Spoiler alert: Except for a mention in passing, I didn’t touch the subject of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II. The book focuses squarely on the war and defers on topics like the production of her films to existing biographies on the Hollywood years.
I first saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s long ago and wasn’t impressed. The other night it played on TCM/US and I watched it again, this time with knowledge gained after two years in close quarters with Audrey and an understanding of all she had seen and done during the war.
I remembered only two scenes from past viewings: That magnificent opening series of shots as the cab glides down deserted Fifth Avenue and deposits Holly Golightly in front of Tiffany’s for her impromptu opening-credits breakfast, and the scene near the end when she abandons Cat in the rain. I sort-of recalled being annoyed at Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of a Japanese landlord without remembering any of his scenes in particular, and I very vaguely recalled liking George Peppard as boyfriend Paul as much as I always like Peppard, which is to say, not at all.
This time around I enjoyed Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and what struck me above all was Audrey’s luminescence cast against type as a gentleman’s paid companion—allusions to which are so vague it had to be explained to me, and only then did I start to notice the references, as when Holly peered in the window and saw Paul’s older lady-friend drop cash on his nightstand; a little later she told Paul that she understood his situation. Well, how did she understand? Because she was used to being paid to be various men’s girlfriend, content that strayed into the realm of pay-for-play and scraped against the waning days of Production Code censorship.
I now get why a Tiffany’s one-sheet movie poster sells for a consistent five grand and why this is Audrey’s iconic role. She’s mesmerizing—chic, poised, articulate, mysterious, always dressed to the nines but wearing the clothes not as clothes but as skin like she was born in it and born to do it. She had played the Pygmalion-ugly-duckling-turned-fashion plate twice already, in Sabrina and Funny Face, and by now was using hats, sunglasses, and cigarette holders in her performance like Astaire used lamps or coat racks as dance partners. Everything she did on film became suddenly cool. Even the highlights in Audrey’s swept-back hair hypnotized me.
I did a little investigating afterward. Truman Capote wrote the story on which the film was loosely based. It first appeared in Esquire and the resulting sensation had Hollywood calling. Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe as Holly, and what a different film that would have been because there would be no doubt how Holly made money and why men were hanging around. Capote vocally and loudly hated Audrey in the role because she spun it in directions he never intended. There was speculation about who had served as the role model for Capote’s main character when in likelihood it was bits and pieces of several prominent women he knew, none of whom were anything like one-of-a-kind Dutch aristocrat Resistance fighter war veteran ballerina doctor’s aide Audrey Hepburn, she of multinational roots and vaguely European accent and sensibilities when all the models for Holly had been 100-percent well-bred New York City American.
It occurred to me how unconventional was this story for 1961, never adhering to the formula of the endless stream of factory-produced romantic comedies that had come before. Literally the studios would each have a big pile of scripts and produce a story, and then the script would sink back to the bottom of the pile and get pulled out and made again every so many years; this had gone on for decades, but this strange story by the strange little author was different. Offbeat, infantile in places, adult in places, and then out of left field Holly’s husband from Texas appears and explains that Holly was once a barefoot hayseed and you’re like, suuuuuure she was. I can see Audrey Hepburn as that. Because it was so different, I don’t mind George Peppard as the love interest; he was then new and different too and unlike the string of conventional golden era leading men cast against the Dutch baroness-by-birth. Peck had been older, as had Holden, Bogart, Ferrer, and Cooper. But here came young pretty-boy Peppard who passed the side-by-side test with Audrey even if he was cold and distant—oh, and a total sonofabitch of whom nothing good was ever said. When Audrey Hepburn doesn’t like you, and word had it she didn’t like Peppard, then you’ve got issues.
Henry Mancini’s Moon River is a terrific melody. In the first couple minutes at Tiffany’s window it grabs you and never lets go to the extent I kept waiting for it to play in some variation as underscoring to reinforce Holly Golightly’s mood of the moment. Having Audrey sit on her brownstone’s fire escape strumming a guitar and singing Moon River makes no sense at all in terms of the story; she could as easily have hummed it brushing her teeth and the effect would have been the same, but no, she sang it. What’s telling is that Audrey Hepburn had been around music her whole life, not as a singer but as a dancer. Her comfortableness with music shows in the way she sings the song. The two drifters in the lyrics are Holly and Paul, both bought and paid for and making their way in the concrete jungle, but, um, the huckleberry friend? I read it’s a reference to Huck Finn of Mark Twain fame and I guess that makes huckleberry about wide-eyed adventurers? I don’t like it in the song. The word huckleberry doesn’t roll off an aristocrat’s tongue, and at least for me it broke the illusion of this woman sitting there singing this song. Even if the situation of Audrey Hepburn on a fire escape with a guitar is ridiculous, which it is, it all works until she sings the word huckleberry and then it took me a while to get back into the story.
Audrey was at this time 32. She had been out of the war for 16 years, and I want you to think about what you were doing at the beginning of 2003 and that’s how close to Hitler’s oppression Audrey Hepburn was as she portrayed Holly Golightly. Even past the turn of 1960 she was dodging questions about the war as she would always dodge them. She could bob and weave like a prizefighter and steer clear of any interviewer’s probing that she didn’t like, and there were many questions about the war she wouldn’t or—she felt—couldn’t address. Acting on location in New York City in that story wearing those clothes is as far away from war-torn Velp as she would ever find herself, and yet the war cast a shadow in which she would forever walk. Throughout her career she appreciated every perfectly tailored dress on the wardrobe rack because she had survived to April 1945 in clothes that were threadbare and would always remember after liberation walking into a room that was piled high with clothes that had been donated by the people in America “who must be rich,” she thought.
Quibbles aside, knowing what Audrey had endured earlier as a disease-ridden duckling in a steady rain of bombs made two hours with 1961’s beautiful swan in a steady rain of, well, rain, a magical experience.
This is a wonderful and thoughtful piece on “Breakfast at Tiffanys.” I like the movie, always have, with a few reservations. First, I think that Audrey was terribly miscast as Holly Golightly, yet somehow at the same time she made it work. Really, Audrey is too sophisticated, too introverted to portray the extroverted Holly, her accent is all wrong, and I do not for one moment buy into the plot point that she was the former country bumpkin who married Doc Golightly (Buddy Ebsen) as a teen and then became a courtesan of sorts in NYC. If Marilyn Monroe had played the role, the film would have been far more believable, but no matter…Audrey made the role work and made it fit her like one of her iconic dresses from the film.
The film’s weakest point has to be Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi. Just awful stuff that nearly ruins the movie for me. I remember reading that Rooney felt embarrassed about it years later. I do like George Peppard as Paul Varjak. He looked good and was believable in the part, and if he and Audrey didn’t get along, it seems to have only added to their chemistry. I like the bit where Audrey sings “Moon River” in her own voice. It’s a poignant moment for me, and one of my favorite scenes in the movie. And of course I can’t forget the feline actor, Orangey, who played Cat. I was a bit ticked that Holly threw poor Cat out into the pouring rain, but since she quickly realized her mistake and found him, it made for a happy ending.
Looking forward to your new book. Best wishes for a happy New Year!
Thank you, Bonnie, Happy New Year to you. I was surprised to see on this latest viewing how little Mickey Rooney is only onscreen. I bet if you put a stopwatch on it, his scenes laid end to end last less than three minutes of screen time. But boy what an impression he made. He put the broad back in Broadway. You also hit on a point that doesn’t receive enough attention: Sometimes it’s the tension between actors that makes their chemistry work. Paul’s got a chip on his shoulder anyway, and the Audrey plays Holly as a closed book, so his anger and frustration ring true in their dynamic. And absolutely, you don’t believe Audrey as an extrovert because no matter her lines or stage directions, she was and always would be a painful introvert and a wounded soul full of secrets.
Robert… you write beautifully. I never miss a post, nor one of your books. You had me at “Fireball.” You are an author with heart. Well done.
Thank you for being a reader of my books and column, Carol. Thanks for getting me, and a Happy New Year to you. Let’s hope 2019 is full of good words and good news for everyone within reach of this blog.
My sister loved this picture and when she visited New York, made sure to have her breakfast at Tiffany’s. We would sing along with the Andy Williams recording of “Moon River,” but would invariably substitute “Huckleberry Hound” for “Huckleberry friend.” I can’t help wondering if in addition to the Wikipedia entry for Johnny Mercer’s lyric (“Mercer and Mancini wrote the song for Audrey Hepburn to sing in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The lyrics, written by Mercer, are reminiscent of his childhood in Savannah, Georgia, including its waterways. As a child, he had picked huckleberries in summer, and connected them with a carefree childhood and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn”) we should also bear in mind that Huckleberry Hound was a prime-time cartoon that Mercer was no doubt familiar with.