Thursday, 14 April 2011

New York and Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote (1958)

Holly Golightly, the main focus of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, lives in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the most affluent area of New York City in "a brownstone in the East Seventies" (a brownstone being a terraced apartment building built in brown sandstone) around the corner from a bar on Lexington Avenue, one of the north-south streets that runs through the centre of the Upper East Side from 21st Street to 131st Street. Holly does not have a job and when we meet her she lives alone, but she pays her rent through keeping an array of various rich male suitors, one of whom pays her $100 a week simply to visit him in prison. Holly Golightly is a compound of several genre-types long associated in film and literature with the big city and New York especially – the boy/girl of humble origins seeking fame/fortune or a new life in the big city (The Jazz Singer, Funny Girl, Midnight Cowboy), the socialite (The Flapper, Dinner at Eight, Dark Victory), and the gold-digger (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, Bonfire of the Vanities). With its awe-inspiring skyscrapers, iconic landmarks, and with its historic status as a gateway to the country for immigrants, New York City has long been seen as a beacon to those seeking the American dream. Capote's own mother left the husband she married as a teenager and abandoned relatives to move to New York City seeking a wealthier life (and husband) when he was just a child.

I have already made no secret of the fact that I am not a fan of the 1961 film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The main problem I have with it is that the story pivots around this central character of Holly Golightly who is portrayed by Audrey Hepburn as adorably charming - deeply na├»ve, but at no great harm to herself or others. She is an extroverted girl of extravagant wants who at the end of the picture realises all she really needs is the love of a good man. In other words it's a Hollywood fairytale romance. The Holly Golightly of Capote’s novella is an infinitely more complex character who is by turns a prostitute in all but name (she casually boasts, whether honestly or falsely is never made explicit, of the numerous rich men she beds as an escort), a kleptomaniac, staggeringly materialistic, and at best (in her defence) someone who may have undiagnosed mental health problems. She even tells a cat to “f*ck off” – I don’t remember Audrey Hepburn doing that! In the end if there is one thing that everyone agrees on, it’s not that she needs love, she needs psychiatric help, or at least protecting from herself. And yet somehow she still manages to make even our level-headed narrator fall for her (although no romantic relationship blossoms between the two as it does in the film). Capote's character feels much more believable - everyone knows or has met a Holly Golightly - and Capote was himself unhappy with the many changes to the film adaptation and stated that Paramount had double-crossed him in every way. It’s a shame, because it’s a great book, and one that can be read in a few hours at that. So why bother watching the film?

Next: New Jersey

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