‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (1961) Review

When writer Paul Varjak (George Peppard) moves into a Manhattan apartment building paid for by his married lover, he meets his new neighbor, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn). Holly is an escort for wealthy men in an attempt to save up enough money to take care of her brother Fred when he returns home from the army. The two strike up a unique friendship that begins to blossom into something more, but the two face a variety of obstacles that threatens to derail any chance they have at happiness.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. I understand that this was 1961 and racial humor was more “acceptable” back then, but the casting of Mickey Rooney as Holly’s landlord, Mr. Yunioshi, was mindboggling. The yellow-face, the prosthetic teeth, and the exaggerated, horrible accent is nothing more than a cringe-worthy caricature of a Japanese man. I read an article where producer Richard Shepherd wanted to recast Rooney with an actor of Japanese ethnicity, but director Blake Edwards refused. Later, Edwards admitted his regret in casting Rooney but lamented there was nothing to be done about it now. It’s really a shame too because if the film had cast a Japanese actor, or had done away with the role of Mr. Yunioshi all together, this might have been a near-perfect movie.

Unfortunately, every time Yunioshi appeared on screen I felt taken completely out of the experience, finding myself watching a painfully unfunny performance of a racial stereotype instead. I understand they were going for a bit of obvious comedic relief, but I didn’t feel as though Breakfast at Tiffany’s needed it. Hepburn was delightfully funny all on her own, so Yunioshi felt unnecessary and completely out of place.

That being said, while the movie has some other, minor flaws, I did enjoy it. There is a ridiculously fun party scene and a lot of fabulous dialogue, not to mention a really gorgeous score. Hepburn was radiant on screen and truly delightful to watch. Holly Golightly may not be the first quirky, free spirit ever to grace the big screen, but she’s certainly one of the most memorable. Having run away from her Southern, small-town life, she dreams of bigger and better things, making a name for herself in New York. Holly is charming without much of a filter, but she’s also guarded, keeping the more vulnerable parts of herself hidden from those around her. As another character points out, “She is a phony. But she isn’t a phony because she’s a real phony. You know why? Because she honestly believes all this phony junk that she believes.” Holly is a survivor, and she seems perfectly comfortable doing whatever it takes to get what she needs, even if that means becoming an escort, or marrying a wealthy man for financial stability and having the money to take care of her brother, Fred.

I’m sure there have been countless essays written on Holly Golightly, and whether or not she is worthy of becoming such a feminist icon, so I’m not going to go into all of that here. Instead, I’m just going to say that Holly was the most interesting character in the entire film, with Cat perhaps being a close second. Hepburn was just magnificent in the role, giving Holly such depth and emotion, and your eye is drawn to her in every scene she shares.

I wish I could say the same about Paul. George Peppard is a handsome fellow, yes, but fairly bland, only made semi-interesting by playing the exasperated straight man to Hepburn’s carefree, joyful Holly. They had some decent chemistry, but their romance was not the most appealing part of the movie for me. Honestly, it was a little creepy that Holly fell in love with him after pointing out that he resembled her brother, and insisted on calling him Fred for most of the movie. I suppose that’s something to think about. Ahem.

The movie itself is shot beautifully. I was hooked from the very first scene of Holly emerging from a taxi to eat her breakfast while gazing into Tiffany’s window display as the sun rose in the distance, to the very end where Paul and Holly embrace in the rain with poor, soaked Cat snuggled between them. I have a feeling when I look back on this film, I’ll probably remember how gorgeous those moments looked rather than the moments themselves. I could have done without Yunioshi, and perhaps a more captivating leading man, but Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a lovely, witty film with an iconic heroine and a wonderful performance by Hepburn.