Reviews of Classic Movies: 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'


By now you’re probably accustomed to hearing film writers complain about classic films that are targeted for remakes and sequels. Most recently, the remake of Hitchcock’s The Birds gained some traction, and I don’t doubt that there’s a number of similar projects in the pipeline.

But if anyone ever finds a way to ban remakes for certain classic films, I’d like to nominate Breakfast at Tiffany’s for inclusion on the list. Given the surprisingly dark undertones of the film (and that the original Truman Capote novella is even darker), a remake would only over-emphasize the grittier aspects of the story, in an effort to seem more modern and provocative.

And that’s exactly the opposite of why Tiffany’s is such a beloved film: it stubbornly refuses to be dragged down by the questionable behaviour of its characters. In the 52 years since its release, the film is a cinematic icon, popping up all over the place in “greatest movies” lists and highlights reels.

To be clear: I’m still not sure how I feel about the movie. There is certainly a lot to love about Breakfast at Tiffany’s, especially Audrey Hepburn’s performance as Holly Golightly and the vivid depiction of New York in the early 1960s. There are points, however, where I find myself wondering whether the film could have achieved truly essential status (on the level of Lawrence of Arabia or some of Hitchcock’s best films) with a few subtle changes, and one major difference.

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly and George Peppard as Paul Varjak.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s follows Holly, a charming, ambitious New York socialite, as she tries to cement herself in the world of high society. At the same time, she downplays her main sources of income: working as a call girl and as a messenger for the Mafia. She also tries to hide her past as a poor farmer’s wife in Texas, a backstory that comes to light as she becomes friends with Paul Varjak (George Peppard), her neighbour (and as it happens, also a part-time gigolo).

Modern viewers watching the film for the first time would find it almost impossible not to be taken with Hepburn’s Holly. She’s an untameable spirit who glides through life, fiercely protective of her freedom and yet constantly in pursuit of rich men who would likely put her in a cage. Even so, Holly’s avoidance of her real occupation approaches the pathological at times – more than once, I found myself almost frustrated with her inability to be affected by her situation.

This is one of the reasons I struggle with my reaction to the movie. Perhaps I was merely reacting in the way that Paul does in the taxi scene at the end of the film: still confounded by the mystery of Holly, wondering how her mind works. And yet, I’m fairly sure that showing Holly giving in to the pressure (maybe with a breakdown on her favourite fire escape) would have been the wrong thing to do.

Mickey Rooney as Holly's upstairs neighbour, Mr. Yunioshi.

Aside from Holly's eccentricities, I also can’t ignore the depiction of Holly’s upstairs neighbour Mr. Yunioshi, played by Mikey Rooney in one of the most awful racial stereotypes captured on film. Try as I might to pass off Rooney’s performance as an unfortunate sign of the times, Yunioshi’s scenes are so loud and obvious that they almost feel grafted on from some World War II cartoon. Correcting these sections would be the only service a Tiffany’s remake could perform.

Just like its central character, Breakfast at Tiffany’s marches on, seemingly unafraid of what people think. There is darkness under the surface, and yet it can easily go unacknowledged unless you dig it up. Maybe it remains a classic today not because of the undeniable awe of the audience (as with epic adventure films), but because we’re left constantly wondering about how to react, like the characters who cross through Holly’s life.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s gets three stars out of four.

Three Stars

Have you seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s? What did you think? Is the film too charming to criticize? Or does it occasionally confound you? Join the discussion in the comments section below, and if you liked this classic movie review, share it with your friends and followers!