Audrey Hepburn: Go Ahead and Skip “Breakfast”

Since we’re all going to die, today I deliver a heresy:  Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) is a figure I respect enormously as an icon and a star but most of whose movies I have little use for. Yes, I know what she was in! And that she starred opposite nearly all of the most major male stars of her time: Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, William Holden, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, etc etc. Still and all, I’ve seen most of her starring films and of the two dozen or so pictures she made, the only ones I’d be tempted to watch were they playing on television right now are the impeccable, perfect Charade (1963), the well-acted and well cast Lillian Hellman drama The Children’s Hour (1961), and the deliciously cheesy Wait Until Dark (1967), a favorite since childhood. I used to enjoy My Fair Lady (1964), another one I’d known since I was a kid, but nowadays knowing that the part had been Julie Andrews’ on Broadway spoils it for me, because Hepburn is miscast in the role and Andrews would be so much better. Hepburn had known serious deprivation as a child during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, and had served her time in the chorus line on the West End, but her mother was a member of the Dutch nobility. Hepburn has inborn airs and graces, and was taught to move and speak like one of her class by actual paid tutors. She cannot pretend it is not so.

Which was why she was so wrong for what most people probably consider her most iconic role, that of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Or let us call it Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for it is surely not Truman Capote’s. Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part, and she would have been perfect in it, I think, having risen from poverty to one of the most glamorous women in the world. A second option was Hepburn’s co-star in The Children’s Hour, Shirley MacLaine, who also would have been much better, particularly in light of her Southern origins. Both of these women possessed an earthiness suitable to the character, whose real origins as a Texas girl named Lula Mae Barnes are revealed when husband Buddy Ebsen shows up in the story. Hepburn was never a Lula Mae, she was only ever what the Lula Maes of the world aspire to be. As a parallel, consider Liza Minnelli in the similar role of Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Minnelli is believable in her self-created character because she possesses an inherent neediness. When she says, “Fabulous, darling!” (onscreen or off, truth to tell) you see her striving mightily for effect. In Hepburn’s case it is never an affectation. It is how she communicates. Thus she is roughly as inappropriate for her role in the film as Mickey Rooney, more notoriously, is in his, though not at the level of morality.

So ironically, while Capote’s novella presents it as rather sad and tawdry that Holly Golightly feels it necessary to play this role, somehow that image of Hepburn, with the slinky dresses and big hats and cigarette holder became the height of aspirational glamor for its day. Well, movies are movies and stars are stars, I guess. Tennessee Williams didn’t much like it when Marlon Brando turned Stanley Kowalski, a raping, wife-beating beast, into a glamour-puss either, but that’s show biz.

The other black mark against the film, understandable if not forgivable in context, is the heterosexualizing of the main character, an aspiring writer and jobbing gigolo, played by George Peppard. That, and the presence of Rooney as the Asian stereotyped Mr. Yunioshi make the film totally unwatchable for my wife, although I love to watch it for the period detail (my favorite scene in the film is the crazy party). Rooney’s portrayal isn’t just wrong because he’s Caucasian. It would be bad enough if he simply played a Japanese guy. But he’s needlessly heinous in the role. It’s downright mean-spirited in a fashion not seen since the ape-like portrayals of blackface performers in The Birth of a Nation.

I am delighted to remember some other character actors in the movie in small parts however: John McGiver, from Disney movies as the salesman at Tiffany’s; Alan Reed, the voice of Fred Flintstone, as the mobster Sally Tomato; Mel Blanc as one of Holly’s dates; and Stanley Adams and Claude Stroud (of the Stroud Twins), as suitors. You heard it here first, folks: don’t watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s for Audrey Hepburn; DEFINITELY watch it for Claude Stroud.