Thursday, December 4, 2008

Film Review--Breakfast at Tiffany's

Breakfast at Tiffany’s
directed by Blake Edwards
written by George Axelrod
based on the novel by Truman Capote
starring Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Buddy Epson, Patricia Neal, Martin Balsam, José Luis de Villalonga, Alan Reed, Dorothy Whitney, Stanley Adams

Rarely does a screen romance comes across as so lovingly rendered as that between Holly Golightly (Hepburn) and Paul Varjak (Peppard) in this film. The story is pure agony. These two people clearly deserve each other but will they be able to settle things in time or is this one of those doomed affairs that break all hearts and leave audiences gasping?

It’s one of the most celebrated images in cinema. As the film opens Holly is stepping out of a cab right in front of Tiffany’s and Co. She has a little lunch whereupon she removes a pastry and a cup of coffee. She moves across the display windows munching and sipping away. This is her paradise and she claims it’s the only thing that cheers her up when she’s about to succumb to the “mean reds”–those moments when nothing seems right and you feel as if the world is about to collapse on your head. Holly Golightly is essentially a melancholy girl of the type who plaintively and mournfully sings “Moon River” with a ukelele on her window sill. She is a strange girl–moody, flighty, prone to fits. She is a flitting moth drawn to the flame against every fiber of her being. Yet she gives in and is swept away as if by magic. She is haunted by memories of the past, some of which have followed her to her chic New York socialite life. Yet she mainly chooses to forget because its easier and there is much less scarring that way.

Enter Mr. Varjak. Paul is a writer who hasn’t published anything in nearly a decade. He’s handsome, tall, and immaculate. He’s moved in upstairs to Holly and it’s as clear as anything that these two kids were made for each other. Of course the film makes us suffer the possibilities for its duration although it’s a colorful, exquisitely rendered wait. Holly is a social animal who insists on activity at all costs and propels herself forward oblivious to her impact on those around her. Yet she’s complex, seeming to be caught up in a dream that nevertheless threatens to shatter at every turn. She survives on her wiles and makes her living entertaining older wealthy gentleman who pay her handsomely for her time including $50 a shot to go to the powder room. Yet she’s mostly unsatisfied with these encounters and gleefully ditches her male friends leaving them confused and steaming. She also visits a Mob boss named Sally Tomato (Reed) at Sing Sing and unwittingly ferries secret drug information between Sally and a contact on the outside.

The score by Henry Mancini is evocative and exceedingly rich in tone and timbre. It adds a level of warmth to the film and underlines the romantic aspects of the film.

Holly is something of a gold digger and sets her sights on marrying a terribly rich man who can support her in her fancies and maintain her mainly superficial lifestyle. She wants luxury and glamour without having to do much of anything but pose in order to acquire it. She has reinvented herself to escape a past that finds her in the form of a man named Doc Golightly (Epsen) to whom she as a wild fourteen year old was once betrothed. He tracks her down and insists on bringing her back home with him but of course this is absolutely impossible. She sends him back to the farm determining that who she used to be is quite dead to her and the only alternative is to march forward with nary a glance backward.

But there is always Tiffany’s and dreams of exquisitely crafted diamonds and emeralds and that place she can get to where it all magically dissolves and she can merely be whatever she chooses to be at that given moment. Paul complicates everything and introduces her to real emotions that terrify her. She can’t bear to accept how she truly feels because she senses that it means she is being caged and controlled. Her happiness is predicated on the idea that she is free of all complications although what this really means is that she’s too scared to commit to anything. She rescued a stray cat and cannot even bring herself to give him a proper name and merely calls him “Cat”.

The film features rich interiors and a cast of brilliantly hued characters. There’s a manic party scene where we meet a number of eccentrics who bounce about Holly’s apartment, socializing in a mad circle of impossible energy that fuels her need for general excitement. We meet Rusty Trawler (Adams) who Holly claims is the ninth richest man in America. She plans on convincing him to marry her based entirely on his wealth and not because of any genuine attraction. There is Mag Wildwood (Whitney), a wickedly handsome diva who demands attention as she boisterously conveys this or that anecdote that seems to gall Holly ever-so-slightly. Cat jumps on a man’s shoulder, people bump into one another and Holly tries to ignore fiendishly wealthy José da Silva Pereira, a Brazilian who is pleased to finally have the opportunity to congregate with real American people. It’s quite the scene and Holly seems bewildered and exhausted when it finally comes to an end. As social as she is, it’s still somewhat burdensome to have to engage with people on any level whatsoever. She is simply a woman of great need who satisfies herself by standing politely and elegantly before the windows of a massive department store that houses unadulterated symbols of decadence and immense pleasure.

Then we have Holly’s landlord, Mr. Yunioshi (Rooney). Donning buck teeth and yellow face, this naked stereotype rings horrifically false and tarnishes the otherwise sweet and delicate storyline with its intrusions and general offensiveness. It’s no wonder that Asian-American advocacy groups find these scenes to be reprehensible. Even the producers wish they could go back and remove them from the film. They do nothing to propel the film forward and are essentially an embarrassment to finer sensibilities who find such antics to be beneath contempt.

This is a film of heightened longing where the audience begs for release from the sweet agony of watching these two star-crossed lovers careen and stumble into one another’s arms. In one charming sequence they decide to each do a series of things they had never done before. Paul had never stolen from a 5 and 10 so the pair decide to relinquish this inadequacy. They spend a good five minutes casually strolling about picking up loose items and attempting to thieve them using various ruses. Finally they hit on a pair of masks. Appropriately she chooses a cat and he a basset hound. They giddily leave the store and walk right past a police man who looks at them peculiarly. It’s the kind of scene that is consumed with rushing life and a tremendous energy; it is a celebration of daring, of joy, and it solidifies this pair’s bond as co-conspirators. For Paul is also a kept man who is paid to have sex with a woman known as 2-E (Neal).

2-E, also known by her proper name Emily Eustace Failenson, is a totemic figure who is also a bit terrifying. She is a married woman suffering an unsuccessful marriage and pays Paul huge sums for a bit of bitterly fought pleasure. She is quite a sad figure, strange and very dark around the eyes. There is something pent up inside her that threatens to be released at every turn. Yet she satisfies herself on Paul’s willing flesh and manages to convince herself that all is well.

Holly is highly sophisticated in how she presents herself to the world. She is impossibly elegant, stylish to a fault and succinctly aware of the nuances inherent in the games of social interaction. Perhaps she is too good at these games and longs to find more difficult and challenging games to play. More likely she yearns to settle back into herself and does not want to play any games at all. She’s confusing this way and difficult to pin down because of it. She’s not an intellectual and doesn’t pretend to be. She’s simply a girl with high class aspirations who can’t quite manage to still the young girl named Lula May Barnes who came to Doc from whom she escaped shortly after her marriage to him. Her great sadness is the plight of her brother Fred. She is totally devoted to him and worries after him now that he has joined the army. She insists on calling Paul Fred because she thinks that he reminds her of her brother.

The sexual politics of this film are vivid and exceedingly fascinating. It is not clear but it is suggested that Holly does a bit more than merely entertain rich men for money. Paul obviously beds 2-E for cash so both of them seem to have a highly mysterious not-so-secret life that hinges on their ability to play the kept bird for as long as it takes for the money to flow into their possession. Of course, Holly most likely doesn’t do any more than nod in agreement and smile when her suitors try to say something amusing. Still, it is not known precisely what she does on those occasions when she abandons the men and returns to her life.

There is a mournfulness about Holly. She’s a woman who is plagued by the inconsistencies of life. She remains elusive straight through to the end as we never really get a chance to know about the torments that she suffers when she casts her gaze outward and attempts to take in what she sees and hears. She wears everything on the surface and in doing so she cuts us off from getting any deeper of an understanding of what causes her to do the things that she does. This is the genius of Audrey Hepburn. She deliberately holds back from telling to much of the details as to what instigates certain feelings in the character. We get hints through facial gestures and posturing but are left to wonder about the precise causes of her basic dilemma. It proves none too important because this is a film about the intoxication about being with a woman like Holly Golightly. It is about being charmed out of your shoes and whirling about in a hypnotic trance that you never want to recover from. It’s about being positively beguiled by a delicacy that might be shattered if you don’t rush in to protect it from all harm.

The performances in this film all work considerably well to allow the story to unfurl at its natural pace. Of course there is Audrey. Rarely has grace and elegance been so exquisitely defined in cinema. She creates a memorable character who set a standard of style for so many women during this era. Rarely, has one performance inspired so much passion in those just dying to recapture the haughty glamour possessed so easily and readily by Ms. Hepburn. Patricia Neal is as mentioned portrays a grand, capable woman of tremendous intensity. She plays Paul’s “decorator” which is how he refers to her when he can’t bear to admit what she truly is. Neal has a genuine appeal that clearly translates on screen. George Peppard is exceedingly good at playing the casual Paul, a man of leisure with a legitimately languid demeanor that comes off in every frame.

Overall, this film is an enchanting tale of the vagaries of love and the risks involved whenever one dares to capture it. Holly Golightly is a mesmeric creature, an unwitting siren who has made a trade out of her elusiveness to men whom she is merely toying with for fun and profit. She’s spirited, consuming, and tantalizingly alluring. It’s difficult to say what it might mean if she were to settle down permanently with a man who truly adores her for some ineffable quality he reads into her every movement. Perhaps she will stray as she has proven herself to be rather impossible to catch. Ultimately, this film employs sharp dialog, clever plot lines and a brilliant cast to convey the message that individual pride is often waylaid in unexpected ways that take us by surprise.

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