Sunday 5 May 2013

Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)

Cigarettes aren't cool, except this one.
For some reason, I always imagined this would be in monochrome.  It's a title I've often heard, and I know the famous poster, and I've been coasting on certain assumptions from that, it seems.  What did I know about this film before I saw it?  I had a notion it was a classic, probably a romance or romantic comedy, and that it was exceptionally classy.

So why, if it's clearly a good, cool, and well-regarded film, had it never been placed before me?  I couldn't think of anyone who claimed it as their favourite, or had enthused to me about it, as they do about other famous romances of the forties and fifties (decades to which I'd hitherto tied this work of the early sixties).  I believe the answer may be this: Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi.

Mickey Rooney as I.Y. Yunioshi
In the midst of a highly entertaining romantic comedy, Mr Yunioshi is a grotesque Japanese stereotype played outrageously and with great gusto by a yellowed-up Caucasian.  This, as we have learnt in more recent decades, is just not on.  Indeed, by the sixties, they really ought to have known better.  He's not in much of the film, but when he's on-screen he's certainly noticeable, and he's the second character to appear, so his outlandish role and performance are some of the first things to meet the unprepared viewer.

I'm tempted to go on saying 'if we ignore this unfortunate blemish, the film is great fun,' and so on, but I'm not sure casual racism is something we ought to ignore.  Now, I'm more liberal than some on the issue of blacking up, yellowing up and such, and will offer an attempt at defence of Laurence Olivier's Othello in 1965, or John Bennett's Li H'sen Chang in 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' (1977), as it's just feasible that they were the best of the available actors for those dramatic roles at the time, but Mickey Rooney's performance here just takes the biscuit: histrionic, clumsy, myopic and perpetually outraged, with the gigantic teeth that one can likewise find in inherently horrible Japanese characters in Hergé's Tintin.

Seized by a compulsion, Holly and Paul shoplift some animal masks.
The rest of the film is good, is funny, and touching.  It's a fine romance and a successful comedy, and the characters are likable and complex enough to be genuinely interesting.  Audrey Hepburn plays the lead, Holly Golightly, a role written for Marilyn Monroe, an eccentric young socialite who meets a handsome writer (George Peppard, later known for 'The A-Team' in the 80s).  The two get on well, cavort most merrily, and in general have a highly-charged friendship that is probably romantic, though the two seem reluctant to make that overt.  It's a format that I particularly enjoy, so I found myself somewhat anguished when, inevitably, complications of history, money and future arise in the film's midst and pretty much destroy the relationship's merits and prospects.  They'd been so innocently happy together (and in a brief moment of petty shoplifting, guiltily happy) that it seems everything is rather irreparably spoilt.

There's hope, on and off, though I shan't say any more about what ensues.  It's a well-written film, adapting a novella by Truman Capote, which seems to be enough of a selling-point that I ought at least to mention it.  As I intimated above, I can't quite come to recommend it, as Mr. Yunioshi is a small but significant sour point in something that ought to be sweet.  On the basis of his appearance, planned screenings of the film are on occasion cancelled or boycotted, and the reputation of the whole is marred.

Nonetheless, here's your chance to exercise your rights as a materialist.

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