Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Pressure Cooker Explodes

Holly Golightly, the Audrey Hepburn character in Breakfast at Tiffany's, is another icon of Hollywood. Originally created in a story by Truman Capote, the film's Holly represents a special sort of free spirit: she refuses to be owned by any man or even by her cat. She is beautifully dressed by Givenchy, super-perfectly coiffed in a frosted up-do, and superbly confident most of the time, despite the fact that she makes a living as a party girl, escort, bearer of messages from a mafia don in Sing Sing, and maybe even as a sex worker before the term was in common use for that type of thing. Also, she's remarkably thin and speaks a very posh version of the English language.

In the course of the film we learn that like Hepburn's other famous character Eliza Doolittle, Holly Golightly started with a very not-posh accent. She was tutored from hillbilly to posh by a movie mogul, who wanted her to be a film star. He also organized the parties at her apartment and maybe helped her meet the men she escorted. Audrey Hepburn lovers may avert their eyes from this possibility and from other not-so-nice aspects of the characters.

Of course Holly Golightly never really has breakfast at Tiffany's, her favorite respite from her rough life in New York, except in the credits where, wearing an elegant evening gown at dawn, she looks through the windows of the closed store while eating a take-out roll and coffee -- a scene that really just seems designed to explain the title and nothing else. This is a clue to something that I find very distressing about the movie: I felt as if we were seeing a character with potential to be very interesting. But our view is through a Hollywood filter that tried to make all the conflicting values seem perfectly reasonable. Hepburn plays the role as if she was simply a well-dressed socialite (that's the word that's often used in describing the film) -- not a person in a rather ambiguous situation, desperate for money and willing to do what it takes to become rich without any real self-awareness.

In fact, the easiest way to watch the movie may be to love love love seeing Audrey Hepburn in one beautiful fashion creation after another, and to see it as a fashion show with a slightly difficult plot line. And to ignore the disconnect between the occasional slapstick (of the sort you see in director Blake Edwards' other films) and Hepburn's depiction of the Holly's cool and serious desperation. Hepburn's acting lacks the humor of Marilyn Monroe's portrayal of various gold digger characters made memorable by her great sense of timing. Hepburn really plays it as a fashion show.

I recalled having read Capote's original story years ago, and couldn't resist rereading it to compare to the film. Both the differences and the similarities astound me: the best parts of the dialog come straight from Capote. The really terrible parts of the film -- like the memorably vulgar racist caricature of a Japanese man played by Mickey Rooney -- are mainly Hollywood inventions. Some parts are exaggerated or just altered to be less good, like the part about Holly's cat. Here's a passage about the cat in Capote's original, which is close to the film but just a bit more subtle:
She was still hugging the cat. "Poor slob," she said, tickling his head, "poor slob without a name. It's a little inconvenient, his not having a name. But I haven't any right to give him one: he'll have to wait until he belongs to somebody. We just sort of took up by the river one day, we don't belong to each other: he's an independent, and so am I. I don't want to own anything until I know I've found the place where me and things belong together. I'm not quite sure where that is just yet. But I know what it's like." She smiled, and let the cat drop to the floor. "It's like Tiffany's," she said. "Not that I give a hoot about jewelry. Diamonds, yes. But it's tacky to wear diamonds before you're forty; and even that's risky. They only look right on the really old girls. Maria Ouspenskaya. Wrinkles and bones, white hair and diamonds: I can't wait. But that's not why I'm mad about Tiffany's. Listen. You know those days when you've got the mean reds?" 
"Same as the blues?" 
"No," she said slowly. "No, the blues are because you're getting fat or maybe it's been raining too long. You're sad, that's all. But the mean reds are horrible. You're afraid and you sweat like hell, but you don't know what you're afraid of. Except something bad is going to happen, only you don't know what it is. You've had that feeling?" ...
Above all, the Capote story has a voice: it is narrated by Paul, a writer who lives upstairs from Holly Golightly, and who discovers over time just who she is and pretty much what makes her tick. He's not quite an outside observer, but close to that, and the story he tells is dark, not comic. In contrast the film makes him a cute love interest, sort of an airhead, and sometimes a source of comedy. The film, in my opinion, doesn't have a voice, and the Hollywood exaggerations dull even the few places where Capote's imagination could have shone. The film's stereotypes of women, non-whites, Texas hillbillies, and various others, give me the impression that the Hollywood interpretation really doesn't apprehend what Capote was doing. Though he also indulged in a few stereotypes, I admit.

This is a very old film (released 1961; Capote's story was published 1958) and I'm sure lots of detailed comparisons and analyses have been made, so I'll just make a few more comparisons using screen shots from the film.

In the film, Holly cooks for the writer upstairs. He's mostly just an observer or a sympathetic shoulder to cry on in the story.
Holly Golightly isn't much of a house wife in the film, just a playgirl or escort or whatever. In the film, she has a big melt-down when her brother dies, but then she moves on. In the story, she spends months as a subdued character, settling down with a South American diplomat, who moves into her apartment. And she really cooks for him. The passage in the story which I think inspired the grotesque scene above:
A keen sudden un-Holly-like enthusiasm for homemaking resulted in several un-Holly-like purchases: at a ParkeBernet auction she acquired a stag-at-bay hunting tapestry and, from the William Randolph Hearst estate, a gloomy pair of Gothic "easy" chairs; she bought the complete Modern Library, shelves of classical records, innumerable. Metropolitan Museum reproductions (including a statue of a Chinese cat that her own cat hated and hissed at and ultimately broke), a Waring mixer and a pressure cooker and a library of cook books. She spent whole hausfrau afternoons slopping about in the sweatbox of her midget kitchen: "José says I'm better than the Colony. Really, who would have dreamed I had such a great natural talent? A month ago I couldn't scramble eggs." And still couldn't, for that matter. Simple dishes, steak, a proper salad, were beyond her. Instead, she fed José, and occasionally myself, outré soups (brandied black terrapin 19 poured into avocado shells) Nero-ish novelties (roasted pheasant stuffed with pomegranates and persimmons) and other dubious innovations (chicken and saffron rice served with a chocolate sauce: "An East Indian classic, my dear.") Wartime sugar and cream rationing [the original story is set in 1943, the film in around 1960] restricted her imagination when it came to sweets -- nevertheless, she once managed something called Tobacco Tapioca: best not describe it. 
In the film, Paul, the cute writer from upstairs takes her to the NY Public Library and explains the card catalog.
In the story, she goes to the library on her own and he watches her reading.
For a very good summary of what keeps the film popular, especially with young adult women now, I recommend this article in Glamor magazine: "3 Breakfast at Tiffany's Problems No One Ever Talks About" by Elizabeth Logan, December, 2016. She says the reputation of the film as a fashion showcase for a very thin and well-dressed woman may be all that many of its fans really notice. But she points to the following problems that they ignore: that Holly Golightly is a criminal and a call girl; that Paul is a kept man with an older woman who gives him money, and that the film is racist (the Mickey Rooney character). By the way -- the distasteful part about the older woman is in the movie only: NOT in the original story!

Well, my project to watch classic movies continues. I consider this one to be highly overrated.

2 comments:

Beth F said...

Not all movies hold up to modern scrutiny.

Judee@gluten Free A-Z Blog said...

I have to watch it- Can you believe that I've never seen it..