Sunday, 2 June 2013

Breakfast at Tiffany’s? 1961

  • OK, here’s the plot. A young writer of compromised sexuality moves into an apartment building in a changing and cosmopolitan city. Here he meets a bohemian, off the wall female who has left her past behind and reinvented herself.  The audience can see they’re perfect for each other but she’s looking for someone richer and he’s looking for someone, er,  butcher.

    I’m talking about Blake Edwards 1961 film ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ but you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m referring to Bob Fosse’s 1972 ‘Cabaret’ as they have more than a little in common.

    Although ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ was the earlier film, the roots of ‘Cabaret’ are oldest.  ‘Cabaret’ is based on the stage musical of the same name which was an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1945 novels ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ and ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’. Reader, I’ll be honest with you,  I’m a huge Isherwood fan so if you’re hoping ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ is going to come out of this stand off the better you’re going to be  disappointed. 

    Isherwood’s novels are a fictionalised account of his time in Berlin in 1931 during Hitler’s rise to power. Openly homosexual, Isherwood had been initially attracted to the sexual liberation of life in Berlin prior to the rise of the Nazis.  Following a period of imprisonment for 'Reciprocal onanism'” (Google it) he traveled to China with the poet W H Auden before relocating to America on the eve of the war.

    It was here he met the young Truman Capote, a young writer greatly influenced by Isherwood’s Berlin stories and in particular by the character Sally Bowles.

    Capote published the novella ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ in 1958 and it is clear reworking of Isherwood.  New York replaces Berlin, Post WWII social change replaces the rise of the Third Reich and Holly Golightly steps in for Sally Bowles.  

    The 1962 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a film many hold in great affection. It’s light, stylish and fresh but it is what makes it so enduring that is precisely what’s wrong with it. Edwards plays down Holly’s occupation (the oldest profession) and Fred’s sexual orientation. Understandably this is due to the conservatism of the time, eleven years later with the sixties behind it ‘Cabaret’ could be a lot more daring.  Both novels involve the relationship between a gay man and a straight woman; what endears us to these characters is that, given the social mores around homosexuality at the time, both Fred and Chris are both writing about women they think, hope that maybe, just maybe,  they could make it “work” with, and live a socially acceptable  life.

    Holly Golightly is undoubtedly Hepburn’s most famous role but, iconic as she is, I can’t help feeling she’s, deep breath,  miscast (Capote, incidentally wanted Marilyn Monroe for the role and, as with most of the roles Monroe didn’t get you can’t help but think she’d have been better).  Fred and Holly are a pair of hustlers living on their wits; the problem is Hepburn doesn’t look like it. She’s far too chic. The scene when she and Fred decide to shop at Tiffany’s doesn’t work because she doesn’t look out of place. The financial position of the main characters in both films is precarious to say the least and you should leave the cinema wondering what will become of them, and don’t think this is the case with Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  Minnelli's equally iconic Sally Bowles looks fabulous in a different way, she looks down on her luck, trashy and down at heel. Isherwood’s Sally Bowles has, in the novel, come to Berlin from Lancashire, the home county of Cinema Revisited.

    ‘Cabaret’ features a supporting cast of characters who, though quirky are also wholly human and vulnerable (particularly given the rise of fascism).  Breakfast at Tiffany’s is populated with grotesques like Rusty Trawler and Mag Wildwood who frankly, you don’t give a fig about.    Another of Edward’s (typically) heavy handed inclusions is the obligatory party scene; a lazy and over used shorthand way of signalling how crazy the times are.

    Edwards also takes the easy step of giving Fred and Holly a happy ending, playing it as a conventional romance.  This was not how Capote intended it, the bittersweet power of both stories is that they are the story of someone the narrator has loved and lost.  Isherwood ends his tale of Sally Bowles by imploring her, if she’s reading this, to get in touch.  Maybe it is this that is the key to understanding why Isherwood’s tale trumps Capote’s; Sally Bowles was based on a real friend of Isherwood’s Jean Ross, who died before ‘Cabaret’ was filmed and never saw herself immortalised by Minnelli.  Isherwood was describing very real feelings of loss, not only of a friend but of his youth, a time and place that was never the same again and his chance of that ‘normal’ heterosexual life. Capote’s Holly Golighlty is based only on a fictional character, Sally Bowles, the shadow of a ghost, as flimsy and  insubstantial as Edward’s film.

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