The Siren is back at Nomad Widescreen this month with something the world probably does not need: a tribute to Breakfast at Tiffany's, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a Blu-Ray. The first part of her essay is concerned with the movie's flaws, chief among them being, it seems almost redundant to mention, Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi. The Siren deals with Yunioshi in the article, because one must, but here among her friends she'd like to offer a few more thoughts on Rooney himself.
One painful aspect of Rooney at Tiffany's is that for the broad public, it's by far his most famous role. That's a pity, because Rooney is still very much with us; he turned 91 on Sept. 23, and long may he thrive. Rooney's incredible career embraces everything from a series of silents, to the definitive screen Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, to his underrated musical work and many outings with Judy Garland, to a surprisingly varied film noir period. That last group of roles is written up here in an excellent piece at Noir City; the Siren saw The Strip this year and was struck by how good Rooney was at being depressive and dark, even in between jazz numbers. He's a consummate trooper, determined to give it his show-biz all whether he's having a heart-to-heart with Spencer Tracy in Boys Town or, in Drive a Crooked Road, he's proving Ryan Gosling isn't the only one who can drive a getaway car.
That is probably why, to this day, Rooney does not appear to understand what the big honking problem is with Mr. Yunioshi. From the actor's perspective, he was given a broadly farcical role and he played the everloving hell out of it, just like he was supposed to, and now everybody is on his case for not being Japanese (or even identifiably human, but let it go). It should also be reiterated that the director, Blake Edwards, bears the ultimate responsibility for Mr. Yunioshi. That's why, as hard as the character is to take, the Siren isn't inclined to berate Rooney for it. The Siren absolutely understands why Mr. Yunioshi pretty much ruins the movie for some viewers, whether or not they're Asian. But she herself pushes Yunioshi aside, to the same mental cubbyhole in which she puts some of Preston Sturges' African-American characters, and concentrates on the party, on the cat, and Audrey.
And so back to Breakfast:
Part of what makes a great comedy is the accretion of comic detail, and Edwards piles up the bits for us, as does the script by George Axelrod. The film’s been a touchstone for fashion lovers for decades, but chic as they are, the costumes in the movie still have comic effect, as in the absurdly large hat and Ray-Bans shrouding Hepburn’s delicate face, or (my favorite) Holly’s earplugs fitted with dangling baubles, like she’s wearing earrings to bed. The film is full of minor characters who sashay in, deliver a brilliant line or two, and depart, never to be seen again. Mag Wildwood (Dorothy Whitney), the model and aforementioned thumping bore: “You know what's gonna happen to you? I am gonna march you over to the zoo and feed you to the yak.” Sally Tomato (Alan Reed), the mob boss: “Snow flurries expected this weekend in New Orleans.” Even the Tiffany’s salesman, played by the unflappable John McGiver, looking at a Cracker Jack ring and saying with complete sincerity, “It gives one a feeling of solidarity, almost of continuity with the past. That sort of thing.” And of all the quoted and re-quoted lines in the movie, the one that sums up its appeal is delivered not by Holly Golightly, but by Martin Balsam’s O.J. Berman, playing Holly's would-be agent: “She’s a phony. But she's a real phony. You know why? Because she honestly believes all this phony junk she believes in.”
That swinging party in Holly's apartment, from Holly’s toga to Mag’s face-plant, is one of the most glorious mixtures of slapstick and sophistication ever filmed, worthy to be placed alongside other shindigs from Duck Soup, My Man Godfrey, and The Philadelphia Story. Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” theme is as good as Elmer Bernstein’s main melody from To Kill a Mockingbird for the purpose of making grown men nudge you in the theater to see if you’ve got a Kleenex in your purse.
Above all, there is Audrey Hepburn. Whether or not you care for this movie is very much dependent on whether you care for her, and I love her dearly indeed. Capote famously did not want Hepburn; he thought she was too genteel, preferring the up-front sensuality of Marilyn Monroe. He had a point. But, having admitted that it’s hard to believe Audrey Hepburn was ever Lula Mae Anybody, let’s also admit that most great stars don’t seem to have come from anywhere, except maybe the forehead of Zeus. And in every other respect, Hepburn nails the part. Her essential sweetness takes the edge off Holly’s avarice, as her face lights up at the sight of the “ninth richest man in America under 50.” Her lovely, overarticulated voice suggests a girl who’s role-playing so often she doesn’t know whether she’s “on” or “off.” Hepburn began as a dancer, and like her other good roles, Breakfast at Tiffany’s uses her ease with her body, as when she cries “Thursday? It can’t be, it’s too gruesome!” and gallops into action. One of the smartest things Edwards does is that opening, where Holly, still in last night’s evening gown, glides along the Tiffany’s windows with her coffee and bread. It’s defiantly literal, but it anchors every part of the character: her practicality and her whimsy, her materialism and her dreams.