The Case for Remaking Breakfast at Tiffany’s
For a while now, I’ve had an ongoing text thread with friends of mine where we play the daily internet movie games, like Framed and Movie Grid. Framed in particular ends up being a fun game to play with others because, even when none of us can guess what the day’s movie is, it’s rarely ever anything so obscure that it doesn’t spark some kind of conversation for the group. An especially interesting one to me from a little while ago was Blake Edwards’ 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s a film with a peculiar kind of stature. It features one of the more iconic performances ever put on film in Audrey Hepburn’s turn as Holly Golightly, while also being a film that hardly ever seems to get screened or discussed anymore because it also includes one of the most egregious instances of yellow face you’ll ever see, with Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr. Yunioshi. Though the film’s seemingly growing obscurity may be deserved, it is a shame because of how much I think the worthwhile parts of the film and its story still have to offer audiences.
One of the more enduring images of the 60’s film is a 31-year-old Hepburn from this film: her hair up, wearing the definitive little black dress, bejeweled, and wielding her foot-long cigarette holder. I saw more than a few people dressed as her just this past Halloween. And yet, I don’t know what fraction of people who know that image could tell you anything about the film's plot. This iconic image is much better known as representing Audrey Hepburn than it is for her character, Holly Golightly. And yet, it’s hard to recommend to such people that they go back and watch this film, because Rooney’s performance isn’t just racist through a modern lens, it ought to have been seen as out of bounds even for the time. The performance also isn’t something that pops up just once that you can fast forward through but rather is a “running gag” that shows up repeatedly throughout the film.
I’ve talked to people on both sides of the issue. Some folks have never made it past Rooney’s first appearance, and some folks have been watching the film for so long that they have gotten used to living with Rooney’s scenes as the cost of getting to enjoy the rest of one of their favorite films. I can see how Breakfast at Tiffany’s could be someone’s favorite film, too. Beyond Hepburn’s performance, she has spectacular chemistry with her co-star, George Peppard, as Paul Varjak, the aspiring novelist who has just moved in upstairs from Holly and reminds her of her brother Fred. Blake Edwards' direction sparkles at times, particularly in the party scenes in Holly’s apartment and during Holly and Paul’s day of new adventures in the city. Henry Mancini’s score is also an endless pleasure, deservedly winning Oscars for Best Score and Best Original Song, “Moon River.” All that said, because of Rooney’s performance, it’s still a film I can never really feel comfortable recommending; So, I’ve concluded that it’s time to remake Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Remakes are a dicey proposition, especially with films that are regarded as classics. It’s generally going to be ill-advised to try to remake some beloved favorite with an enduring legacy, like Singing in the Rain or It’s a Wonderful Life. But, as we recently saw with Spielberg and Kushner’s update of West Side Story, even an accepted classic can be reinvigorated in the right hands. I’m especially keen on the idea of a remake of Breakfast at Tiffany’s because I’ve always been more fond of Truman Capote’s original novella than the film it was based on anyway, and the story is one that, if told faithfully, may have even more salience now than when the film was made.
The film and the novel manage to largely depict the same events while also telling fundamentally different stories. The film, with its happy ending, is something of a romantic comedy. With this framing, it makes sense that it was one of the touchstones when Nathan Rabin was first outlining the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Set in the mid-20th century, a young writer, notably unnamed in the novella, moves into a building in New York City, where he comes into contact with his vivacious and charismatic upstairs neighbor, Holly Golightly. The nature of Holly’s life is ambiguous in both the film and novella, but she supports herself on the gifts and money she gets from socializing with men, and from money she is paid to make weekly visits to a former crime boss in Sing Sing. While much of Holly’s life is shaped by men pursuing her, she is the one who interjects herself into her neighbor’s life one night when she comes down the fire escape to get away from a bothersome man she had brought home to her apartment that night. She’s somewhat taken with her neighbor because of how much he reminds her of her beloved brother Fred, and she even takes to calling him ‘Fred’ for most of the rest of the story.
The handling of this connection between Holly’s neighbor and her brother marks what might be the biggest point of departure between the film and the novella. In both, it’s this connection that allows Holly to be more vulnerable with her neighbor than she is with others, particularly other men. But, while in the film, this connection is the seed of the romantic tension between them, in the novella, this is what allows Holly to give her neighbor access to her life in a way she wouldn’t for all the men that are sexually interested in her. In the novella, she calls her neighbor by her brother's name and singles him out as what she hopes is a safe harbor, something she is greatly in need of as she’s trying to make a way for herself in the world.
The other most significant change between the novella and the film is never made explicit, but there is a very apparent difference in Holly’s age. Audrey Hepburn was 31 when she played Holly Golightly, while the character is only 19 in the novella. That difference has always underlined for me the degree to which men’s relationship towards the young Holly of the novella was more overtly predatory.
We learn the same backstory for Holly in both the film and the novella. Her real name is Lulamae Barnes. She and her brother Fred were orphans who had run away from cruel foster parents. They end up surviving in part because when they are caught stealing from the farm of a local veterinarian, named Doc Golightly, he takes pity on them and brings them into his home. At the time, Lulamae was only 13. She would be 14 when Doc married her, making her the mother to his 4 children.
Later, when talking about this with Fred, after Doc finds her in New York and tries to talk her into coming back home, she doesn’t look back with any regret about her time as a child bride but recognizes it wasn’t a real marriage. She did love Doc, and in the novella even sleeps with him again before being sent back to Texas. But she ran away because it wasn’t the life she wanted. This pattern would repeat in LA where she would be taken in by another older man, O.J. Berman, a talent agent who wanted to turn her into a movie star. It’s in running away from that life that she finds herself in NY.
Holly Golightly who is only 19 wears these experiences differently than the 31-year-old Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn’s Holly is chic, sophisticated, and self-assured. This Holly is the one that fits the mold of Rabin’s original idea of the manic pixie dream girl. She confidently lets herself in through the window of her sensitive writer neighbor, she assuredly presents him with a different worldview than the one he’s known, and she coaxes him into new adventurous experiences, before ultimately settling down with him for a happily ever after. In the novella, not only do they not wind up together, but much of the point of the story is that, despite her numerous messy shortcomings, Holly remains fiercely, maybe pathologically, independent, despite the many efforts of the men in her life to put her into particular boxes or social cages.
The very framing device of the novella is that Holly’s story is explicitly told through the male gaze. The character that Mickey Rooney plays in the film is actually important to the novella, because Holly’s upstairs neighbor, I.Y. Yunioshi, is a photographer who regularly travels internationally on assignment, and it’s a photograph that he takes that sparks the narrator to tell the story. Yunioshi, while traveling in Africa, is shown a small carved idol of a woman’s head that looks so much like his former neighbor, Miss Golightly, that he takes a picture of it, and sends it back to a barkeep in NY that shows it to our narrator. So, at this point, everything in the story we’re about to read has already happened, and Holly is long gone. In the novella, this isn’t the love story the film makes it out to be, but rather a story about a barkeep and unnamed writer hung up on the literal graven image of a woman they loved, who left them behind on her way to bigger and better things. For all the strengths of the original film, it’s themes and ideas like these that I would love to see a new film explore.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.