Thursday, December 16, 2010

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S - an appreciation and comparison

Many of us, myself included, are guilty of seeing movies based on books we have never read. One such movie is Breakfast at Tiffany's, based on the novella by Truman Capote.

If you're in your mid-fifties, as I am, it's likely that you first saw this movie on broadcast television, chopped, channeled, panned and scanned from it's original widescreen version to fit on a standard TV screen and broken up with commercial interruptions. It's also likely that the most you recall of the movie is the party in Holly Golightly's apartment, and how gosh-darn pretty Audrey Hepburn was. Time passes, technology advances, and eventually the DVD release is available for twelve or thirteen bucks, looking pristine and restored to widescreen so that you can see finally the other half of the movie that couldn't fit on the TV screen. So, being a fan of the director Blake Edwards, and because Audrey Hepburn was so gosh-darn pretty, I added it to my collection.

As I said, I'd never read Breakfast at Tiffany's. More shameful, I'd never read ANY work by Truman Capote. I knew he wrote it, and many other well respected tomes including In Cold Blood, but he'd allowed himself to become a characature. He'd turned into a prissy little white-suited fusspot, known more for hissing out venomous little rants and soundbites than for his written fiction. And just as easily as one could dismiss Elvis Presley if the only exposure to him one had was during his sad, fat Las Vegas years, I stupidly gave Capote a pass because I thought he was just this cranky, fedora wearing gnome with a lisp. One of his hissing venomous rants was against the movie version of Breakfast, and Blake Edwards "who (he) could just spit on!"

So, I watched the movie again in it's restored, uninterruped form, this time as a 54 year old man, not a 12 year old kid, and my experiences as an adult filled in my perceptions of the movie I originally glossed over because I simply didn't get it back then. And I recalled Capote's anger.

I bought the book, read it, and now see why.

Allow me to digress to illustrate a point.... After my spouse Fran passed away, I found myself fractured, emotionally. One of the fractures manifested itself in an inability to commit myself to reading a whole novel. I'd start, then drift off and set it aside. This would happen with authors I really really like. The most interest I could muster was to get through a magazine article. It has been like this for years.

But once I started Breakfast at Tiffany's, I could not put it down. If you have never read any Capote either, I urge you, please buy one of his books! His command of language is deceptively simple and astonishingly clear, his ability as a storyteller is seductive and compelling. I was sucked in within the first few sentences. You will be, too.

Another digression.... I had many aspirations as a young man; actor, writer of prose and of screenplays, film director (I also wanted to open a restaurant, which I think is proof that I was certifiably insane). During my own studies of writing and film direction, I learned to see the difference between writing for the printed page and writing for the screen, and how difficult if not impossible it is to translate a story from one form into the other.

Screenwriter George Axelrod was faced with one hell of a task in turning this unconventional, lyrical, if sometimes scandalous, slice of life into a conventional Hollywood narrative. Did he deserve an Oscar for it? Maybe. I don't know what competition he was up against that year. Mostly what he did was graft a standard "Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boys gets Girl back" plot onto a few key scenes from the novella, expand one character's role, transmogrify a couple of others, eliminate one altogether, add a scene that is not in the novella at all, and substitute one sort of racism for another.

The novella is written in first-person narrative, from the point of view of a fictionalized Truman Capote, one presumes because the narrator is never named. As in the movie, Holly nicknames him "Fred", the name of her brother. Large portions of the narrative are told as passive observations and overheard conversations. Translating this aspect directly to film would have left Hepburn's co-star George Peppard standing off to the side of the action and watching. So, in the screenplay, he is given a name, Peter Varjak, and is thrust into the action. And made heterosexual to boot. Although the narrator's sexuality is never identified or even hinted at directly in the novella, there is no sexual tension between him and Holly. The implication is that he is gay. And Holly is a prostitute. Not a common streetwalker, but more of a rougher edged Americanized geisha. Always charming, sometimes crude, sometimes bigoted, more earthy than the wisp played by Hepburn.

Our narrator now transformed into the manly Peter Varjak, must overcome hurdles in order to win Holly. As in the novella, there's Holly's fierce reluctance to let go her vision of marrying into considerable wealth, having one ripe prospect from South America on the hook. Another problem is that Varjak has become the kept man of a wealthy woman who pays the rent for his apartment one floor up from Holly. He feels obligated, if only to keep himself sheltered, clothed and fed as he attempts to further his career as a writer.

This brings us to the way in which Axelrod changed the supporting characters in the story. In the novella, Holly has two neighbors, rather colorful ones. Madame Sapphia Spanella, and Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi.

Madame Spanella is a prissy stick-in-the-mud who abhors Holly, complains loudly about her very presence in the building, and is constantly petitioning for her eviction. At one point in the novella, Holly does move out to Madame's great pleasure, and even though the new tenant is in essence a gay male version of Holly, Madame Spanella dotes on him, even supports him. This character is changed to the role Patricia Neal plays as Varjak's patroness, doting on and supporting him in the same manner, keeping him as her Boy Toy, as he'd now be called.

Madame's fuming outrage at Holly is transferred to the film's altered and expanded version of Mr. Yunioshi. As in the novella, he is a photographer, the implication that he takes nude photos. Artful, but nude. His role in the novella is small by comparison, but pivotal, and nowhere near as broadly comic, or as offensive.

Mickey Rooney's performance as Mr. Yunioshi is likely the most egregious example of stereotyped Yellowface since any movie made in Hollywood during 1942, and the second greatest disservice to Capote's novella. I'm certain the Mick was grateful to have a role in a movie made for a major studio, especially in comparison to the roles he'd been playing in the potboilers Albert Zugsmith was churning out, like The Twinkle In God's Eye and The Private Lives Of Adam and Eve. And he certainly filled Blake Edwards' usual need for a broadly comic running gag, in this case having his sleep disrupted because Holly cannot be bothered to have a key made to replace the one she lost and buzzes him at all hours in order to be let into the building, giving him reason sputter, fuss, and fume in an exaggerated Japanese accent while tripping over his tripods and other general stumbling. The only thing more shameful than the way this outrageous performance stands out like a sore thumb now is the fact that it didn't stand out at all back in 1961.

In the novella, Tiffany's is talked about, Holly expresses her wish that the world was like Tiffany's, move there if she could because it is proud, quiet, populated with men in nice suits, all smelling of silver and new alligator wallets, and the title of the novella comes from Holly's line, "... (I)t's essential not to have any ego at all. I don't mean I'd mind being rich and famous. That's very much on my schedule, and someday I'll try to get around to it; but if it happens I'd like to have my ego tagging along. I want to still want to be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany's...." However, there is no scene that takes place IN Tiffany's. That was Axelrod's invention, along with the plastic ring prize in the box of Cracker Jacks that Buddy Ebsen snacks on during his performance as Holly's abandoned husband, Doc Golightly. He gives it to Varjak, which in turn he takes to Tiffany's to have engraved.

The greatest crime against the novella is the "Hollywood Ending" hammered onto the story, like a horse shoe nailed onto a ballerina's foot. I won't give away the novella's ending, but you can imagine it is not the one as seen on screen, in which Varjak throws off the shackles of his patroness, proposes to Holly with the engraved Cracker Jack ring in the back of a cab after he bails her out of jail, only to be rejected. Holly tells the driver to stop and throws her cat, Cat, into an alley, determined to carry out her plan to run from the law and fly to Brazil. Ah, but LOVE doth conquer all, and Varjak badgers her enough for her to see he loves her. He storms out of the cab to look for Cat, leaving Holly to go do as she pleases.

Holly has her "come to Jesus" moment, dashes out of the cab, out into the rain to seach for Varjak and Cat. She runs to the alley, catching up with Varjak. Cat is found and is squeezed between them as Varjak and Holly embrace, and he kisses her into final submission. Up the music, roll credits. The End.

I suppose this is the only way this movie could have been made in 1961. Certainly, it is a delight to watch Audrey Hepburn play even this highly sanitized version of Holly Golightly, and if the movie had not been made, the world would have been deprived of that magical collaboration of Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini, the song Moon River. It would be a shame for people to think the movie properly represents the book, though.

Could this be turned into a movie now? Maybe. The big hurdle would be to make everyone accept another actress as Holly. Though it wasn't made into a movie series like the James Bond books, and couldn't be, Audrey is as identified with Holly Golightly as Sean Connery is as 007. She is an icon. Indeed, if one opens a dictionary to the term "little black dress", there's a picture of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly.

Perhaps enough time has passed. After all, people now accept Daniel Craig as a radically different James Bond. It may well be high time for a new, more true version of Breakfast at Tiffany's.

If I were to try it, I would restore the original time period in which it was set, during World War Two. And I would restore the character of Joe Bell, the owner of a bar frequented by Holly and "Fred". The only reference to him remaining in the movie is the bar, in which is the telephone booth Varjak uses to call Martin Balsam's character, show-biz agent O.J. Berman for help in going Holly's bail when she is arrested. Joe Bell is a gruff but sentimental cuss who'd be perfect for John Mahoney, of Frasier fame, to play. I would reduce Mr. Yunioshi's role to original size, display his talent as a photographer, and restore his dignity. Most importantly, I would restore the original dynamic between Holly and the narrator, and the original ending.

As to casting, I would use Jim Parsons of the sit-com The Big Bang Theory to play the narrator. I think he has more to offer than what he displays as the annoying nerd Sheldon.

As for Holly?

Sienna Miller. I think her talent has been overshadowed by the obsessive attentions of the tabloid media for her admittedly tawdry and all too public affair with Balthazar Getty. And her looks and demeanor fit Capote's description of Holly to a tee. Would she make everyone forget Audrey Hepburn? Oh, God, no.

But I think she'd make everyone see Holly Golightly in a new light.

In essence, if you've not done one or the other, please, read the book, and see the movie.
And let me know what you think.

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