There's nothing like a good old movie. My wife and I were reminded of that Saturday night when we kept warm together and watched the local PBS station in New York present “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which came out in 1961.
The movie is still wonderful – at least for those of us who came of age in that city, in that time.
Then again, there is nothing like a good old actress, or actor. We reaffirmed that Sunday night as we watched eternal favorites Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey (delivering a righteous sermon on fairness for women in the arts; if America ever elected a television celebrity as President, at least it could choose one with brains and conscience), Shirley Maclaine, Barbra Streisand, Carol Burnett and many others warming up the night at the Golden Globes. (Some older guys, and younger people, were there, too.)
Audrey Hepburn was not there, sadly, because she passed in 1993, way too young at 63, but lit up the night on Saturday, in the role of her life, lovely in her little black outfit.
The second star of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is New York itself – the city that existed one way in Truman Capote’s book and another way in the movie-makers’ minds.
That New York remains implanted in the memories of people who dared to dream that a one-bedroom walkup near midtown could be affordable for somebody who has not necessarily scored a gigantic deal.
My wife and I, a couple of kids, had a one-night honeymoon at the Plaza – Castro and Khrushchev were also in town -- before getting back to work on Monday. There was magic in Rockefeller Center and Fifth Avenue and Central Park and the side streets with their surprises and secrets.
In that apparently genteel playground, out-of-towners like Holly Golightly, a party girl, and Paul Varjak, a writer of fading potential, could meet on a fire escape -- kindred souls, both living in that playground courtesy of wealthier patrons.
New York seemed to offer glamour, stability, hope. When “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was issued in 1961:
--Penn Station had not yet been demolished, replaced by that contemptuous dungeon of a terminal, and soon afterward the neighborhood-strangling “new” Madison Square Garden.
--The Pan-Am Building (now called the MetLife Building) had not yet been plopped down, ruining the esthetic of Park Ave.
--John F. Kennedy was the new President.
--Rupert Murdoch was making stuff up, but in Australia.
--George Steinbrenner was still bullying his lackeys in Cleveland.
--And Donald Trump was still living out in Queens and fidgeting his way through classes in college.
In other words, the good old days.
The movie endures despite blind spots and gaffes:
--Mickey Rooney, as a put-upon Japanese photographer upstairs, is a total embarrassment with stereotypical accent and offensive false teeth. They should have known better, even then.
-- There is no trace of social issues, of Vietnam, of race. The only glimpse of African-Americans is on visitors’ day at Sing Sing, and some extras at the library and a five-and-dime store. The four other boroughs do not exist.
--A sub-plot involving a planned caper in Brazil contains many confusions of language and custom. I bet my friend Altenir Jose Silva of Rio, who has written movies himself, notices his middle name mispronounced the Spanish way rather than the soft, throaty Portuguese-Brazilian way.
Still, the movie crackles when Holly Golightly sings "Moon River" to herself on the fire escape or lowers her sunglasses to inspect Patricia Neal, a domineering designer who is supporting the younger writer, played by George Peppard.
Martin Balsam is fine as a Hollywood agent, and a familiar New York character actor of the time, Jim McGiver, is superb in a cameo as an officious salesman at Tiffany’s, who bends to Hepburn’s smile.
I have been under the impression that Buddy Ebsen is cornball as a rustic face from the past but the re-viewing convinced me that Ebsen is dignified and touching.
By the way, Capote’s book is much darker than the movie, including a graphic hint that Holly did indeed have adventures in deepest Brazil.
That’s all I’m saying, in case somehow you have not seen the movie about a beautiful and tormented drifter, “off to see the world.”
* * *
(Unfortunately, on some Saturday evenings, Channel 13 switches to stale oldie pop concerts; go figure. I cannot fathom why a high-level public station cannot find a landmark movie every freaking Saturday night, for those of us who have not figured out what “streaming” or “Netflix” are. I’m sure the hardy band of regulars on this site – including screen writer Silva – could suggest 52 classic films a year to help Channel 13 present a consistent series.)
"Among the things that have long fascinated people about Jesus and explain his enduring appeal is his method of dialogue and teaching. "He asked a lot of questions and told a lot of stories in the form of parables. In fact, parables form about a third of Jesus’ recorded teachings. The Gospels were written decades after he died, so his questions and parables clearly left a deep impression on those who bore testimony to him....
"Some of Jesus’ questions were rhetorical; others were meant to challenge or even provoke. In some cases, Jesus used questions to parry attacks by religious authorities who set traps for him. In others, he used questions to enter more fully into the lives of others and to help people look at the state of their hearts. He asked people about their fears and their faith. Jesus used questions to free a woman caught in adultery from condemnation and to inquire whether people considered him to be the Messiah. He probed deeply into questions not many had asked before him, like “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
---(Peter Wehner, long-time White House consultant and writer, in the NYT last week about Jesus Christ’s method of teaching by asking questions.)
"Would that I could mention all the illuminating details in this biography, for example, why Wells praised Black Americans so highly, saying, 'I took a mighty liking to these gentle, human, dark-skinned people,' and 'Whatever America has to show in heroic living today, I doubt if she can show anything finer than the quality of the resolve, the steadfast efforts hundreds of black and colored men are making today to live blamelessly, honorably and patiently, getting by themselves what scraps of refinement, beauty and learning they may, keeping their hold on a civilization they are grudged and denied.''
-- "How H.G. Wells Predicted the 20th Century," Charles Johnson, NYT Book Review, Nov. 19, 2021. ***".
...the monsters arrive."
"They come in a deafening, surging swarm, blasting from lawn to lawn and filling the air with the stench of gasoline and death. I would call them mechanical locusts, descending upon every patch of gold in the neighborhood the way the grasshoppers of old would arrive, in numbers so great they darkened the sky, to lay bare a cornfield in minutes. But that comparison is unfair to locusts.
"Grasshoppers belong here. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers are invaders, the most maddening of all the maddening, environment-destroying tools of the American lawn-care industry."
---The great Margaret Renkl, from Nashville, one of my favorite NYT bylines, Oct. 26, 2021.
(She describes our Long Island enclave to every decibel, every stink.)