Every time I return to Breakfast at Tiffany’s certain things become more and more evident. Mickey Rooney’s characterization as Mr. Yunioshi is certainly an egregious blot on this film, but if you look around the nooks and crannies, it’s full of quirky sorts who can be described as weak caricatures at best. Buddy Epsen and Patricia Neal are wonderful actors but for some reason, they feel out of place in this one. I love Martin Balsam too but he’s not quite right either.
Still, all those complaints go away when I see those opening shots. If a film is defined purely by its opening sequence, this would be one of the most sublime films of the 20th century. Because watching Audrey Hepburn walk the silent streets of New York right outside of Tiffany’s is as good as it gets. There’s a perfect cadence to the sequence. We learn so much about the character of Holly Golightly in a few short moments and New York has never been a more magical place — as hushed as it is when her solitary taxi pulls up to the curbside.
Moon River lends a beautiful melancholy to the sequence and it’s absolutely marvelous. But then the illusion is broken when Holly gets home chased by a caricature of a man and accosted by her caricature of a landlord. The yellowface is deeply unfortunate but to a lesser extent so are many of the other portrayals.
Because it’s so easy to care for Holly. Audrey Hepburn makes us care for this woman who doesn’t quite understand what it is to need other people, to love other people, and to be okay with that. She’s scatterbrained in all the best ways. By proxy, we like “Fred, Darling” (George Peppard) because he is a stand-in for the audience as we get to know her better. He’s conflicted but also mesmerized by her like we are. She’s truly something special. And all the affection that we hold for her is because she is Audrey Hepburn. We cannot help but love her — unless I’m just speaking for myself — which easily could be the case.
Still, Truman Capote’s source novel was a very different animal and it could have become a very different film altogether with Marilyn Monroe initially slotted to star. But with her sweet smile and demure image, Hepburn brought something of herself to the role. Still sweet but more extroverted and out there.
It’s easy to peg this as her best performance because it does have so much character and her wardrobe by Givenchy becomes a perfect extension of Holly Golightly. In every sequence, she’s impeccably dressed and even when she’s in her pajamas she looks ready for a night out on the town. But of course, with all of those nights on the town, she’s come to her conclusions about men. They’re all either “rats” or “super rats” only looking out for themselves.
Holly winds up with her cat and the man who wants to love her, perhaps even the man that she deserves. Anyways he’s probably the closest thing she can achieve in the cinematic landscape at hand. However, it is unfortunate that Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not quite the film that Audrey Hepburn deserved. It rightfully so galvanized her iconic status for the ensuing generations. It’s only a shame that the film is not a greater achievement than it is, settling instead to be a generally light and diverting romcom from Blake Edwards.
But do yourself a favor and listen to Moon River again and again on repeat. The version doesn’t matter too much whether Mancini, Andy Williams or Hepburn herself. It’s one of the most remarkably mellifluous tunes of all time and truly worthy of Audrey Hepburn’s performance in this one.