DVD Review: Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) -- The Paramount Centennial Collection 2-Disc Edition

Fight the Mean Reds
With Holly Golightly On 1/13/09

"...she was most frequently associated with the free-spirited, unpredictable and inimitably stylish Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's... In the movie, when she says, 'I love New York,' you love it for all the magic she herself brings to the mythology of a great melting pot. Blake Edwards---one of the best filmmakers of the last fifty years-- understood this profoundly while making the picture. It's clear by the way he brings Hepburn into the film at the very beginning: an empty, early dawn Fifth Avenue; a single cab; a tall, striking, unmistakable figure fades in, the 'Moon River' theme playing with all the utter confidence of certain nostalgia. From start to finish, Edwards knew it: this was Heburn's picture, and he is never away from her for long."
-- Peter Bogdanovich
Who the Hell's In It (pg. 438-439)

And sure enough, much like the nameless cat that Golightly tracks down in the alleyways of New York (or rather Paramount's "New York" set that perished in 1983's horrific backlot fire) in the film's famous rainy romantic finale, whenever Hepburn's character isn't onscreen, the film suffers for it as viewers lean closer to the image, trying to find our favorite party girl in this 1961 classic.

While it's the most iconic of Hepburn's movies as seldom an issue of any major fashion magazine goes by without an homage to the over-sized sunglasses, string of pearls and amazing little black dress she wore like it was a second skin-- once joking in real life that Givenchy's wardrobe was her body armor since only in it she felt safe and protected-- upon closer inspection, it's one of those works that plays better in memory than it does in reality.

Based on Truman Capote's beloved novel by the same name which features a very different Golightly than the one personified by Hepburn and one that the author always envisioned being portrayed by Marilyn Monroe (upon whom, it was rumored he drew more than a little inspiration), it's a role that one immediately recalls as the definitive Audrey Hepburn performance but also a part with which the actress was never entirely comfortable.

As a new mother, Hepburn continually stated that "I always wonder if I risked enough on that one," as "I was nothing like" the southern child bride who runs away to New York and reinvents herself as a fashion chic escort hunting a rich husband. Saying that perhaps "I should have been a little more outrageous... I believed in good casting. And I'm still not sure about Holly and me," as is included in Paramount Centennial Collection's fact-filled booklet contained in the 2-disc set, nonetheless the studio adapted the film for her, dropping some aspects of the film's plot such as "a 'fling' with another woman," as 501 Must-See Movies notes (ed. Emma Beare, pg. 299).

Additionally adding a love story and making George Peppard's fellow prostitute (or "gigolo") straight and a romantic interest for Holly which differed from the book, as Blake Edwards notes on Disc 2 of the DVD, in the process of transferring the novella to the screen, Paramount and screenwriter George Axelrod made a very "big jump from the Capote Holly Golightly to our film's Holly Golightly."

Yet, it was perhaps this addition of Hepburn's natural grace and glamour that make the film so startling, especially when Buddy Ebsen's much older Doc arrives on the scene and informs both the aspiring writer/gigolo Paul (Peppard) and the audience of Holly's true origins as a barefoot child bride in the south.

Suddenly, our heart breaks even more as we realize how fragile Holly is despite her knowing facade and how dangerous it is for her to constantly push others away, not even wanting to grow close to her cat, by forming and abandoning attachments quickly with a series of people who use and abuse her-- all of which is perfectly articulated in Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's Oscar winning song "Moon River" which has become nearly as famous as Givenchy's little black dress.

As Mancini memorably recalled, acknowledging that the work was specifically tailored to the actress, "no one else has ever understood it so completely. There have been more than a thousand versions of 'Moon River', but hers is unquestionably the greatest... To this day, no one has done it with more feeling or understanding... When we previewed the film, the head of Paramount was there, and he said, 'One thing's for sure. That f***ing song's gotta go." Audrey shot right up out of her chair! Mel Ferrer [Audrey's husband] had to put his hand on her arm to restrain her. That's the closest I have ever seen her come to losing control," as Hepburn's son Sean Hepburn Ferrer quoted in Audrey Hepburn, An Elegant Spirit (pg. 83-84).

While there are various versions of that story including one in which Hepburn argued "over my dead body," "Moon River" is the audibly heartbreaking pulse of the film, evidenced in the opening credits and echoing throughout but it's in an especially understated and unguarded moment when an unglamorous everyday Holly sings it on the fire escape that instantly makes one empathize with her plight.

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Although it's hard to watch the film by today's standards without cringing and wanting to fast-forward every single scene featuring the horribly racist and stereotypical portrayal by Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, in trying to ensure cultural sensitivity and understanding, Paramount includes a valuable seventeen minute featurette called "Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective" which gives audiences an overview of the history of Asian Americans both onscreen and off-screen.

One of the four new featurettes included in the Paramount Centennial Collection which also dishes up all of the other featurettes from the 2006 release, including feature commentary from producer Richard Shepherd, "Audrey's Letter to Tiffany" and a short history of the jewelry store since 1837 in "Brilliance in a Blue Box," one of the other standouts was the new roughly twenty minute biographical portrait of composer Henry Mancini.

The legendary Oscar winner who collaborated with Edwards throughout his career on everything from Peter Gunn to Tiffany's to the Pink Panther movies, this time around we get an intimate view of the musician featuring interviews with his widow and children.

Also offering the 2006's informative "The Making of a Classic," which includes some incredibly candid confessions from Edwards as he notes that although he would've directed the film "if I had to crawl all the way up the walk of fame," that he's not sure he would've cast Peppard today and that he'd give anything to recast Rooney's Yunioshi. These comments come along with some humorous anecdotes about his invention of that famous cocktail party scene which paid off ultimately when he cast Peter Sellers in the equally politically incorrect yet hilarious film a few years later, aptly named The Party.

The fifth entry into Paramount's wondrously packaged double-disc sets included in their Centennial Collection and the fourth featuring Hepburn, following Roman Holiday, Sabrina, and Funny Face-- while it pales in comparison to the sparkling diamond that is Hepburn herself, it's been restored to a superior digital level, making this version a jewel for Hepburn devotees everywhere. And in celebration, check out this fan-made video honoring the film and star.