Breakfast at Tiffany's - Centennial Collection Review

Based on the Truman Capote novella of the same name, Breakfast at Tiffany's was intended to star Marilyn Monroe in the role of Holly Golightly and, despite the iconic status Audrey Hepburn's wardrobe has attained, it's a character for which she would have been perfect. Like Holly Golightly, Marilyn Monroe was a reinvention that constantly struggled with a dependency on men whose interests were largely singular and superficial. They both used popularity to mask deeply unhappy souls who wished for more, but were afraid of straying too far from an image. Both also seemed unsure about who they truly were beneath the facade, though only one could have the Hollywood ending. For whatever reason, and to Capote's disapproval, Hepburn ended up with the ill-fitting role and it's become perhaps her most famous in the four-plus decades since the film's 1961 release. The odd thing is that it's not a particularly great picture, eking by more on reputation and snapshots than actual merit.

John Frankenheimer, a future prince of the paranoia-laced thriller, was originally hired to direct Breakfast at Tiffany's, and it's certainly interesting to imagine a Frankenheimer and Monroe collaboration here instead of the final product. The director's flirtation did at least result in a future teaming with screenwriter George Axelrod on The Manchurian Candidate the following year. Blake Edwards was instead brought in to helm the picture, kicking off a nice run that included Days of Wine and Roses, The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark in the following three years. Frankly, I'd take any of those over Breakfast because each features a dynamism absent from this film. There is no conflict to elicit our sympathies, no mystery to be distracted by while the madness furthers the plot. Edwards worked well with madness and chaos, but Breakfast shows only mild flashes of any zigzags lurking amid the predictability, most notably in the wild cocktail party scene where the film teases with signs of life.

The rest fits within the movie's reputation and the line of accessories inspired by the film more than making us believe these crazy kids should end up together to sew each other's wounds. We, of course, see none of the stitches or the surgery, much less the aftermath, but that part of the instructional manual has never been Hollywood's forte. With this being 1961, it's perhaps unsurprising, if no less disappointing, that the issue of Holly Golightly's source of income is neatly glossed over to such a degree that I'd guess many repeat viewers are unaware that she's a high class prostitute. Capote's novella is apparently more clear, but the film is satisfied with hints and winks and insinuations, none of which are entirely obvious. If you're predisposed for the idea, the initial scene of Holly being dropped off in front of the jewelry store Tiffany & Co. very early in the morning might be the first giveaway. It's certainly one of the more poignant moments in the film - that of an attractive woman selling herself in exchange for a life unenjoyed.

Where Edwards' film falters is in trying to redeem a character simply based on her unnamed profession, her loneliness, and her portrayer. There are too many detours that attempt to build on Holly's life, things like the introduction of Buddy Ebsen as her estranged/annulled husband and the persistent desire to capture a wealthy husband, all of which play more as story diversions than developmental attributes. Every turn is a safe one, intended to elicit sympathy for reasons unknown, and the through line is so calculated as to render any feeling of reality insincere. Hepburn's trio of earlier Paramount "Cinderella films" - Roman Holiday, Sabrina, and Funny Face - may be steeped obviously in fantasy, but they still pale in artificiality to Breakfast at Tiffany's. The film simply abandons any sense of truth, to its detriment I believe, and asks the audience to cheer a character with few positives. An implied humanity could be attached to her, as might a sense of naivety, but Holly is nonetheless a fairly loathsome figure, not far removed from the Paris Hiltons of modern day.

Her counterpart in George Peppard's Paul Varjak, also known as Fred, scores only somewhat better, though he may be the more interesting of the two. The silent humiliation Paul realises from Patricia Neal's benefaction by way of implied sex is portrayed as utterly a male instinct. He is, of course, in much the same boat as Holly, but it's somehow less acceptable for a man to benefit from being kept than a woman. The film appears poised to address this issue, but never really does. It's possibly too afraid of blatantly revealing Holly's profession. This is a mistake, though, because Paul isn't like Holly. He's a writer, apparently talented and looking for inspiration, whereas she's a nothing. Her goal is to land a rich husband. She exhibits no skills aside from warbling a single-octave version of the Oscar-winning "Moon River" from her fire escape. Had Marilyn Monroe played the role then perhaps we could have located a truly fragile and vulnerable figure who might've benefited from the male salvation. Hepburn is simply wrong for this part, though, and she displays neither the broken spirit nor the depth of being able to understand such a concept. It's nearly impossible to imagine Audrey Hepburn not landing on her feet. The contrast is Monroe and the equal impossibility of trying to picture her anywhere other than off the mark.

For Breakfast at Tiffany's to truly succeed in its intentions, the Holly Golightly character must be more believable as a fractured spirit who actually wants Peppard's Paul. Neither is particularly likable when you take away big hats and big sunglasses. We can get past that if necessary, but it's more difficult to ignore the idea that this romance that never was should somehow be the final answer to a film where foreshadowing is limited to stealing cartoon masks from a dime store. If the entanglement between Holly and Paul lacks believability and the viewer's endorsement then the film does little more than fail. Such a violently offensive character as Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi contributes an infinite amount of bad will on its own. Trying to work around that horribly misguided idea while still positioning the film as a romance between two privileged undesirables reeks a tad sour. Rooney's performance is itself one of the absolute most despicable things Hollywood has ever emitted. Every time he appears on screen the viewer's claws should emerge.

And, yet, the appeal of Breakfast at Tiffany's throughout the years is undeniable. It presents the question of whether a classic is deserving of remaining so simply because of its enduring popularity. Reevaluating the film can be a sobering experience if you're not particularly inclined in the direction of nostalgia and Audrey Hepburn moments. I found the "Moon River" sequence completely unnecessary both from a narrative standpoint and as an attempt to endear the viewer to Hepburn's character. The central relationship is stretched thin. And the outfits should hardly make the movie. More impressive was the party sequence in Holly's too-spacious apartment, which revealed some of the phoniness (the eyepatch guy) and a great deal of the ridiculousness inherent to the socialite's world. The trip to Tiffany's was also a particular highlight, serving to humanise both of the main characters more than any other portion of the film. Even so, Breakfast at Tiffany's seems heavily dated and ripe for reevaluation. It's no longer daring, naughty or terribly interesting, and lacks the importance of a human element to guide us through the morass. The film is overly dramatic, there's too much "Moon River" and the cat would've probably been better without them.

The Discs

Released as part of the Paramount Centennial Collection at the same time as Funny Face, Breakfast at Tiffany's occupies spine number 5 in the series and gets what is by now the expected treatment. Two discs are found with a thin booklet inside the keepcase and then slid into a slipcover. The artwork on the keepcase loses the thick black borders.

An Anniversary Edition release was put out not even three years ago at a lower retail price. That transfer seems to be roughly the same as this one, with the added benefit here of a dual-layered disc containing just the film and a commentary. Yet, there's still some noise present in addition to the fairly natural grain. The progressive transfer is presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16:9 television sets. Colours generally look acceptable, sometimes vibrant and bright while more muted elsewhere. There's no significant damage and the print is quite clean. Funny Face is a few years older, but still has a superior transfer. It's sharper and shows greater detail. Breakfast at Tiffany's is not problematic, but shows no significant improvement over the previous release either

As with the Anniversary Edition, there's a bump in the audio options to an English Dolby Digital 5. 1 track, with an English restored mono included also. The main difference I noticed was in the music. The stereo version sounds strangely overdone and unnatural. "Moon River" is played over and over, and both it and the remaining score stand out as loud complements to the dialogue. I didn't notice any major hiss or crackle in the tracks. The dialogue is clear and easily understood. Dub and subtitle options are available in French and Spanish.

An audio commentary by producer Richard Shepherd, carried over from the Anniversary Edition, is the only extra on disc one. Shepherd sounds like a nice gentleman who's proud of his work. Unfortunately, he doesn't need the full length of the film to express his remembrances and much of his time ends up as silence. What he does say would seem to most please the grandparent contingent. There's not much of interest here aside from a continued distancing from the Mickey Rooney performance, even laying the blame at Blake Edwards' feet for insisting on using Rooney. Otherwise, comments are best described as appreciations with a smattering of production information. Like most every other participant in these Paramount Centennial Collection extra features, Shepherd remains under Audrey Hepburn's spell.

The rest of the special features are on a separate, single-layered disc and include everything from the Anniversary Edition plus a few new supplements. The older extras are all full frame 1.33:1 while the newer ones are 1.78:1 and enhanced for widescreen televisions. Everything is subtitled in English, French and Spanish. Here's the rundown:

"A Golightly Gathering" (20:25) - New for the Centennial Collection release, this is a too long reunion of cast members from the party scene, with the interview session doubling as a cocktail party. Except for gratuitous shots of cocktails, I'm not sure there's anything here that isn't also covered elsewhere on the DVD.

"Henry Mancini: More Than Music" (20:56) - Fans of Mancini will probably want to at least rent this disc, if possible, because this new featurette is a good one. It includes separate interviews with Mancini's widow, his son and his daughter, as well as a little home movie footage. Mancini's personal and professional sides are given equal time. "Moon River," unavoidably, also comes up.

"Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective" (17:29) - The last of the Breakfast-specific new extras, this may also be the most intriguing. Several Asian Americans initially discuss Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi before the attention turns to other Asian American characters in film, including The World of Suzie Wong and Mr. Sulu on Star Trek. Not only are the people interviewed fairly unforgiving of Rooney's performance, they seem to be just barely suppressing deep reservoirs of anger. And who could blame them, really. It's probably to Paramount's credit that this is included at all.

"The Making of a Classic" (16:12) - A carryover from the Anniversary Edition, much of the stories and remembrances are found elsewhere on this release, but the added participation of Blake Edwards makes for a worthwhile watch. Having Edwards speak is interesting enough, but hearing his uncertainty about George Peppard and his regret over casting Mickey Rooney elevates the piece above standard retrospective fare. Patricia Neal is also briefly heard from.

"It's So Audrey: A Style Icon" (8:14) - This is the same praise echoed across the other three Centennial Collection releases starring Audrey Hepburn. Nothing new here, plus it's also repeated from the Anniversary Edition.

"Behind the Gates: The Tour" (4:33) - These little bonus features so far included on all the Centennial Collections except for Funny Face are particular favourites of mine because they tend to highlight some aspect of the studio's impressive history. This installment lets a studio page drive us around the lot in a golf cart for a condensed version of the tour. It's too short, but completely fascinating.

"Brilliance in a Blue Box" (6:03) - Another little bit repeated from the Anniversary Edition, the focus here is completely on New York City's famous Tiffany & Co. jewelry store.

"Audrey's Letter to Tiffany" (2:29) - Tiffany & Co. design director John Loring shares the letter Audrey Hepburn sent the company in 1987 for its 150th anniversary book.

Original Theatrical Trailer (2:37)

Galleries - A collection of 77 stills in all, from Production (29), The Movie (26), and Publicity (22).

Booklet - Totaling 8 pages, though only 2 have text.

Final Thoughts

While my opinion on Breakfast at Tiffany's is that it hasn't aged well, the film's numerous fans may still wonder whether this new DVD version deserves their attention. The short answer is no. The previous Anniversary Edition is now out of print, but current owners of that disc should be aware that this Centennial Collection release doesn't significantly better the quality and only adds a small handful of bonus features, all of which are more curiosities than essentials. Rumblings of a forthcoming Blu-ray release might also give some potential buyers reason to pause.

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