Film Discussion

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) – Rom-Com Rewind

The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.

There are so many things that come to mind regarding Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s. There’s the iconic image that opens the film where Audrey Hepburn’s character Holly Golightly (perhaps one of the greatest character names in all of the rom-com genre) walks past the titular store as ‘Moon River’ is crooned gently over the soundtrack. Then there’s the scene where Hepburn sings the song on the fire escape of her apartment; as radiant and gorgeous a moment as the genre has ever given us.

Maybe, just maybe (and yes, I’m giving away that I am a 90s child here) it’s the catchiness of one-hit-wonder Deep Blue Something’s song of the same name which still gets airplay on radio stations and music channels devoted to songs from previous decades. Or maybe it’s the film’s appearance during a pivotal moment in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.

Yes, I managed to get from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to a Bruce Lee biopic in a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-style move, but its inclusion in that movie perhaps gets at the reason why the film has become something of a problematic one. Available in the UK via Sky Cinema and Now TV, the film was one of several that had a disclaimer placed on it by the British cable giant about how the film reflects attitudes that are outdated. It’s not hard to see why.

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For all the film’s reputation as perhaps being the most Audrey Hepburn film imaginable, being both romantic and funny and culminating with one of the all-time great end kisses in the rain, it is perhaps the film’s portrayal of Japanese character Mr Yoniushi that makes one wince and remember the film in a less than favourable way.

Portrayed by Mickey Rooney, the actor appears in heavy prosthetics in order to appear ‘Japanese’ and everything about his every single scene plays as a racist stereotype that feels more like it walked in from some bizarre horror show than a beloved romantic comedy.

It’s Rooney’s appearance that somewhat sours how one feels about the movie, and it’s hard not to feel queasy about those scenes. They’re the reason why, on a rewatch, you go from remembering it fondly one moment to reacting in terror. It is the biggest shame about the film, and something that many involved in it have rightly expressed regret about.

The film is none more Hepburn visually and atmospherically, but its journey to the silver screen didn’t come easy. Original director John Frankenheimer was replaced with Blake Edwards, still two years away from launching The Pink Panther series of films. Adapted from Truman Capote’s novella of the same name, it was very clear to anyone who had read it that Capote was writing the character of Holly with Marilyn Monroe in mind.

Monroe was offered the chance to play the character but turned it down and took a leading role in The Misfits instead. Shirley MacLaine had also been approached, but she turned it down before Hepburn was offered and accepted, something Capote expressed vocal unhappiness about.

In the end, though, the film became perhaps the most visually famous one that Hepburn was associated with. The poster and promotional images associated with it, in which Hepburn wears a black Givenchy dress, are amongst some of the most famous promotional shots in film history. To watch the film and see Hepburn’s performance is to find yourself smitten with her. Or at least that was how I felt watching when I was younger, in a sea of classic films back when television broadcasts of movies prior to more recent ones were frequently to be found on BBC 2 or Channel 4 in afternoon timeslots.

Many have proclaimed Holly to be a prostitute, but the word is never used on screen, nor is it used in Capote’s novella. Capote maintained that she was not a prostitute but an ‘American Geisha’, which is perhaps in itself a problematic term that is ripe for further exploration.

Cast opposite the future A-Team leading man George Peppard, every scene in the film that doesn’t feature Rooney’s none more racist caricature is wonderful and fun, and the film has a classy veneer that is genuinely hard to resist. It’s an easy film to fall in love with…until Rooney appears.

It’s hard not to shake the uncomfortable levels of racism that comes from such a portrayal, and even Edwards and producer Richard Shepherd would express regret at the character. It’s a stain in an otherwise lovely movie, but even in an era when we’re reassessing the more problematic elements of past movies, everything about the character feels wrong in light of everything else going on within it.

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The character and his role goes against the comedic tone of everything else, and ventures too much into slapstick, in any event, almost destabilising the wittier and more romantic feel of every other scene. The presence of Rooney is so out of step with everything else in the film it would be like watching Notting Hill or Four Weddings and a Funeral and having Adam Sandler show up as his Waterboy character.

Maybe it’s one of those movies that we’re better off just letting exist in our memory, away from the racist caricature. Just letting our minds luxuriate in the vibe that comes from watching Hepburn in that Givenchy dress walking down Fifth Avenue as ‘Moon River’ plays over the soundtrack. It’s the purest expression of Hepburn’s screen persona ever put to film, even if the film itself is far from her greatest.

Arguably the best film she would make – the one that would finally pair her up with Cary Grant – was just around the corner.

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