In filmmaking, just as in dating, the first impression is everything. Even The Room, which is utterly incompetent from the very first frame, at least gets you curious and asking, “is this thing for real?” Some people will tell you that Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a classic, but for me it makes the worst first impression of any movie in the last fifty years or so.
The film itself is an offbeat love story between two starving bohemians (Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard) who are caught in miserable near-prostitution situations because they need money. That is almost completely unrelated to the opening scene, which is a solid five minutes of mugging by Mickey Rooney, playing Japanese in a style of makeup that can only be described as “yellowface,” while Aubrey Hepburn smiles sweetly and condescends to him as though he were a small child.
At any point where this film started to build up goodwill with me, Rooney would show up and make me angry all over again. It’s not just that he’s a broad ugly stereotype, and not just that the only reason one might laugh at the character is because of the broadness and ugliness of the stereotype. It’s not even that the ugly stereotype and the condescending ignorance of the East Coast is what allowed Japanese to be interned across the West Coast not twenty years before. It’s also that the ignorance of that portrayal highlights everything I don’t like about the other characters in the movie.
Hepburn’s Holly Golightly has been described as the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which is accurate because like a lot of MPDGs in later films, it’s not entirely clear what she wants. All she does is party all night and sleep all day, her only sincere desire is to marry rich. She has some awareness that it’s a self-destructive way to live, but it’s never completely clear why she doesn’t care. That’s not a character, it’s a stereotype; Hepburn is playing “shallow silly girl” as surely as Rooney is playing “buck-toothed Japanese.”
Maybe I could have gotten behind all of this if Peppard were playing Paul Varjak as a stereotype also, but he isn’t. There are reams of movie scripts dedicated to “struggling writer,” but “struggling writer with so little self-respect that he’s willing to accept a career as himbo” is mainly the property of this film and Sunset Boulevard. Varjak wants something: to turn his sarcastic annoyance with the world into a second book.
The love story between Varjak and Golightly is a bit awkward, but not a serious problem. In the original novella by Truman Capote, the Varjak character was a surrogate for Capote himself, his homosexuality just as implied as Capote’s was in the open. As such, Varjak’s passion for Holly seems to come out of nowhere, but Peppard and Hepburn are good enough to make it work.
The real problem is that it was simply difficult for me to sympathize with either of these characters. Neither of them are living the lives they want, but even the lives that they want don’t seem to be worth aspiring to. It seems that they need each other in order to be happy, but the actual way they phrase it is that Varjak feels he “owns” Holly because he loves her – hardly a model relationship.
For me the most important scene in the movie was when Holly’s ex-husband (Buddy Ebsen of The Beverly Hillbillies) returns to try to win her back, and is sent away. He tells Varjak to “make sure she eats something once in a while,” which might have been good advice for the skeletal Hepburn as well. But even that meager bit of advice goes unheeded, as Holly goes right on drinking and smoking her meals through the end of the film. These characters fall in love, but not because they changed or learned anything; they remain as flat as Mickey Rooney is at the beginning.
Reviewed by Mark Young