Monday, March 03, 2008

Classic Movie Review: Breakfast at Tiffany's

Despite having only really seen her in My Fair Lady (and a little-known movie once thought to be in the public domain called Charade), I've been intrigued by Audrey Hepburn. I have therefore been curious for a long time about the movie commonly considered to be one of her best: Breakfast at Tiffany's. Having found it on sale at Target, I decided to pick it up and finally give it a try. Unfortunately, I come away from it all wondering what all the fuss is about.

But before getting into my main criticisms, I do want to draw attention to one scene that I absolutely love: a scene in which Hepburn's character, Holly Golightly, and Paul Varjak (played by George Peppard, better known to people of my generation as the lead from The A Team) are shopping at Tiffany's, the well-known New York jewelry store. Despite that fact that neither of them have hardly any money (They tell the salesperson that "$10... [is] the outside figure"), the salesperson treats them with respect throughout the sequence, and they ultimately ask to have a Cracker Jack ring engraved. I've gotten so used to seeing scenes where poor people are treated rudely by snobbish salespeople at well-to-do establishments. I hope that Tiffany's got some good customer response out of this movie!

I also want to give the movie credit for dealing with some issues that must have been fairly scandalous at the time, portraying the male lead as a kind of male prostitute (his writing is "sponsored" by a wealthy married woman) and Hepburn's character as a golddigger and a prostitute (truth be told, the movie's never explicit on this point. However, she's clearly looking for a wealthy husband, and seems totally dependent on such men for her welfare). They are able to do this compassionately to the characters, and although I hardly condone such actions, did not feel that these "lifestyles" were being glamorized, as Hepburn's difficulties in finding happiness are front and center of what makes this movie what it is.

But there are a couple of problems that really made the movie an embarrassment for me to watch. The first is the most obvious: Mickey Rooney's role in "yellowface" as Golightly's upstairs neighbor. It was a horribly racist depiction that would (hopefully!) never even be attempted in such a movie today. It is to the producer's credit that he repeatedly apologizes for this characterization in the 45th anniversary DVD commentary. Even if it should never have happened at all, one cannot change the past, and at least he seems to have learned how terrible this was in the years since.

The other problem probably didn't seem important to anyone at the time, and may not even be on a lot of people's radar today: at a couple of points in late in the movie, Varjak tells Golightly (in one form or another) that he "owns" her. Most pointed is a line near the very end: "I love you! You belong to me!" That's not romantic. That's creepy! Loving someone does not give you a claim to that person. The only way two people belong to each other is if both consent to belong to each other, and it's clearly the case that Golightly has made no such commitment at that time. In fact, as much as I think Golightly's making a huge mistake by trying to flee the country at this point in the movie, when she says "people don't belong to each other" in response to Varjak's assertion, I want to shout "Right on!" The fact that she seems to turn around and return to Varjak at the end (only minutes later) only seems to support his horrible assertion of ownership, undercutting the one thing I thought she had right at that point, and I simply cannot support such a terribly false depiction of what love is supposed to be. (Truth be told, I have a similar problem with the end of My Fair Lady, when Eliza Doolittle returns to Henry Higgins. At least George Bernard Shaw got it right in Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady is based. No self-respecting woman would return to such a man! The fact that there are a lot of women who do return to such men is a tragedy, and not something to be glamorized in a romantic movie!)

A quick side-note in response to the use of an unnamed cat in this film. The cat seems to be, on some level, a corollary to Golightly's own life. A "free" creature belonging to no one. As a cat-owner myself (who's cat was formerly a stray), I take in interest in such things. I'm amazed at how that cat is treated on screen. It's carried in a taxicab simply wrapped up in a towel. It's retrieved from having been out in a rainstorm and held between the two regulars as they kiss. Now, my wife is fond of pointing out that our cat is a "lover cat." It is rather amiable and docile most of the time, and has never bitten or maliciously attacked us. But I know that if I tried to carry our cat in a car without first putting it in car carrier, or if I held her (while wet and freezing!) in my arms like they do this cat in the movie, our cat would definitely make a fuss and try to escape, and I'd probably have a few scratches to show for it. It's clear that the cat they're using isn't some animatronic creature, but is in fact a real cat. That cat must be really well trained (or perhaps drugged!).

But as interesting as that is from a technical perspective, it's not enough to save the movie for me. It's going straight to my Peerflix "for sale" pile.

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