**/**** Image B+ Sound A-
starring Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Patricia Neal, Mickey Rooney
screenplay by George Axelrod, based on the novella by Truman Capote
directed by Blake Edwards
by Bill Chambers Would Paul Varjak (George Peppard) be in love with Holly Golightly if she didn't look like Audrey Hepburn? That's the question I kept asking myself as I watched Breakfast at Tiffany's, the story of a batty woman who overcomes her personality enough to make her downstairs neighbour, a published author, fall for her. She's a socialite too busy for housework; he'd be destitute if he didn't have a sugar mama (Patricia Neal). Both are humoured by the champagne crowd, but ultimately, Paul can't even afford a mid-priced gift for Holly when they go shopping together at Tiffany's.
The film opens with a very literal image: Holly arrives at the famed jewelry boutique just after sunrise with a pastry and a drink. The store is closed--she's there to window shop. This is the only scene in which we'll see Holly alone, for all intents and purposes, and in a way, it exquisitely illustrates what we'll come to learn about Ms. Golightly: she likes to be around money. Will she always be on the outside looking in?
When Holly meets Paul, it isn't love at first sight. In fact, he reminds her of her brother, Fred, and she takes to calling him that. And intitally, Paul considers her an entertaining distraction more than anything else. (Among her quirks: a cat named Cat and a job that entails sneaking information to Sally Tomato, a jailed mobster.) At a soirée, Paul meets one of her exes, who characterizes Holly as "a real phony." By which he means, a phony who's believes her own bullshit. But the more he's in her orbit, the less platonic Paul's interest in Holly becomes. After spending a full day with her in the city during which they act like teenagers, he's hooked. Alas, her agenda has always been to marry into aristocracy, so Paul is not her ideal.
Peppard is a solid leading man, formal but light and cartoonishly handsome. Hepburn is radiant, of course, and though many will finish the picture remembering her as a motor-mouthed whirling dervish, she achieves in her performance moments of uncommon subtlety. Witness the mixed emotions on her face just after the odd couple's first encounter, when Peppard is dragged away by Neal before Paul can bid the Sing Sing-bound Holly goodbye: a jealousy and a curiosity that arguably extends to both parties. Director Blake Edwards doesn't even cover this reaction in close-up (he doesn't seem to love close-ups, despite hailing from TV), but we see it, we feel it. Audrey Hepburn is a supernatural presence.
Paul, in a monumental departure from Truman Capote's book, considers Holly a damsel in distress, destined to be rescued by the love of a good man: him. (I'm saying that Paul is gay in the novel.) Unfortunately, quite a few other angles are left unexplored, such as Holly's constantly mistaking Paul for her beloved sibling. We root for them to unite in the face of Freudian overtones, not to mention Holly's materialism, and it leaves an aftertaste. Breakfast at Tiffany's generally refuses to get down and dirty: Holly is troubled--certifiable, maybe--and the filmmakers are as convinced as Paul that a man is her cure-all. I'd blame the period, were it not for the fact that Hollywood movies are still promoting this same dubious notion.
I can blame the times for Mickey Rooney's buck-toothed portrayal of irate Japanese tenant Mr. Yunioshi. I cringe now because yellowface is so profoundly icky, but, turning off those receptors and settling into the mindset of a 1961 audience member, Yunioshi's scenes aren't even funny. Rooney is too hostile in the role to garner laughs, too vulgar. Holly's "Moon River" serenade also dates the proceedings in a bad way, less for coming out of left field than for finding an aesthetic to suit the song rather than the character. The sight of her in the heretofore-unseen garb of a working-class cleaning lady, strumming a guitar like Kermit the Frog, is so absurd, so inexplicable, it inadvertently becomes Holly's defining moment: Yep, she's nuts.
Paramount's DVD version of Breakfast at Tiffany's sparkles like Holly's tiara. The 1.85:1 letterboxed image (enhanced for 16x9 sets) will not be mistaken for that of a new movie, but it has unusually accurate colour for the time, as well as excellent contrast. Grain is abundant throughout, which conversely allows for terrific detail--wallpaper patterns are discernible, as are the designs on Paul's numerous ties. The transfer is above average except during the opening-credits sequence, which has fluctuating brightness; it's a severe flaw (if probably endemic to the source), and it starts things off on the wrong foot. Compression artifacts aren't evident, probably due to the disc's generous dual-layer encoding.
The audio, too, has been remastered, in 5.1 Dolby Digital. Henry Mancini's score benefits the most--it sounds as good as or better than a soundtrack CD would, and the instrumentation has a definite stereo split. Any low end occurs only in the music. Some ambient F/X have been placed in the rears, but it doesn't sound showy. The only supplement is an amusing trailer--I'm surprised a bigger deal wasn't made for this disc, since only a few years back, Breakfast at Tiffany's was released in a collectible VHS box set packed with goodies. Aside: Hepburn's manic delivery inspired me to turn on the closed-captions at one point, and I immediately noticed heavy paraphrasing. George Axelrod's script has good dialogue going for it, and it's a shame that some part of its home-video audience won't be able to enjoy that in full. Originally published: October 5, 1999.