A 50 year old film

Lots of women on Facebook and on dating websites say their favourite film is “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (don’t ask me how I know this, but trust me, it’s true). It’s such a cliché that I wonder if women select it because so many other women do, an acceptable mainstream choice. The film was on TV recently so I decided to watch it with my two daughters (who hadn’t seen it before) to see if my memory was accurate. I hadn’t realised that the film was made in 1961 and so is a half century old (cue an over-priced, boxed set special DVD).

It was pretty much as I remembered it. The film has very little plot and depends almost entirely on Audrey Hepburn looking cute, which she is truly world class at doing. Indeed she is mostly just a rather spare clothes horse for her Givenchy outfits, including the definitive little-black-dress. Hepburn has an extremely lovely face and is also a good actress. But she has never excited much (straight) male interest. Perhaps this accounts for her popularity with women, unlike say Angelina Jolie, who is definitely popular with men but I’ve never met a women who liked her. Hepburn was a very slight figure but managed to command not just the screen but the stage. A (male) dance teacher at Pineapple studios pointed out to me once how she would arch her back slightly and point her face upwards, which gave her a much larger and more star-like appearance.

I think I dislike the film more for being so different from the novella, which is much less sentimental, is better written and has a completely different ending. I realised soon after it started that the film is set at the beginning of the same period as Mad Men, though the latter seems curiously more realistic – less sentimental perhaps. I saw just a few weeks ago that Tiffany’s is still much the same on Fifth Avenue, though the absence of traffic in the film is remarkable and the view now includes the Apple store, which might be open 24 hours a day every day of the year but still didn’t have any iPads in stock. It’s also interesting to see how many of the modernist skyscrapers in mid-town New York were there in 1960, so they’re older than I thought.

Holly Golightly lives in a brownstone on the upper east side which would now be turned back into a whole house and lived in by the head of M&A at Goldman Sachs. The cast of Friends had a similar, puzzling access to a vast Village apartment. New York does look lovely in the film, so different from the messy, trashy hell hole of the 1970s films like Taxi Driver (though it looked great also in Woody Allen’s mid-period films, especially Manhattan). Mickey Rooney’s embarrassing impression of a comic-book Japanese is best left to the many other critics who have hammered that part of the film.

The music mostly does the feeling for you. Henry Mancini’s lush score, hard to dislike, is still intrusive. When Audrey Hepburn is singing “Moon River” on her own, with a guitar, it’s rather touching and you would entirely understand why her upstairs neighbour would fall in love with her at that point. But then the full orchestral version wells up and the poignancy is lost.

My daughters were mostly bored, except when they were concerned at whether the cat was hurt. This was made before the era of “no animals were hurt during the making of this film.” In fact I’m sure the cat was pretty miserable at the end of the film and there is one bizarrely amusing moment when we were all sure that Holly is about to put the cat in the fridge, which is quite consistent with her character.

George Peppard plays a struggling author who dresses just like the Mad Men, with the same straight black tie. You half expect Don to walk in at some point and start chatting up Holly. I suppose the film was moderately risqué for 1961 in showing him (Peppard) selling his body to the wonderfully cynical married woman who is his “decorator”.

I guess that many women like the idea of being a free spirited, devastatingly attractive Holly Golightly figure, though experience suggests that in reality “fascinatingly wild and unpredictable” is a close cousin of “total nut job”. In the book, Holly really does seem to achieve some sort of freedom and independence but the film is more conventional in its “happy” ending. She succumbs to the inevitability of falling for a nice young man and giving up her moderately outrageous life, which was in large part motivated by the need for money. I suppose that’s a positive message for some.

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