Sunday, June 20, 2010

Films # 17 & 18: Audrey Hepburn Double Feature (Jun 19th)

Breakfast at Tiffany's
1961, 115 min.
Directed by Blake Edwards

Roman Holiday
1953, 118 min.
Directed by William Wyler

"And I said, What about 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'??
She said, 'I think I remember the film?

And as I recall, I think, we both kinda liked it.'

And I said, 'Well, that's the one thing we've got.'"

-A really crappy song from the band Deep Blue Something, 1995

Ok, I'll be the first to admit it. Going into Sunday's double feature, I was fairly unfamiliar with the work of Audrey Hepburn. Of all her films, I believe I had only seen Sabrina (the original one) and Always, a Spielberg tearjerker that featured her last performance (more of a cameo than a supporting role). I was even less familiar with Breakfast at Tiffany's, a beloved movie that many feel is the iconic role of Hepburn's career. All I was familiar with was that one iconic image that is now a poster in young ladies' dorms across America, and it was referenced in a "Seinfeld" episode. Yes, I may sound like just another guy, but I was still curious to attend the double feature so I could at least see what the big deal was about. I have an open mind, after all. This from a guy who has actually seen all episodes of "Sex and the City." But don't ask me why. It's classified.

Before Sunday's shows, there was a mini-manicure event with treats from Walton's Fancy and Staple, a local Gourmet Delicatessen/Bakery and Café. It was special VIP treatment for those who purchased a specific package for the matinee double feature. Now, although I had no intention of having my nails done, I make it a point to attend every special event I can at The Paramount. Breakfast at Tiffany's was scheduled to start at 2 pm, so I arrived at 1:30 and charmed my way upstairs to have a gander.

There were still dozens of ladies waiting in the upstairs lounge area, visiting and waiting patiently to get their mini-manicures. Also displayed were tables with numerous baubles and trinkets to catch everyone's fancy. While giving a cursory glance over the items, I finally found the petit fours from Walton's. The little cakes were decorated to resemble Tiffany wrapped boxes, and they were elaborate, tiny and adorable. The temptation was great to try and sample one, but I left them for the guests. Of course, I did make a mental note to visit Walton's very soon.

As I was documenting the event, I ran into Brooklyn Barbieri, The Paramount's Marketing & PR Associate, who organized the day's event. She informed me that women had been lined up since the event opened at 12:30. Dude. And I thought there was a large crowd when I was there. Another note to self, never underestimate the devotion of ladies who want to treat themselves on a weekend afternoon. After all, chances are they deserve it, and then some.

For your enjoyment, there are several photos below. Included in the last shot is Ms. Barbieri herself (Brooklyn, I hope you don't mind; It is a nice pose).

With a crowd like this, I immediately recognized we were dealing with a near full house in the auditorium. Luckily, I was able to find a seat in short order. Trailers played for Breathless, Giant and The Adventures of Robin Hood (again).

Breakfast at Tiffany's is a romantic "comedy" about Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), a free-spirit and "love 'em and leave 'em" kind of party girl. When new neighbor Paul Varjak (George Peppard) moves in upstairs, she brazeningly invites herself into his life. And why not? He's a charming guy; quite handsome and dapper. Alas, he lacks the most important quality for her to determine worthiness for courtship. You see, he's rather poor. Holly is a gold digger, not to put too fine a point on it (and decades before Kanye West made his song). She's taking aim on New York's richest and looking for her one big score. Rather despicable, huh? I agree. In fact, it's a good thing she's so congenial, or else the audience would likely never care what happens to her. Nevertheless, it doesn't take the viewer long to figure out something is amiss about Ms. Golightly. Is her extroversion calculated? A ruse to cover something up flawed inside her? Some deep secret? Ohhhhh, you betcha.

As it turns out, Paul isn't so squeaky clean himself. The reason he's moving in is because his sugar momma just set him up there. Proclaiming himself to be a struggling writer, he seems to have slipped into a creative coma long ago, getting by on what a monogamous gigolo can afford. Within days, they are the best of friends. Why, they may be the very definition of codependence. Because she's emotionally unavailable and he is "under contract," they make an ideal couple as they window-shop New York City. Not just longing for the lavish baubles, but the cosmopolitan lifestyle itself.

This early 1960s metropolitan sexiness is, in fact, the real star of the film. Everyone is so fashionable, with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It was a simpler time. Surgeon General's warnings were merely suggestions, evidently. There was also no texting back then; all your messages had better fit on a cocktail napkin. The film has a certain retro appeal (the same kind that makes shows like "Mad Men" wildly popular). It's seductive to see a side of New York that is so en vogue, even if it's not entirely healthy. While I was miffed about the superfluousness of the lifestyle depicted, I didn't have a serious problem with it, personally. After all, Holly herself is described by her "agent" O.J. Berman (Martin Balsam) as "a phony, but a real phony." Truer words were not spoken in the rest of the film.

In fact, my only early complaints would have only been about the presentation. There must have been some shenanigans in the projector's booth that day. The first reel was incredibly dark. Images were rather difficult to make out, and I would just consider that the audience listened to the first 15 minutes or so. Also, after the second reel, there was no third reel... at least not right away. When the film stopped in mid-scene, many groans filled the auditorium. I heard someone pronounce from downstairs that it was an intermission for refreshing drinks. Riiiiiight. Come on now, it's not like we're watching Giant (that, for me, would be on Tuesday). It was a rather brief intermission then, because about 90 seconds later the film resumed. Oops. Sorry for those in line getting drinks in the lobby. Like I said, I'm not sure what was going on. Perhaps someone's nails were still wet.

Once I could see, however, I was appalled, repeat APPALLED at Mickey Rooney's performance. He appears in the film as a Asian neighbor, and it may well be the most insensitive and racist performance I've seen in years. It's the most vile kind of caricature. Using stereotypical dialect and buckteeth is not acting. The first time he appeared, I was only mildly offended. Looking back, I think I was more shocked than angry, since that first reel of the film shown was so dark. Yet with every subsequent appearance in the film, I grew more and more angry. Mostly because his character serves no purpose other than comic relief, and it's not funny at all. Who thought this was a good idea? Did no one look at dailies and say, "whoa, that's a bit... much?" Look, I know I may come off as over-sensitive, but this sticks out like a sore thumb in this movie. I know Tiffany's director Blake Edwards would use similar tricks in later films (usually with Peter Sellers), but Sellers never crossed the line into offensive territory while portraying a silly Frenchman in the Pink Panther films. Even in 1968's The Party, Sellers didn't rile my feathers while playing an Indian man. In those cases, Sellers was playing a character that happened to be of a certain nationality. Here, Rooney is just playing the stereotype as the character, and it's very disappointing to see.

From a technical standpoint, Tiffany's is lovely to behold. Edwards gives the entire movie a whimsical feel, even as we learn Holly's soul isn't as luminous as her outward beauty. Much like "As Time Goes By" became the theme to Casablanca, "Moon River" by Henry Mancini becomes the soul of this picture, and instrumental reprises serve as the film's score. Edwards also does an amazing job of emphasizing Hepburn's beauty in this story of n unbridled party girl. It was a role that was against type for her, but she's still engaging because the audience loves her so much already.

Everything looks so pretty in this movie. Having the legendary Edith Head as your costume designer never hurts, since everyone looks dashing in their metropolitan duds. Even New York City itself looks ravishing and inviting. It's very easy to see how Holly is enchanted with the City, and the adventures she and Paul undertake have a great deal of charm. He introducing her to the library, and she introduces him to the world of petty shoplifitng. Hey, you learn something new every day, right? They have a love affair with the City, even if not with each other. Watching them is like watching Carrie and Mr. Big, if they, you know, were destitute and on a Dave Ramsey plan. Of course, I don't think Ramsey would advise anyone to be a gold digger or a man-whore. It's probably best to diversify a bit more.

In many ways, Breakfast at Tiffany's is the inspiration behind "Sex and the City." Like Carrie Bradshaw, Holly Golightly finds that she loves her city and her lifestyle more than any one person. Just like it was frustrating to watch Carrie and Big in their on and off relationship, it is vexing to watch Golightly skip and jump from one suitor to the next. In this film, the user keeps finding herself being used. Oh well, as long as the drinks keep coming. Party on, right? Wrong. Truth is, I've known many "Hollys" in my lifetime, chasing material things and running away from adult responsibilities. They're even more frustrating in real life. Trust me.

Ultimately, Breakfast was a meal I think I could have skipped. It had several sweet moments but, like Holly, ran away from its problems. The film is populated with dark and troubled characters, but chooses to focus on the fluff and provide a typical Hollywood romance, complete with happy ending. As the film concluded though, I felt no sense of resolution. Like The Graduate, I was left with a sense of "ok, now what?" Superficial lifestyles offer no solutions to life's problems, and Hollywood endings rarely do so either. Sadly, I think most moviegoers miss this point. The movie's praise is warranted, but I do feel people over the years have focused on the wrong aspects. The sexy metropolitan lifestyle may have its allure, but its best to tread lightly. Material things are no substitute for true happiness, no matter how shiny they may be... or how pretty those Tiffany gift boxes look.

The second feature made for much lighter fare. It was a tiny dessert to the day's events. I knew little about Roman Holiday, so I was looking forward to this one also. All I knew was that it had scooters and Italians, as told to me by Eddie Izzard in a comedy routine. See for yourself.

So yeah, this was to be a learning experience. A classic film should be more than a punchline.

Roman Holiday is a bit of a modern fairy tale movie, starring Audrey Hepburn as a young European princess who longs to break away from the burdens of the royal routine. Kind of like Princess Jasmine in Disney's Aladdin, or even Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. Okay, maybe not quite like Eddie Murphy.

While on a goodwill tour through Europe, she decides to sneak out one evening while in Rome incognito. She happens upon Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), an American reporter who is assigned to interview her. Alas, Bradley is not the most ambitious of journalists, since he doesn't even know who she is at first. Only after putting her up for the night does he discover who this young guest really is. Bradley sees opportunity, and his eyes light up at the thought of snagging more than a mere interview, but the story of the year. This could be the ticket to establishing some professional credibility and get him back to the States.

While hiding his profession from her, he accompanies the princess on her excursion to see the sights of Rome, and together they have the most amazing day off. Even Ferris Bueller would be envious. Along the way, they run into Bradley's colleague Irving (Eddie Albert), a photographer who Bradley has recruited to capture the day's events clandestinely. Irving, however, always seems to be a step behind Bradley in his scheming, often coming perilously close to blowing their cover. As a result, he often ends up with egg on his face... or vino on his lap. Who knew Eddie Albert could play the fool? I don't recall any hints of that from his later "Green Acres" days.

Director William Wyler certainly knows how to show off Rome. Sprinkling postcard-esque shots of monuments, buildings and landmarks throughout, this film could be a promotional video for travel to the Italian city. Sure, not all of us can tour while accompanying royalty, but that won't make the trip any less majestic. The sights and sounds and gelato certainly made me want to partake of a Roman holiday of my own. Heck, maybe even putt around in one of those Vespas. Although I must confess it would still be difficult to do so without hearing Eddie Izzard in my head.

Roman Holiday is a delightful little film, a treasure that took home Oscars for Best Actress, writing, and costume design (Edith Head, once again). In fact, I'd consider it a near flawless romantic comedy except for one thing I just kept having issue with. This is the type of film that Cary Grant can carry in his sleep, so the choice of Gregory Peck seemed odd. Perhaps colored by his later roles (and especially To Kill A Mockingbird), Peck seems too paternal for a romantic lead, and certainly more than a bit too old for Audrey Hepburn. As the romance blooms between the two onscreen, it's sweet, but mildly creepy. But overall, it's easy to overlook that when you're charmed byt he rest of the film. Besides, who wouldn't fall in love with Audrey Hepburn?

I was so taken by Hepburn's performance in this, her first starring role. She was the right balance of being regal and innocent. Recent comparisons between Natalie Portman and young Audrey certainly appear justified in my mind; for there's a wisdom inside their natural grace and beauty. Throughout the film, the audience laughed and giggled and sighed when the movie called for it. We were all mesmerized by her spell.

So as I walked back to my car after the show, I had a new appreciation for the career of Ms. Hepburn. More than a UNICEF ambassador or a dorm poster, she was easily one of the most adorable and charming icons of the silver screen. Whether a princess or a gold digging pauper, one thing is for sure, it's very easy to love her characters. I found myself still smiling as I got in my car and turned the key. Now, off to go find some gelato. Perhaps a trip to Mandola's is in order...


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