Wednesday, October 05, 2011


A Real Phony

By Damian Arlyn
What was it about Audrey Hepburn? She was beautiful. There's no doubt about that. She made being natural and vulnerable in front of the camera seem so effortless. She had grace, charm, poise, charisma, and could seem both earnestly innocent and incredibly sexy at the same time. Yet these qualities have all belonged to countless other actresses both before and after her, so what made her different? Having re-watched two of her movies recently, I was reminded of what a truly unique screen presence she was. The impression she managed to leave on audiences was far more than merely the sum of these parts. Regardless of the genre she was working in there was something strangely elusive and sparklingly radiant about her. As the cliché goes, one can't take one's eyes off her. She commanded attention not by doing a lot (as other actors tend to do) but by doing very little. It's easy to see how a whole industry has sprung up around her, and yet somehow (almost 20 years after her death) she even manages to rise above that. I mention all this because one of her most iconic films, Breakfast at Tiffany's, celebrates its 50th anniversary today and although it is one of my all-time favorite films, I can admit that whatever greatness it does possess comes mostly because of her immeasurable contribution, which is far more than purely an aesthetic one. Her presence alters the whole approach the filmmakers took to the material and her absence no doubt would've affected the film's now classic status. Without Audrey, Tiffany's still would've been a good movie, but with her, it's a terrific one.

The role Audrey played (famously known as Holly Golightly but, as the film elucidates, that's not her real name) first began as a character in a Truman Capote novella. While I have not personally read the book, my understanding is that it's much darker and more provocative than the Paramount's movie adaptation (the character of "Fred" is homosexual, there is no happy ending, etc). As it is, the film still deals with very adult subject matter but it handles it in a very restrained and accessible manner. Because of that approach, the casting of Audrey Hepburn as the naive but worldly "call girl" (called by Capote as an "American geisha") works. Capote apparently wanted the sluttier Marilyn Monroe for the part and although it might've made it closer in spirit to its gritty source material, that choice would've severely altered the alchemy of the finished film.

From the film's opening sequence where a gorgeous Audrey stands on a deserted street eating breakfast while gazing longingly at a Tiffany's store window to the emotionally wrenching climactic kiss in the rain, it is clear that Breakfast at Tiffany's is pure Hollywood fantasy. Only in a fantasy could such a scared, lonely and tragic character seem so elegant, so glamorous and so engaging. It surprises me (and my wife) how many women fantasize about being Audrey's Golightly character (wearing her outfits and so forth) presumably not realizing that within the context of the film, it's a facade. She is not stylish, she's pathetic. She's not strong, she's sad. As Martin Balsam states in the film: "She's a phony," but because she actually believes in the illusion "she's a real phony."

Surrounding Audrey is a very capable cast. A young, handsome George Peppard plays Paul Varjak, the down-on-his-luck writer currently being supported by his "decorator," with ease and confidence. The always reliable Patricia Neal was the classy (and deliciously frosty) Emily Failenson, Paul's married companion/benefactor. Buddy Ebsen turns in a brief, but heartbreaking, performance as Holly's former husband, Marty Balsam plays Holly's long-suffering agent and, in one of my all-time favorite "bit" parts of any movie, a memorable John McGiver shows up as a very understanding Tiffany's salesman who, in spite of his cold professionalism, pontificates wistfully about how the knowledge that Cracker Jack boxes still contain prizes "gives one a feeling of solidarity with the past."

The film's solitary sour note performance-wise comes from Mickey Rooney's buck-toothed, yellow-faced Japanese landlord, Mr. Yunioshi. Originally intended to provide hilarious "comic relief", the clumsy, bad-tempered character is the textbook example of a racist stereotype. Made all the more embarrassing by its sheer gratuitousness, many of the filmmakers have since apologized for the insensitive portrayal, though his scenes did make for a compelling sequence in the 1993 biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story starring Jason Scott Lee. There are, however, other moments of comedy in the film that do work very well. When Holly throws a party in her apartment, for example, we are treated to some very funny vignettes (my favorite of which is the woman who's laughing at her own reflection in the mirror at one point and then when glimpsed later she's crying at it, mascara smearing down her face). Some have commented that these scenes are actually the best in the movie. I don't know that I'd go that far but they do demonstrate Blake Edwards' knack for staging comic set pieces, a talent that would be on full display two years later in his most famous film, The Pink Panther.

Despite Edwards' natural affinity for comedy, he was a competent director of drama as well. Breakfast at Tiffany's and Days of Wine and Roses prove this I think. Furthermore, there is a lightness of touch that Edwards brings to the whole proceedings. Not a subtlety necessarily because Edwards is admittedly not the most subtle of directors (he often paints in very broad strokes whatever genre he chooses to work in), but a nimbleness. Edwards may deal with heavy material, but he doesn't handle it heavily and that characteristic, combined with Audrey's effervescent influence, is what makes Breakfast at Tiffany's so airy and delightful (in contrast, consider that the film originally was going to be directed by John Frankenheimer and imagine what kind of finished product it would've ended up becoming). This is helped in no small way by Henry Mancini's lovely score (another plus of having Edwards as the director since he and Mancini always worked together). In addition to some bouncy jazz pieces and some appropriately emotional cues for the film's more dramatic moments, Mancini created one of the most unforgettable theme songs in the history of cinema in "Moon River." A simple little melody with somewhat corny lyrics and yet, like Audrey herself, somehow the tune manages to transcend its ingredients. The scene where Audrey sits in her window playing the guitar and singing helps to establish its immortality. By now it is almost common knowledge that the studio did not want to keep the song but Audrey forbade them from cutting it ("Over my dead body" were ostensibly her exact words).

When it was released in 1961, Breakfast at Tiffany's was very successful at the box office and relatively well received by critics. Whatever criticisms were aimed at the film, Audrey herself was highly praised for her performance. Nobody could've anticipated, however, the lasting effect the film and its protagonist could have on pop culture. Holly Golightly would become Audrey's most iconic character and the quintessential example of her onscreen appeal. I must confess that the film was my first introduction to Ms. Hepburn and, just as George Peppard did, I fell in love with her almost immediately. She was a true original and I doubt there will ever be another one like her. Her character might've been a "real phony," but she herself was the genuine article.

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"I can admit that whatever greatness it does possess comes mostly because of her immeasurable contribution, which is far more than purely an aesthetic one. Her presence alters the whole approach the filmmakers took to the material and her absence no doubt would've affected the film's now classic status. Without Audrey, Tiffany's still would've been a good movie, but with her, it's a terrific one."

Nailed it, Damian! Fine write-up on this now 50-year old Audrey classic. Thanks.
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