Dipping again into the history of the now-controversial Audrey Hepburn classic.
When you think of Audrey Hepburn, you probably picture her in an LBD (little black dress), bedecked with a string of pearls, an oversized cigarette perched on her outstretched hand.
That is, actually, not Audrey Hepburn. That is Holly Golightly, the lead character Hepburn plays in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which was released last month back in 1961. Perhaps Hepburn’s iconic character, Holly Golightly is usually the element of that film we remember the most right now.
Based on a Truman Capote novella of the same name, Breakfast at Tiffany’s introduced the movie-going public to Holly Golightly, who for a fee converses with and accompanies men—what Capote in a 1968 interview with Playboy called an “American [geisha].” The new tenant at the building Hepburn’s character lives in is Paul Varjak (George Peppard), a writer financially supported by and sexually involved with a wealthy married woman (Patricia Neal). From there, of course, the romance is to ensue.
Embarking on the project
When Paramount greenlighted it as a film, Capote’s novella underwent heavy modifications, notably the lightening of Holly Golightly’s character. Capote agreed with these changes, saying that the film, rather than an adaptation of his story, was more of an original work.
For the part of Capote’s leading woman, the studio considered several actresses such as Shirley MacLaine—as well as Marilyn Monroe, whom Capote preferred. When Hepburn was given the role, she hesitated to accept it, under the impression that it was better suited to more outgoing personalities and actresses of a higher caliber than she considered herself to be. It was the film’s director, Blake Edwards, who succeeded in persuading her to portray the female lead since he was the kind of director who encouraged actors to play their parts by ear. Nevertheless, Hepburn suffered anxiety and nurtured second thoughts about her choice to participate in the film.
The film’s reception
The movie became a commercial hit, with Hepburn’s performance praised by critics and her Givenchy-created LBD looks achieving iconicness over time. At the Academy Awards, Hepburn received a nomination for Best Actress and the film for Best Screenplay.
However, it was the film’s song Moon River (melody by Henry Mancini and lyrics by Johnny Mercer)—which studio heads had originally wanted to be taken out, a decision not followed due to Hepburn’s insistence that the song be included—that won Best Song. Mancini, who composed the film’s soundtrack, also won Best Music.
The blot in the landscape
But we can’t talk about Breakfast at Tiffany’s without talking about the factor that has tarnished the film over the decades: Mickey Rooney’s depiction of Holly Golightly’s landlord, Mr. Yunioshi. Performed in yellowface, the part is a racist portrayal of an Asian man, a bucktoothed cartoon character meant to elicit laughter from the audience. Upon the film’s release, James Powers of The Hollywood Reporter wrote, “Mickey Rooney gives his customary all to the part of a Japanese photographer, but the role is a caricature and will be offensive to many.”
That declaration has proven true, given the furor the movie keeps receiving in its public screenings. Paramount admitted to the film’s racism and, for their Centennial Collection edition, they added Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective, a documentary that shows Asian American personalities discussing Hollywood’s history of problematically portraying racial minorities.
Rooney, who died in 2014, stood up for his performance but, in the end, came to feel remorse about it. He said that, had he perceived the outrage it would cause, he would not have taken on the role.
Despite that glaring flaw, there are many who still consider Breakfast at Tiffany’s a classic of the Hepburn canon. Whether its bewitching lead actress would continue to enthrall us and future generations in spite of the racism—that is something, perhaps, we’ll have to see.
Banner photo via Wikimedia Commons.