september 2011


Breakfast At Tiffany’s @50: A Semi-Centennial Tribute

25 Ways Blake Edwards’ Classic Film Diverges From Truman Capote’s Elegant Novella

By David McGee

In 1958 Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s was published in hardcover in a collection along with three of his short stories and appeared unabridged in the November issue of Esquire. The story of the selfish, self-absorbed Café Society striver Holly Golightly, forever carousing with wealthy men in hopes of luring one into marriage so she could live a carefree life of luxury, and her unnamed writer friend who reminds her of her brother Fred, has been unsuccessfully adapted for the stage and for television. The only successful adaption came 50 years ago this month, with the release of the Blake Edwards-directed silver screen version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which made Audrey Hepburn a film and fashion icon; justifiably outraged Asian-Americans with its racist portrayal of building superintendent-photographer, Mr. Yunioshi; made a star of George Peppard; and introduced one of the great songs in film and American pop music history, “Moon River,’ by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini.

Anyone who has read Capote’s novella and seen the movie knowsof the screenplay’s striking departures from the novella’s plot--striking, even by Hollywood standards. (The screenplay is credited jointly to Capote and George Axelrod, the latter being a distinguished screenwriter whose credits include The Manchurian Candidate, Bus Stop, The Seven Year Itch, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, How To Murder Your Wife and one of the ‘60s goofiest romps, the near-avant-garde Lord Love a Duck.) A search for a simple list of movie v. book distinctions for Breakfast at Tiffany’s proved fruitless, so we’re inclined (1) to believe no such list exists and (2) that we should provide one on the occasion of the film reaching the half-century mark. It’s high time. You, dear readers, can decide whether the book or the movie is better; we are going to cue up the film and drool over Miss Audrey. Note too, following our list is an excerpt from our January 2011 article about Henry Mancini’s scores for Blake Edwards’s films, published as part of a tribute to the late director. The excerpt describes how “Moon River” came to be and how the completed number was received.


Breakfast at Tiffany’s: Book v. Movie

1. Book: The writer who befriends Holly Golightly is unnamed; she calls him Fred, because he reminds her of her brother Fred.
Movie: George Peppard’s character is named Paul Varjak.

2. Book: The writer is struggling but self-sufficient. He has no patrons.
Movie: Paul Varjak is a kept man whose “expenses” are paid by a wealthy woman played be Patricia Neal. He introduces her to Holly as “Mrs. Failenson, my…decorator.” In the cast credits at, her character is named for the apartment she rents for Varjak, 2-E. Wikipedia identifies her as “Mrs. Failenson/Emily Eustace (2E).”

3. Book: Holly is a regular at Joe Bell’s bar on Lexington Avenue; an important scene takes place at Joe’s near the end of the novella between Joe Bell, the writer and Holly.
Movie: There is neither a Joe Bell nor a Joe Bell’s bar.

4. Book: At the beginning of the story, Holly is presumed to be off in Africa, based on bar owner Joe Bell’s suspicions, which are in turn based on a photograph taken by Holly’s former building superintendent, Mr. Yunioshi, of an African wood carving of a head that looks remarkably like Holly’s.
Movie: Holly, returning to her east side brownstone apartment after a night out, is being pursued by an older gent who thought he was making time with her after picking up the tab for her and her friends and giving her $50 for the powder room. She is in the urban jungle of New York, not the real one in Africa.

5. Book: The story is set in New York, 1943, during World War II.
Movie: The story is set in New York, 1961.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the first three minutes

6. Book: Bar owner Joe Bell tells the writer of his love for Holly, “but I didn’t want to touch her.” He is 67.
Movie: See #3 above.

7. Book: Holly’s building super/photographer Mr. Yunioshi is an American-born Asian from California who speaks impeccable, unaccented English.
Movie: As Gil Asakawa wrote in our Blake Edwards tribute in January: “Who is Mr. Yunioshi? He was the creepy, salacious and bumbling Japanese man who lived upstairs from Holly Golightly in the film. A photographer and the building's superintendent, he was always yelling at Hepburn's character and begging Holly Golightly to come upstairs and pose for him. ‘Miss-uh Go-Right-Ree!’ he calls down the stairwell. The character has magnifying-glass spectacles, squints and mumbles with pronounced buck teeth. It's almost a WWII-era caricature of a ‘Jap’ from a poster, comic book or cartoon, come to life. Only it's not 1942, it's 1961. When I was younger, I could squirm and chuckle along with it, but I can't stand to watch the movie anymore. And the old saw about ‘that's what it was like back then’ doesn't fly with me, either. Imagine an African-American character in 1961 being satirized that way. Like I've already mentioned, Rooney's portrayal was a throwback to WWII depictions of Japanese--it was over the top, even for 1961.”

8. Book: Rusty Trawler, one of Holly’s early candidates for matrimony, is a rich Nazi sympathizer.
Movie: Rusty Trawler (portrayed in the movie by Stanley Adams) is a rich (“the ninth richest man in America,” Holly says), portly geek in thick glasses, with no known political persuasion or party affiliation.

9. Book: Party girl Mag Wildwood’s full name is Margaret Thatcher Fitzhue Wildwood and she stutters badly.
Movie: Mag Wildwood is a simple, beautiful, possibly promiscuous, hard drinking party girl who speaks fine when sober. If anyone in America knew anything about England’s Margaret Thatcher in 1961, it was probably her vote as a Member of Parliament in favor of the restoration of birching (corporal punishment with a birch rod, applied to the miscreant’s bare bottom). But Capote wrote the novella in 1957-58, when Thatcher was an unknown, first term member of Parliament. Capote himself may have enjoyed birching, but unless he knew something about Maggie Thatcher that no one else knew, his use of her name in the Breakfast at Tiffany’s novella seems to be pure happenstance. We’re looking into it.

10. Book: Holly and the writer go horseback riding in Central Park and are attacked by a gang of black youths wielding rocks and switches. Frightened, Holly’s horse bolts out of the park and gallops up Fifth Avenue against traffic, the writer in hot pursuit on horseback himself.
Movie: The movie contains no horses or horseback riding scene.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s: ‘Don’t take me home until I’m very drunk. Promise me.’

Breakfast at Tiffany’s: ‘I do not accept drinks from men who disapprove of me.’

11. Book: “Also, she had a cat and she played the guitar. On days when the sun was strong, she would wash her hair, and together with the cat, a red tiger-striped tom, sit out on the fire escape thumbing a guitar while her hair dried. Whenever I heard the music I would go stand quietly by my window. She played very well, and sometimes sang too. Sang in the hoarse, breaking tones of a boy’s adolescent voice. She knew all the show hits, Cole Porter and Kurt Weill; especially she liked the songs from Oklahoma!, which were new that summer and everywhere. But there were moments when she played songs that made you wonder where she learned them, where indeed she came from. Harsh-tender wandering tunes that smacked of pineywoods or prairie. One went: Don’t wanna sleep, Don’t wanna die, Just wanna go a-travelin’ through the pastures of the sky; and this one seemed to gratify her the most, for often she continued it long after her hair had dried, after the sun had gone and there were lighted windows in the dusk.”
Movie: Holly sits on the fire escape with her wet hair wrapped in a towel, cat at her side, guitar in hand, and sings “Moon River” as Paul Varjak looks on from the window above. This is one instance where the movie outdoes the book, because if we could look out our window and see Audrey Hepburn singing “Moon River” and then, when she’s finished, have her look at us with those liquid blue eyes and say tenderly, “Hi, Whatcha doin’?”, oh, baby…

12. Book: Capote’s Holly admits to smoking grass but allows as to how her preference is brandy.
Movie: No mention of marijuana by Holly or any other character.

13. Book: Holly is arrested in the writer’s bathroom, where she is sitting on the edge of the tub waiting to rub Sloan’s liniment into his muscles to ease his “horse-ride pain” before she tucks him into bed.
Movie: Returning from dinner with Paul, on the night before her departure for Brazil, Holly is arrested in her own apartment and carted off to the 19th Precinct house.

14. Book: Holly’s lawyer friend O.J. Berman never calls the writer “Fred baby.”
Movie: Pseudo-hipster lawyer O.J. Berman (played to oleaginous perfection by Martin Balsam) always calls Varjak “Fred baby.”

15. Book: While still under criminal indictment, Holly makes plans to go to Brazil and marry into wealth, wherever she can find it. She ignores the writer’s pleas to stay instead of becoming a fugitive from justice. He expresses no romantic interest in her. She leaves on a jet plane.
Movie: Bailed out by O.J. Berman’s New York counterpart, Holly plans to go to Brazil and marry José da Silva Pereira, thinking she might one day be “the wife of the President of Brazil.” Disabusing her of that notion, Paul produces a letter from José, sent through a cousin, informing Holly that her “present situation” renders her unfit for a marriage to “a man in my position.” She ignores yet another of Varjak’s confessions of his love for her and his sense of the inevitability of their union, including the part about “you belong to me,” and presses on with her plan to fly to Brazil.


16. Book: She tosses her cat out of the limo taking her to the airport, has second thoughts, searches for but can’t find her feline companion. Off she jets to Brazil without a second thought.
Movie: She tosses the cat out of a cab in the rain; fed up, Varjak bails too, giving her an earful as he exits: “You know what’s wrong with you Miss whoever-you-are? You’re chicken. You’ve got no guts. You’re afraid to stick out your chin and say, ‘Okay, life’s a fact. People do fall in love. People do belong to each other, because that’s the only chance anybody’s got for real happiness.' You call yourself a free spirit, a wild thing ; you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you’re already in that cage; you built it yourself. And it’s not bounded on the west by Tulip, Texas, or on the east by Somali land. It’s wherever you go, because no matter where you run you just end up running into yourself.” Off he goes in search of the cat. Varjak’s appraisal having sunk in, Holly joins him in the search. In the downpour the cat emerges; Holly clutches the cat to her bosom, then falls into Varjak’s embrace (with the cat snuggled between them) and “Moon River” rises amidst their roan-soaked kiss. The End.

17. Book: The writer eventually locates Holly’s cat in Spanish Harlem. Holly sends a postcard saying “Brazil was beastly, but Buenos Aires the best. Not Tiffany’s, but almost.” Says she has fallen in love with a married man with seven kids and will write when she finds a place to live. The End.
Movie: You’re into the special features on the Centennial Collection DVD or 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray by now.

18. Book: Mag Wildwood’s Brazilian love interest (soon to be Holly’s) is a Brazilian billionaire named José Ybarra-Jaegar, who shows up with Mag at a party at Holly’s apartment.
Movie: The Brazilian billionaire escorting Mag Wildwood to Holly’s party is identified as José da Silva Pereira.

19. Book: The party scene is tame: a roomful of “graying arrivals beyond draft status” and a few GIs. “It was as if the hostess had distributed her invitations while zig-zagging through various bars; which was probably the case. After the initial frowns, however, they mixed together without grumbling.”
Movie: The party scene is populated by pre-Beatles era middle-aged hipsters desperately holding onto their youth; Mag Wildwood drinks herself into a stupor and falls like a giant Redwood to the floor; fed up with the noise from downstairs, Yunioshi calls the cops, Varjak helps the Brazilian billionaire José da Silva Pereira flee the scene through fire escape window. We never learn why the Brazilian billionaire is so worried about the cops showing up.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the party scene

20. Book: Holly cites Wuthering Heights as being meaningful to her; to the writer’s disappointment, she is referring to the movie.
Movie: Holly cites nothing, not even the four stepchildren she left behind in Texas with her husband, Doc Golightly, certainly not Wuthering Heights (book or movie), as being meaningful to her.

21. Book: Holly’s brother Fred is killed in action in World War II, the news of which sends Holly into an hysterical, apartment trashing fit.
Movie: Holly’s brother Fred is killed in a jeep accident at Fort Riley, Kansas, the news of which sends her into an hysterical, apartment trashing fit.

22. Book: Holly tells the writer she is pregnant by her new Brazilian squeeze, the diplomat José Ybarra-Jaegar, and is looking forward to having “at least nine” children by him. “I’m sure some of them will be rather dark,” she tells the writer. “Jose has a touch of le negré, I suppose you guessed that? Which is fine by me: what could be prettier than a quite coony baby with bright green beautiful eyes?”
Movie: No pregnancies reported, probably for the better, all things considered.

23. Book: Holly admits José is not her type and at the same time makes a stand for same-sex marriage: “If I were free to choose from everybody alive, just snap my fingers and say come here you, I wouldn’t pick José. Nehru, he’s nearer the mark. Wendell Wilkie. I’d settle for Garbo any day. Why not? A person ought to be able to marry or—listen, if you came to me and said you wanted to hitch up with Man o’ War, I’d respect your feeling. No, I’m serious. Love should be allowed. I’m all for it.”
Movie: It’s 1961 in America, folks--even earlier, in the Eisenhower era, when Capote wrote those words. This passage was likely the first one scrapped in the screenwriting process.

24. Book: The writer and Holly never enter Tiffany’s.
Movie: On a day when they decide to do things they have never done before, Holly and Paul go shopping at Tiffany’s. Unable to afford even the cheapest item in the store, they ask the sales clerk (played with unruffled stuffiness by John McGiver) to have their own ring engraved--a ring obtained from a box of Cracker Jacks. Impressed that prizes still come in Cracker Jacks boxes (“It gives one a feeling of solidarity,” he says, “almost of continuity with the past”), the clerk agrees to the couple’s “unusual” request. “I think you’ll find Tiffany’s is very understanding,” he assures them.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the final scene

25. Book: Holly has befriended mobster Sally Tomato and visits him in Sing-Sing, but no details about the visits are provided, she carries no coded messages from him back to the city, and she and the writer never visit Tomato together. Her association with Tomato is, however, what lands her in jail.
Movie: Holly and Varjak visit Sally Tomato at Sing-Sing, he offers a literary appraisal of Varjak’s book before giving Holly a coded message--“snow flurries this weekend in New Orleans” (“the weather report,” Holly calls it)--about his drug transactions to take back to his friends in the city. Her association with Tomato thus links her to the narcotics trade and lands “Tomato’s Tomato,” as per the New York Record newspaper headline above the front page, above the fold story of her arrest, in the clink.


‘Moon River’: Anatomy of a Song

By David McGee

‘Moon River,’ by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini, as sung by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Groundbreaking as the music for Peter Gunn was, Henrcy Mancini’s score for Edwards’s 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, did more for his legacy, and for the fate of the film, than any other work he did with the director. The score is delightful in a swingin’ ‘60s kind of way--happy, carefree, buoyant, spirited--but it was one song, “Moon River,” that jumped out to become a certified classic--one of those songs you can safely say is likely being played somewhere in the world at just about any moment of the day. Mancini claimed he wrote the melody in half an hour; commissioned to write the lyrics was Johnny Mercer, one of the great classic pop songwriters in American history then at a low ebb in his career in the wake of rock ‘n’ roll pushing his type of song off the air and off the charts. Working with Mancini, though, Mercer came up big in conjuring precisely enough of the film’s main narrative arc--“two drifters off to see the world/there’s such a lot of world to see”--and fleshing out his storyline with winsome, poetic, ethereal evocations of those two drifters’ aspirations. There was no river to speak of in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, unless you count the view of the Hudson we get when Holly Golightly travels to Sing Sing to visit Sally Tomato; but there was a river in Mercer’s youth in Savannah, Georgia, the Back River (now rechristened Moon River in the songwriter’s honor), and just as he and his huckleberry picking friends used to sit on its banks and see bigger worlds beyond their river, so do kept-man/struggling writer Paul Varjak (played by George Peppard) and country girl-turned-fashionable big city escort Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) float down a river of their own imagining, until they land at rainbow’s end together at the film’s close. The song is so beautiful and so heart tugging it causes even hard-boiled critics to soft-pedal the unsavory nature of the film's main characters and even to give Edwards little more than a slap on the wrist for Mickey Rooney’s contemptible portrayal of Holly’s Japanese building super/photographer Mr. Yunioshi.

Mancini and Mercer had been friends since Mancini’s early days in Hollywood, when his wife Ginny, who sang with Mel Torme’s group, the Mel Tones, worked with Mercer on the Armed Forces Radio Service programs. “He was every bit as much of a poet then as he was years later when we worked together,” Mancini told jazz critic-songwriter Leonard Feather. “For me he’s number one, and I know my other lyricist friends would defer to that judgment.”

Henry Mancini (left) and Johnny Mercer: at rainbow’s end together, with more Academy Awards. ‘Moon River’ won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1961 and a year later a Grammy Award for Record of the Year. His score for Breakfast at Tiffany’s won Mancini an Oscar for Best Original Score.

Mancini may have written the “Moon River” melody in half an hour, but Mercer--a perfectionist on a par with Mancini--had a bit of a struggle with the lyrics. Originally he worked with the title “Blue River,” until he learned another songwriter was working on a similarly titled tune; his original opening lyric was directly inspired by the book’s/film’s main character: “I’m Holly, like I want to be/like Holly on a tree back home…” But when “Blue River” became “Moon River,” and Mercer began reflecting on his childhood back in Georgia, and the “rainbow’s end” he and his friends--who did indeed pick huckleberries (blueberries) together--envisioned for themselves in years ahead, the lyricist’s approach became less character-specific and more the product of dreams and poetry, intermingling hope and romance with a subtle undercurrent of sadness that had the odd effect of enhancing the sunrise effect--the auguring of a new day--in the song’s poignant closing sentiment, “my huckleberry friend, Moon River and me.”

“We had a band rehearsal at a hotel in Beverly Hills,” Mancini told Feather. “I asked John to meet me there. He arrived early; there was nobody else in the room. It was an eerie feeling in that big, deserted ballroom with empty tables, and chairs piled up. I sat at the piano and John sang several sets of lyrics. The first was called ‘I’m Holly,’ which of course was Audrey Hepburn’s name in the picture; and we decided that was a bit too literal. There was another one that somehow worked in the actual words ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’ But the one called ‘Blue River,’ later changed by Johnny to ‘Moon River,’ seemed just right, so we decided that was the one to use; and with the exception of John’s wife Ginger I guess I was the first person who ever heard that memorable phrase ‘my huckleberry friend.’ I still get a chill out of it, because it said so much in so few words.”

Leonard Feather: “‘Moon River,’ a melody and poem of elegiac poignancy, succeeded beyond its creators’ wildest predictions. At last count there were over 700 recorded versions worldwide. [Ed. note: This was written in 1976.] Significantly, the melody is based on a structure (A-B-A-C) that is very simple, on a harmonic pattern that is beautiful in its logic, and on a melody that dovetails exquisitely with the harmony.”

Yet, one of Tiffany’s producers hated “Moon River” and ordered Blake Edwards to “get that damn song out of it.” Audrey Hepburn not only countered with “Over my dead body!” but insisted on singing it herself rather than using the voice double the studio was insisting on. In a rare vocal performance, Hepburn, looking stunning in a blue jeans, a sweatshirt and a white towel covering her freshly shampooed hair, sits in her window strumming an undersized acoustic guitar, and makes the song her own in a captivating cinematic moment.

“Moon River” was the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1961 and a year later a Grammy Award for Record of the Year. His affecting score for Breakfast at Tiffany’s won Mancini an Oscar for Best Original Score.

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