One of the hazards of being a sci-fi fanatic is that in the quest to read every space opera and see every time travel movie, a person inevitably misses some of the classics. For this reason, my girlfriend has taken it upon herself to make sure I am properly educated in classic cinema. Recently we watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s on Netflix, which I had never seen before. I’m not usually a big fan of romantic comedy, but I must admit I enjoyed it. However, I’m not a person who can simply enjoy something, I’m obsessed with analysis. So naturally, I have some comments and observations I’d like to share.
Like most romantic comedies, I found I fairly predictable, though quite well-written. I was not aware that it was based on a novel by the great Truman Capote. It’s no wonder these characters have captivated people for so long, especially Audrey Hepburn’s irrepressible Holly Golightly. This movie is a perfect example of the “show don’t tell” dictum. Her friend Paul Varjak (played by George Peppard) says nothing romantic to Holly for most of the movie, but his feelings for her are obvious.
Another thing I loved about the movie was its period feel, which was of course contemporary when it was made. It’s the same reason I like foreign movies, for the window they provide into another culture. Likewise, Breakfast is a window into another time, though I’m old enough to remember many of the elements in the story. One of the movie’s most jarring elements is the pervasiveness of smoking. Although the nasty habit is still with us, it’s sad that the social aspect is gone, along with accoutrements like Holly’s amazing two-foot-long cigarette holder. (Recently I saw an Audrey Hepburn calendar featuring the iconic Tiffany’s photo in which the cigarette had been air-brushed out. Heresy!) Other nostalgic items include rotary phones, men and women wearing classy hats, and the automobile as an exhaust-spewing seat-belt-less land yacht. Humor was different in those times, too, as exemplified by Mickey Rooney’s hilariously offensive Japanese character Mr. Yunioshi.
But the thing that impressed me most was how civilized the people were. Though Holly’s neighbor Yunioshi repeatedly scolds her for her inconsiderate behavior, he tolerates her antics with Asian detachment until he finally calls the cops on her noisy party. When the police arrive, there’s no SWAT team, just guys in blue uniforms armed with nothing more deadly than billy clubs. On other occasions, Holly’s drunken suitors bang on her apartment door at all hours of the night, but they skedaddle the moment Yunioshi yells at them. Likewise, when Holly’s ex (Buddy Ebsen) shows up wanting to take her home to Arkansas, he accepts her refusal sadly but graciously. Through all this, does Holly get angry and defensive when her schemes to land a rich man fail? No, she remains optimistic, though at times a bit clueless.
As I reflected on the changes in American behavior since that time, a powerful sadness came over me. Admittedly, romantic comedies like Breakfast gloss over issues like poverty and racism, and the few blacks that appeared in the background looked respectably middle-class. Yet despite Jim Crow, “the ‘hood” was much safer in those days, with most black men home with their families rather than languishing in prison, as Thomas Sowell would tell us. In 1961, our country had recently finished two brutal wars, but there was still more neighborly idealism than angry jingoism. People believed in kindness and charity, and gave to the poor of their own accord, rather than being forced by the tax man. It’s not like they were all angels; Holly is a low-grade grifter, and Paul is the ‘kept man’ of a rich married woman. But for the most part, the system worked. Breakups led mostly to broken hearts, not broken bones, and bar brawls tended to end with black eyes rather than gut shots.
So how did we get from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Breaking Bad? I’m not one to blame the decline of religion and traditional morality. I don’t mind if two men can get married, and I don’t care about the divorce rate, abortion, or illegal immigration. But I do care about peace and freedom, which have been in short supply lately. My own theory is that Holly’s generation is partly to blame. They were too polite, and too trusting, and allowed the government and the ultra-wealthy to promulgate numerous wars and financial frauds. By the time the country passed to the Baby Boomers, the Military Industrial Complex, which Eisenhower warned us about right around the time Breakfast was being filmed, was firmly in control.
Since then, we’ve had the Cold War,the War on Poverty the Vietnam War, two Gulf Wars, the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Nowadays America spends more on weaponry and incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth. What we gained in sophistication, we lost in civility. Characters like Paul, the cynical aspiring novelist, and Holly, the social climber with the banned cigarette holder, are far more civilized than most of us will ever be.