50 years ago, this week, Paramount released arguably the most stylish movie of all time. Since then, only ‘Pretty Woman’ came remotely close to the social and fashion statements made by this iconic film. ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ made its mark from the opening sequence. Shot in what movie practitioners call the magic hours of the morning, it shows a taxicab pulling up in front of Tiffany’s. The street was empty. In one of fashion’s defining cinematic moments, Audrey Hepburn in a Givenchy black dress, peered through the window of Tiffany’s while eating breakfast from a paper bag. This scene established the ‘Hepburn look’.
The ‘little black dress’ would go on to become a timeless favourite for Givenchy customers looking for the ‘classic elegance’ of Audrey Hepburn. In 2006, the actual dress used in the movie was auctioned by Christie’s for £467,200 to raise funds for impoverished children in India. Hepburn was nominated for an Oscar for the role of a New York high-class social escort, Holly Golightly. Hepburn’s son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, wrote, “Every actor has a film whose chemistry is so strong that it is forever a reference point in their career. ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ would be it for my mother.”
Based on Truman Capote’s classic novella, Audrey Hepburn was not his choice to play Holly. His was Marilyn Monroe. Directed by Blake Edwards, it would become the first of the kind of romantic comedies we know today. It reportedly inspired Madonna to seek her fame and fortune in New York, it was referenced by Julia Roberts for her role in ‘Pretty Woman’, it started the trend of product placements and product endorsements in movies which was emulated by movies like ‘American Gigolo’, and it was a precursor to using New York as an important character in the story, as in ‘New York, New York’ and ‘Sex And The City’. Ultimately, ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ was a trend-setter of movie glamour and style, one which signalled the end of the big Hollywood musicals and the beginning of fashion in films.
But is ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ a good film? The first thing to say is that the original book was darker than Blake Edwards’s film. The main character, this nervous, stylish, party girl, Holly Golightly, was effectively a prostitute, a Manhattan version of Sally Bowles, the girl at the centre of Christopher Isherwood’s ‘Berlin Stories’, which later formed the basis of the musical, ‘Cabaret’. The film balances Capote’s bitter-sweet story in a palatable way for movie audiences then. The male character Paul Varjak, the struggling writer is a ‘kept man’, allowing his bills to be paid by an older lady whom he sleeps with. He and Holly are parallel characters, both are ‘lost’ in a sense, and the film tells the story of how they fall in love. It is a different kind of sweetness, a Hollywood kind, but at that time it challenged some of the stereotypes about women and men and the business of sex. Edwards was never happy with George Peppard as Paul. He had wanted Steve McQueen.
Capote was more bitter about the casting of Holly, “Paramount double-crossed me in every conceivable way,” he said. “Holly had to have something touching about her – unfinished. Marilyn had that. Audrey is an old friend and one of my favourite people but she was just wrong for that part.” He added that Holly was “a phoney – but a real phoney”. So how did Audrey Hepburn feel about playing a hooker? She had to be convinced by the producers and director. Years later she would say, “I was nothing like her, but I felt I could ‘act’ Holly. I knew the part would be a challenge, but I wanted it anyway. I always wonder if I risked enough on that one. I should have been a little more outrageous. But at the time, as a new mother, I was about as wild as I could be. If only I were a Method player. But the fact is, I didn’t really believe in The Method. I believed in good casting. And I’m still not sure about Holly and me…”
If anything, the mood of the film has a tone, and the tone is a mix of sunshine and heartbreak. We are never quite sure if it was Audrey’s quirky performance or the source material that carried this tone. But in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ we are very sure that the theme song, ‘Moon River’, played an important part. This song played ‘like liquid regret’ and held the various disparate elements together. It would win two academy awards. Audrey Hepburn wrote to Henry Mancini after his score was added to the film, “Dear Henry, I have just seen our picture, ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’, this time with your score. A movie without music is a little bit like an aeroplane without fuel. However beautifully the job is done, we are still on the ground and in a world of reality. Your music has lifted us all up and sent us soaring. Everything we cannot say with words or show with action you have expressed for us. You have done this with so much imagination, fun and beauty. You are the hippest of cats, and the most sensitive of composers! Thank you, dear Hank.”