So I’m going to do something a little different with this recap; this was a rewatch for me, and I was familiar with the movie and the novella it’s based on. And it’s a film that casts a long shadow, for both good and bad reasons. So – I am going to acknowledge some of this film’s warts first; and it’s got some fairly big ones.
Most people who see this story as the tale of a carefree society girl named Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) and how finally finds love with her neighbor Paul Varjak (George Peppard) tend to gloss over one detail – both Holly and Paul are sort-of, kind-of prostitutes. Holly subsists on the string of dates with rich guys who pay her for “conversation” and slipping her money “for the powder room”, while Paul is a struggling writer being put up in his apartment by a wealthy older woman (Patricia Neal), who’s been discouraging him from working on any new stories so he can be free to “work on a novel” (and, conveniently, to fool around with her). Holly is even a criminal, even though she’s ignorant of that fact – she has no idea her weekly visits to a mob boss in prison, followed by a debrief with his lawyer, are their way of using her to communicate in code.
This film also has one of the most blatantly offensive cases of “yellowface” acting in cinema – Paul and Holly’s landlord is a Japanese photographer, Mr. Yunioshi, who is played by Mickey Rooney sporting a pair of hideously oversized prosthetic teeth. He is written as a total over-the-top caricature, a depiction so broad that even people back in the 1960s thought it was a bit much. I’m not even going to dignify that with an image.
Speaking of yellowface – is there such a thing a “straightwashing”? Because this film engages in that too – in the original novella, Paul’s character was gay, and he and Holly were simply very close friends. They don’t end up as a couple in the end of Truman Capote’s work, they don’t fall in love, and at some point they even break up, kind of. Granted, a sympathetic depiction of a gay man may have been a bridge too far for 1961, so it’s not that much of a surprise they changed things – but it’s still disappointing.
….So. That’s the bad news. The good news is that despite all of that, this is still a sweet and enchanting film.
Much of that has to do with Audrey Hepburn, who is absolutely delightful here. Ironically, Truman Capote thought she was all wrong – he had been gunning for Marilyn Monroe to play Holly, but Monroe ultimately turned the part down, and Capote never really got over it. As for Hepburn, she felt that she might not be up for the part, and throughout filming kept pestering director Blake Edwards asking for reassurance she was doing okay. I can see why Capote was hoping for Monroe – her character from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is similarly on the hunt for a rich husband, and Monroe’s own past as a Kentucky girl named “Norma Jean” echoes Holly’s own early years as a rural Texan named “Lula Mae”.
But I get the feeling that Monroe would be a little too….waifish for this part. Holly goes through some serious hard luck, and has gone through even harder luck before the film – and she’s also not looking to be kept as a pampered plaything. She’s doing that only because it gives her the money to have the freedom she really wants, but can’t have as a single woman. With Monroe, Holly would have been a woman looking to be a pampered plaything so she could be taken care of – with Hepburn, Holly is a woman who resorts to being a pampered plaything so she has the money to make her own choices. And Hepburn is tough, but also sweet and goofy and kooky – basically she is the Holly which the film and novella are talking about.
As for Paul – well, George Peppard is….serviceable. But this isn’t really his fault; the part is pretty much a nonentity. He’s the straight man to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl here, and such roles are always a boring straight-man part; here especially so, since a lot of what made the character interesting in Capote’s novella had to be cut; Paul became a Straight Man in both senses of the word. So Peppard does the best he can with what he’s been given. (I did get uneasy a couple times when the love-smitten Paul insisted to Holly that she “belonged” to him, however.)
But this is Hepburn’s film, anyway, and she outshines all of the flaws to the point that most people forget about them, focusing instead on how perfectly she embodies Holly and shows the sadness behind the blithe and carefree society girl. This is a film you definitely should go into with eyes open, but it is still worth it.