5am, October 2nd 1960 and director Blake Edwards is granted an extremely rare and fortuitous moment of calmness, undisturbed by traffic, on New York’s Fifth Avenue. It is the first hour of the first day of filming what will become one of the most iconic romantic comedies of all time. A young woman in black evening attire gets out of a cab and drifts to the windows of Tiffany’s, coffee and pastry in hand; black sunglasses hiding any trace of the night gone by.
Inspired by Truman Capote’s novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s – on which the film is based – the scene will become both the opening and most memorable one of the movie. It is a scene any modern woman can relate to – the walk of shame. Except there is nothing shameful or morning-after-the-night-before about Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in that New York dawn.
Holly Golightly is a single, girl-about-town, who – like many a girl today – enjoys the young, free and single life and uses her evident beauty to her advantage: dinners, parties and gifts paid for by the men who take her (and her friends) out. Not to mention the $50 they give her for the powder room. And then there is the $100 earned from her weekly visits to an imprisoned mafia boss. Her life changes when struggling writer Paul Varjak (played by George Peppard, the A-Team’s John ‘Hannibal’ Smith) moves into her apartment block, and the two develop a friendship and eventually fall in love. But the smooth progression of their love story is blown off course by Holly’s wild lifestyle, her plan of finding a rich husband, her own troubled past and kept-man Paul’s entanglement with his sugar-mamma, 2E.
The ambiguity surrounding Holly’s profession still remains. Is she a high-class call girl or simply a gold-digger? Opinion is very divided over what is implied about her profession in both the novella and in the film. Are the $50 for the powder room, referred to on several occasions on screen, in exchange for services rendered or simply a very generous tip for the powder room attendant? Any allusions made to Holly being a prostitute in the book (which is set in the New York of the Forties) were most definitely played down in the movie so as not to shock the public in 1961 when the film was released. The role of Miss Golightly was Hepburn’s most saucy character to date. At the prime of her career, she had previously only played the pure and pious. Breakfast at Tiffany’s would give her somewhat of a sexual awakening as an actress, and just in time for society’s own awakening that decade.
It is no secret that Truman Capote was vehemently opposed to Edwards casting Hepburn as his heroine. Capote had considered Elizabeth Taylor, among others, but his first choice was Marilyn Monroe. She had that tough and unfinished quality to her, which he thought Hepburn lacked. Indeed, it would not be the only time her talent as an actress would be called into question. (Emma Thompson recently declared that My Fair Lady’s Eliza Doolittle could neither act nor sing.)
But Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a romantic comedy. We are not in it for the acting. We are in it for the style and the Givenchy dresses, the beauty of New York, the beauty of Audrey Hepburn. And then there is the nostalgic style of direction: scenes shot in a moving car where the driver is quite clearly not driving, the closed-lip Hollywood kiss and make up that makes Hepburn look like an oil painting.
The storyline follows the usual rom-com formula (boy and girl meet, fall in love, fall out, reconcile) but peppered with some genuinely interesting twists. The film is pure Hollywood but we would be disappointed if it were anything else. Today, Breakfast at Tiffany’s gives us old school glamour and has whet our appetite for modern offerings such as the delectable Mad Men series. It makes love and life seem simple. It invented the Little Black Dress and over-sized sunglasses.
Watching it now, it is quite clearly the precursor to the much-loved and equally lite Sex and the City: single girls, love and sex, fairy tale New York City, enviable fashion and an East side apartment. (Holly’s is East 71st Street, Carrie Bradshaw’s East 72nd street.) One of the scenes from a later season of SATC even features Carrie and her on-off boyfriend, Mr Big, sharing a slow dance to Moon River, Henry Mancini’s theme tune that won the film an Oscar.
The only marr on the film is Mickey Rooney’s Mr Yunioshi, the neighbour who is perpetually disturbed and angered by Holly’s erratic lifestyle. The character is a Japanese man played by an America in heavy make up, with buckteeth and portrayed in a ludicrous slap stick fashion: funny at the time of release, it is not so comfortable now. Fortunately, his on screen appearance is limited to a few minutes.
The BFI Southbank is screening Breakfast at Tiffany’s from 21st- 31st January 2011 as part of its Audrey Hepburn season, which runs from 2nd-31st January. It is such a treat to savour this classic on the big screen that it must not be missed.
For the full list of Breakfast at Tiffany’s showings, visit the BFI.