Monday, December 22, 2008

Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961)

When my father talks about the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), he calls it “Moon River,” after the theme song by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer. Mancini’s score cinched the film for him – “I knew as soon as the titles came up and that song started playing it was a good movie.”

"Breakfast at Tiffany's" Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, 1961, Paramount, **I.V. - Image courtesy

It was one of the movies I particularly remember he let me stay up late to watch, although “let” is not the right word. It was more like, “Sit down, Mar, you’ll like this.” Like a tour guide he made little comments along the way: “I love the way [Audrey Hepburn] wears her hair, almost like a crown.” Watching Cat survey the people at Holly Golightly’s cocktail party he remarked, “Cat’s not really a cat; he’s a person.” Up until seeing that movie my only experience of George Peppard was from The A Team, and I never would have recognized him so young (and with red hair) if my father had not pointed him out. There was no part of the film that my father did not enjoy without a chortle or admire -- until the scene when Holly suggests to Paul that they steal something from the five and dime store. “This is the only part of this movie of which I do not approve,” he said emphatically.

When I watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s now, it surprises me that my father liked the film so much at eighteen (Consider that this is a man who taught his kids to swim by throwing them into the deep end of the pool because that’s how John Wayne did it in Hondo (1953)). Breakfast at Tiffany’s seems like a chick flick, a pre-Sex and the City paean to the single girl in New York City, complete with Givenchy dresses, cocktails and marrying the richest man. When I asked my father recently what he liked so much about the film he told me, “I enjoyed every minute of that movie. I loved the music. I liked the actors, Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard with hair. I liked Patricia Neal in her role, too. The only thing I didn’t like about that movie was that when it was over, I was still failing all my classes.”

Failing? I vaguely remember him telling me once that he almost failed out of college after his first semester. When I think of the film in this light, it makes sense: my father liked the movie because here at last was someone who put a name to that vague feeling of fear and malaise he had. He identified with Holly and what she called the “Mean Reds.” Yet when I asked about this, I did not get the answer I expected.

“Huh? Mean Reds? No… I didn’t go to the movies to think about them, Mar. I went to be entertained.”

My family is used to me asking seemingly random questions. As a writer and a naturally curious person, it’s what I do. Most of the time they answer without much fuss, but I recognize that sometimes I stray into memories undisturbed for a long time. While my father answered my question, that was as far as it would go. I could tell he didn’t want to talk more about it.

My father went to school on an academic scholarship. He definitely wasn’t stupid. Failing classes? How? What happened? I ask other questions, different questions. I piece together things I remember hearing, different conversations from long ago. Here is what I know:

By the time my father went to college he was very definite about what kind of movies he liked, and his tastes have not varied since: “I am not impressed by any overriding theory or philosophy in a movie, which is why more than anything I hate a movie with a message.” He did not care for The Apartment (1960) (“Everybody was a rat.”) or Spartacus (1960) (“The guy died.”) He loved Lawrence of Arabia (1962) (“The scenes in the desert were amazing. At the intermission, everybody wanted a Coke.”) for the music as much as the story. He saw films from the 1930s and 40s on television, watching late night movies at 11 P.M. and weekend movies at 1 P.M. However, he still went out to theaters to see the latest films. He lived at home and walked to classes, but he also had a car – a green and white Olds Rocket ’88 that went 100 mph, and he drove it along the same back roads he worked construction on in the summer to get to the theaters in Rittman or Orrville. He often drove without point or purpose and went to the theater of whatever town he drove into. This was how he saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s, stumbling into the Orr Theater.

The film opens with an orchestral arrangement of Mancini’s song. Audrey Hepburn gets out of a cab on a deserted New York street. She pulls a Danish and a cup of coffee out of a bag and walks north on 5th Avenue, studying the jewelry in the windows at Tiffany’s. Fade to a row of unremarkable-looking brownstone apartments. Holly tries to sneak past a man in a car, but he sees her and follows her, shouting about how giving her fifty-dollars for the powder room gives him certain “rights.” Mr. Yunioshi (an almost pathetic role played by Mickey Rooney) objects to the noise, and the angry man leaves. Cut: Paul Varjak gets out of a cab in front of Holly’s apartment and looks around. Cut: the doorbell rings and Cat jumps onto the sleeping Holly. Holly opens the door to find an apologetic Paul – he just moved in, he doesn’t have keys, blah blah – but Holly can’t hear him through her earplugs. Paul asks to use the phone and Holly invites him in.

And there it is. The scene which occurs fifteen minutes into the film, an almost tossed-off exchange:

Holly Golightly: You know those days when you get the mean reds?
Paul Varjak: The mean reds, you mean like the blues?
Holly: No. The blues are because you're getting fat and maybe it's been raining too long – you're just sad, that's all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you're afraid and you don't know what you're afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?
Paul: Sure.
Holly: Well, when I get it the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany's. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there. If I could find a real-life place that'd make me feel like Tiffany's, then - then I'd buy some furniture and give the cat a name! (Courtesy IMDB)

Holly’s struggle to “find Tiffany’s” is what drives her. It’s what makes the romance between Holly and Paul sweet and funny and a little bit sad. It’s the whole point of the movie. And my father says he never thought about it?

Random bits of advice and observations from my father fill in more details. He always stressed academic achievement, but he also told us there comes a point when you can study too much. Cramming the night before an exam isn’t going to help and you might be better off playing shooting baskets until one in the morning. He also prescribed contemplative solitude. Years later when I was deep in my own funk, he drove me along the same back roads he drove to various small-town movie houses. We eventually ended up out to the OARDC Experimental station. “I used to come up here at night and watch the lights twinkling,” he told me. Another favorite spot was a large rock on campus. When I went to the same college, I saw the rock of which he spoke.

“That rock isn’t private. It’s right next to the main path.”

“You’d be surprised how private it is at two in the morning.”

If all this does not sound like a man who wrestled with the Mean Reds, then I don’t know what the Mean Reds are.

I cannot believe that he missed the idea of the Mean Reds entirely. At some internal level, he must have felt that here at last was someone who knew what it meant to be scared without knowing why. Perhaps he didn’t recognize it because Holly’s society-girl aspirations were so different from his own. I do not know how he came so close to failing that semester, nor do I know how he pulled his GPA up. Perhaps he views that almost-failure as a weakness he can’t admit to, and recognizing Holly’s Mean Reds means recognizing his own failings from that time. Or perhaps I, being of a more imaginary temperament, insist on seeing a pattern where there is none. Line the facts up however you like; the stories that we tell ourselves about our past selves mean everything.

I see now that, in a sense, he gave that movie to me. He gave it to me in the same way he tried to teach me how to use a volt-ohm meter, change the oil filter on my car, and make bread – because having the same temperament as he does, it was information I might someday need to know. Whatever the reasons he liked it, whatever he did or did not see in the film, he recognized that Breakfast at Tiffany's was a wonderful movie that could banish, if only for a time, those feelings of being afraid and not knowing what you’re afraid of. In a darkened theater, my father found Tiffany’s.

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