The premise of Capote’s 1958 novella is exceedingly simple. The nameless narrator, a young male writer, receives a phone call from a former friend, and it’s through reconnecting with the former friend wherein the narrator realizes what a great story he has to tell about Holly Golightly, the girl who had been his neighbor just a few years prior. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a roughly 100-page character sketch about a girl who talks a big game but who is at her core exceptionally sad, lonely, and empty. Golightly likes to spend her time around socialites, around money, and she throws parties with the best of them. Her apartment lacks furnishing, and the only thing she keeps close to her is her cat. Each time the narrator attempts to forge communication with her and tries to get to her to open up, he is thwarted. Which is not to say he’s a hero in the story - he’s not. He pushes her too hard and he cares far too much about a girl who does not wish for that sort of relationship.
Nineteen-year-old Golightly is a complex character. She presents herself as anything by throwing these parties, by associating herself with wealth and luxury and fascination with little things. She does it even further through her job, which can best be described as a liaison among a bunch of men who are into drugs. Yes, there’s an air of intrigue about her, but she presents herself as simplistic because it is easiest. It’s the narrator who chips away at this facade though, as he continually pushes her to talk with him. To let him inside the cage she’s built for herself.
See, Golightly has built this world around her so she can distance herself not just from other people but so that she can distance herself from her worst enemy - herself. Her life. Where it looked like she was treating everyone around her as worthless, as artifice and throwaway, what the narrator learns about Golightly was that she was really treating herself as such. It was just easier to project upon those around her. This comes full circle with the story of the cat, Golightly’s one true possession. When she’s preparing to leave New York City, to leave the past she’s already ditched elsewhere, to leave the former marriage and children and responsibilities that show up to remind her that she is worth something to other people and to herself, Golightly dumps the cat in Spanish Harlem. Tells the cat it was a great run but no one belongs to anyone else and so now he has the chance to start fresh.
Just like her.
Capote’s novella is a character sketch, but it’s not just a character sketch of Golightly, but of the writer. The narrator is a writer, yet somehow Capote is able to take the narrator and make him a commentary on writing and on narration as craft, too. Here’s a character writing about a pained, removed, relationship-avoiding girl and as much as he tries to crack her open, she is beyond his control. As much as he wants to have a relationship with her and allow her to see her value and worth and her autonomy and her ability to be cared for and treated with respect, he is only the writer. He can only do so much for her. He can sprinkle his depiction of her with pretty words and descriptions - and this is a huge strength of the novella - but ultimately, Golightly is a character who has to play out her story the way her story is meant to be played out. He can only direct her so far. The rest is up to her... and to the reader.
In other words, Capote’s given us the writer’s experience with writing. With creating a character and a back story and a world. Then he lets it go. What’s masterful about how he does this is that he himself is never the actual narrator in the story -- he’s not the one writing Golightly’s story. He’s writing the story of the narrator who is then writing Golightly’s story.
As is the case with the bulk of film adaptations, Axelrod made the story his own. He borrowed a bit from the source material, but he made this story his own. Which makes sense because Capote didn’t write a story -- he wrote a character writing a character.
In this adaptation of the story, Paul (who Golightly calls Fred throughout because he reminds her of her “brother” Fred) meets Golightly near immediately. There’s not a passage of time, but rather, he runs into her as he moves into the apartment complex where she dwells. Paul is a writer, but he’s not writing Golightly’s story in the film; rather, he’s writing “novels” and “other things.” He’s also a kept man. And boy, who wouldn’t want to keep a man like that? He’s dreamy. Whenever he bats his eyes, the angels sing and the world opens up and all women just flock to him. Neal is really lucky in her role as his keeper - she has him on a leash. He’s all hers. I want it noted right now that Hepburn and Neal are only three years apart in age but boy, did Axelrod play up an age difference.
The film itself is not told through Paul’s point of view. We get a story about Paul. But really, that doesn’t matter; what does matter is that Golightly is the object of Paul’s affection. Because he’s so dreamy, he can just chase what it is he wants. Oh and does he try. He attends Golightly’s parties - where she is certainly engaged in the crowd, enamored with the wealth and glory that rubbing elbows with socialites brings - and he tells her on more than one occasion just how much he loves her and cares about her. He doesn’t want her to have the autonomy to chase the money (err... men) she wishes to. He keeps reminding her that, you know, there’s a really attractive man living right beneath your nose you can have.
Lucky for Paul, after enough pushing, Golightly changes her mind. She was wrong all along, silly girl. Maybe he was right for her and maybe he did know what was best for her.
Actually, no it’s not at all.
At the very beginning of the film, I felt like Hepburn was really channeling Capote’s character. There’s a genuine listlessness, and she plays it so well. But the minute Paul enters her life and starts to be the Man She Needs, suddenly Hepburn’s portrayal of the sad and lonely Golightly changes. (See what happens when the writer inserts himself in the character?)
During the pivotal party scene, where her apartment is littered with rich people and things, Golightly engages with her fellow attendees, and she’s an active part of the festivities.
The moment when Hepburn cuts ties with “brother” Fred and the life she left before moving to NYC, the emotions ring false. And while this is a clear moment of portraying just how phony she’s become (paging Holden Caulfield), the inconsistency with her character up to this point and the lack of development of this pretty important back story, Hepburn failed to advance her character. We know she’s going to run to Paul, and it was impossible for me to not sigh after this scene because after Fred leaves, Golightly gets drunk and becomes Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG). She transforms! She’s free from her past! She’s attractive! Watch her sparkle!
She never feeds her damn cat when he is hungry! DID SHE NOT HEAR HIM MEOWING? ALL HE WANTED WAS SOME FOOD!
I could go on about the ending and about how it’s the happily ever after that gets a crowd going and leaves viewers with a sense of hope about love. But it was so disingenuous to not just Capote’s story, but to the characters, too. Golightly goes from being the kind of character Capote envisioned into what it is society thinks that a woman should be. Or maybe that’s not fair - she becomes the romanticized idealized MPDG to Paul. And that he gets her to bend to his will and succumb to the realization that yeah, he was the love of her life and that she needs him? Man I love a satisfying ending like that. Particularly when it’s so true, that indeed, Golightly IS a woman who can be caged and protected by someone like Paul.
This is the total opposite of what Capote intended. TOTAL. OPPOSITE. His story ends by suggesting that no character can be colored by happily ever after, and yet, Axelrod has taken the story and done nothing but make it a happily ever after. He’s corralled the character who couldn’t be corralled. Which -- if you’re a screenwriter making an adaptation of a film, you have total control over storylines and melding it to be your own vision. But to take a storyline and drop it entirely on its head? Why then have a source material at all?
Let’s talk about a couple other minor quibbles I have: what about the amazing portrayal of the exotic in the film? It makes sense because Golightly is trying to be a socialite and an elite member of the NYC world that she would want to surround herself with Asians, with Brazilians, and she’d want to spend time at a dance club where she could then watch something foreign before her. But what the hell was this Mickey Rooney character?
This was incredibly uncomfortable to watch, and not just because it was sheerly racist. While the story took place in a time where that kind of portrayal might have been acceptable in society, the fact is, Mr. Yunioshi in the book is NOT the stereotypical Asian as he’s made to be in the film. In fact, he plays a bit of a bigger role in the book in that he tries, too, to engage with Golightly. He isn’t some insensitive neighbor working to bust up her fun - he actually wants her to, you know, live.
That he’s then just a throw away stereotype in the film is unfortunate.
There’s terrible pacing in the movie, and there’s an odd jump in passage of time that happens near the end, where we don’t know what had happened to Paul nor what happened to Golightly. But we know that Golightly is happy and is going to get married and Paul won’t let that happen. Blah blah blah, then they are together. Time apart only made their feelings stronger, you know.
Most importantly, I think what Axelrod’s film could have done with is much more Cat and much less Hep. Because did you see the acting by Cat? It was great! Not just the acting was impeccable, but the fact he was so horribly mistreated by Hepburn also merits some applause.
Then there is this moment in the film, and I let it speak for itself:
Does that mean Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a bad movie? No.
Does that mean Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not worth watching? No.
Does that mean Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a horrific adaptation that has nothing to do with the book and in fact contradicts the entire point of the book? Yep.
Even Capote thought the adaptation was pretty awful. According to Turner Classic Movies, this was his reaction:
"Even though Breakfast at Tiffany's was a success and nominated for five Academy Awards, the one person who was not happy with the film was author Truman Capote. He was outspoken in his disapproval of what had been done with his book. He was unhappy with everything: the tone, the casting, the director. He felt betrayed by Paramount. 'I had lots of offers for that book, from practically everybody,' he said, 'and I sold it to this group at Paramount because they promised things, they made a list of everything, and they didn't keep a single one.' Capote was unhappy with the casting. 'It was the most miscast film I've ever seen,' he said. 'Holly Golightly was real-a tough character, not an Audrey Hepburn type at all. The film became a mawkish valentine to New York City and Holly, and, as a result, was thin and pretty, whereas it should have been rich and ugly. It bore as much resemblance to my work as the Rockettes do to Ulanova.'
After the release of the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany's, author Truman Capote was very vocal about his disdain for the film, and especially the casting of Audrey Hepburn as Holly, a role that he hoped would go to his friend, Marilyn Monroe.
Truman Capote later said that he considered actress Jodie Foster the perfect person to play Holly Golightly as he originally wrote her."
Yeah, you know? Jodie Foster as Holly Golightly would have been THE RIGHT CHOICE. Not the light-on-her-feet, MPDG-playing Hepburn. And it’s not simply that she wasn’t the right choice for Golightly. It’s that her acting wasn’t even GOOD. It was inconsistent all over the place. Whether it’s her fault or Axelrod’s, she didn’t understand the character and that shines through in spades.
Okay, so. If you want a fantastic character sketch that showcases the furthest thing from a MPDG as possible, pick up Capote’s novella. It is dark, complicated, and utterly satisfying to think about. If you want a love story, watch Axelrod’s film. Just do not connect the two.
To round out this post, I’d like to remind you about this:
"Barely tolerable, I dare say. But not handsome enough to tempt me."
(From Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen and directed by Joe Wright in 2005)
We'd watch this, but only to make fun of it.
Kelly would like it to be known that she wishes she could give it 1.5 stars but that she rounded up "for the cat's sake."
What do you all think? Have you read the book? And what the heck was Mickey Rooney thinking with that?
Thanks for visiting, Kelly! Don't forget to visit her at her usual blogspace, Stacked and on twitter.