Throwback Thursday: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

Breakfast at Tiffany's movie poster

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Over the last forty-odd years of the 20th century, Breakfast at Tiffany’s became a cultural icon in many, if not all, of its various forms and incarnations.

Truman Capote's

First-edition cover of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” published by Random House (image source: Wikimedia).

The Ur-text is Truman Capote’s 1958 novella, which “first appeared in the November 1958 issue of Esquire,” according to Wikipedia.  It was published by Random House later that same year.  Capote’s narrative tells the story of Holly Golightly, a young woman from rural Texas who escapes to Manhattan and lives the life of a socialite looking for a “sugar daddy.”  The narrator, an author who is also a “kept man” whose expenses are paid by a wealthy, married society matron, tells the story of Holly’s search for happiness and his developing relationship with her.  In the novella, Holly calls him “Fred” because he reminds her of her brother, but Capote does not reveal his narrator’s real name.

Capote’s text was rewritten in 1961 as producer Blake Edwards‘ motion picture of the same name, which starred Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly and George Peppard as Fred, whose “real” name in the movie is Paul Varjak.  The screenplay by George Axelrod transposes the time frame of the action from the 1940s to 1960.

This film seems like it would have been considered edgy when it was originally released.  Holly is portrayed as a kind of prostitute (Capote preferred the term “American geisha”), while Fred is clearly a sort of gigolo.  In the style of the times, this is never made completely explicit in the dialogue.  However, there is the famous double entendre, posed as a question by O. J. Berman (Martin Balsam) to Fred in the scene in which Holly throws a party at her apartment:  “Is she or isn’t she?”  Berman completes the question with “. . . a phony” and remarks that he likes Holly because she is a “real phony,” but the original intention of the query hangs in the air as Holly flirts with Rusty Trawler (Stanley Adams), the “ninth richest man in America under 50.”  However, other sexual themes in the novella, such as homosexuality, do not appear in the film adaptation.

From an early 21st century perspective,  another aspect of the film that seems “out there” is the character of Mr. Yunioshi.  Mickey Rooney‘s portrayal is over-the-top, both in its unabashed racism and in its comedy.

Musical album cover art

Cover art from the recording of the musical version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (image source: Wikipedia).

The third incarnation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s was on Broadway, in the form of a musical, produced by David Merrick and directed by Joseph Anthony, that closed after only four performances, despite a rewrite of the book by Edward Albee (who tottered around campus when I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins).  The cast included included Mary Tyler Moore, Richard Chamberlain, Sally Kellerman, Larry Kert, and Priscilla Lopez.

A (very) distant fourth place goes to the 1995 song by Deep Blue Something.  I was amused to learn that students at the University of North Texas, where I’m taking graduate classes in education, formed this “one-hit wonder” band back in 1992, according to Wikipedia (otherwise known as “the fount of all knowledge”).  Like it or not, the popularity of this song thirty-five years after the publication of Capote’s novella and the release of Edwards’ movie point to the durability of Holly Golightly and her story in American popular culture.  The happy ending of the movie likely appeals to many viewers, but I prefer the novella’s conclusion, which clearly shows that nobody can keep a “wild thing” like Holly in a bird cage.