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Film

'Breakfast at Tiffany's' at 60: A compelling yet outdated picture of Hollywood

@Russellisation

If the golden age of Hollywood could be defined by a single poster, the image of Audrey Hepburn biting down on a cigarette holder whilst donning a long black dress on the poster for Breakfast at Tiffany’s would likely be it.

An iconic role for the classic actor Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was released in 1961 to great critical and commercial acclaim, following the life of a naïve, eccentric young girl who falls in love with a struggling writer.

Adapted from the novel of the same name written by Truman Capote, this lightweight comedy from director Blake Edwards would become a sparkling jewel in Hollywood’s crown before dusk fell on the golden era towards the end of the 1960s. Selling the rights to the novel to Paramount studios, the enigmatic Truman Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the lead role of the bubbly Holly Golightly, with even screenwriter George Axelrod being asked to tailor the script for Monroe’s personality. 

Of course, Monroe never took the lead part, with Hepburn fatefully taking the role, much to the dislike of Capote, who stated in the biography Audrey Hepburn: “Paramount double-crossed me in every way and cast Audrey”.

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Tragically, Monroe would commit suicide just one year after the release of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, metaphorically sparking the end of Hollywood’s fantastical period of glory, with Hepburn taking over as the new leading lady of the industry. 

The image of Hepburn, complete with a cigarette holder and Manhattan sunglasses became one of Hollywood’s earliest pieces of commercial iconography, with her character also sparking new respect for female leads in the industry. Stating that her role was “the jazziest of my career” whilst also admitting: “I’m an introvert. Playing the extroverted girl was the hardest thing I ever did” in an interview with The New York Times, Hepburn embodied the spritely lead character Holly Golightly and was awarded an Oscar nomination for her efforts.

Whilst Breakfast at Tiffany’s certainly remains a cornerstone of early Hollywood success, signalling the start of a brand new era for the industry, there’s no doubt that it still possesses many of the issues that long-spiked early American cinema. Rife with misogyny and a particularly offensive portrayal of an elderly Japanese landlord, Mr. Yunioshi, played by Mickey Rooney.

Mentioning his regret at casting Rooney for the role, producer Richard Shepherd cited that it was the choice of director Blake Edwards to keep the actor. In the behind-the-scenes ‘making of’ the film for its 45th anniversary, Shepard repeatedly apologises for the casting, noting, “If we could just change Mickey Rooney, I’d be thrilled with the movie”. Meanwhile, director Blake Edwards stated: “Looking back, I wish I had never done it … and I would give anything to be able to recast it, but it’s there, and onward and upward”.

Like many films of the early Hollywood era, Breakfast at Tiffany’s indeed suffers from its outdated attitudes and approaches to gender profiling and ethnic groups, though this is an unfortunate truth of a bygone time. Look past such archaic views and Blake Edwards’ film remains a compelling classic, led by an iconic, timeless performance from the late Audrey Hepburn.

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