hollywood.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.