Friday, June 27, 2014

Speed

When it comes to action movies you don’t have to reinvent the genre every time out. Audiences are hungry for engaging characters to root for, a dastardly villain to jeer and some exciting action set pieces to get their pulses racing. Speed (1994) does just that. While it certainly didn’t win any points for originality – it’s basically Die Hard (1988) on a bus – the movie is so effortlessly entertaining that its flaws seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Every time I watch Speed I get caught up in the action and marvel at the fantastic chemistry between its two leads – Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. And to think the former was considered something of a gamble at the time despite previously starring in the modestly successful cops and surfers action movie Point Break (1991). The latter was something of an unknown commodity herself, appearing previously in a string of forgettable supporting roles in movies like The Thing Called Love (1993) and Demolition Man (1993). The success of Speed changed both of their careers and how the media and the public at large perceived them.

When an explosion strands a group of people in an express elevator between the 29th and 30th floors in a high-rise office building in downtown Los Angeles, SWAT are called in to rescue these poor folks before the mad bomber (Dennis Hopper) blows the emergency brakes in 23 minutes unless he gets three million dollars. Leading the charge is Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels), a young hotshot and a cynical veteran respectively, that are introduced hurtling through the air in their in the same kind of fashion as seen in early Tony Scott and Michael Bay action movies.

Jack and Harry have a tried and true dynamic that is familiar in these kinds of movies with the former being a cocky guy who thinks outside the box while the latter is an endless source of sarcastic remarks. They are also very good at their job, so much so that they manage to thwart the bomber in an excitingly tense sequence. It looks like the bomber blew himself up, but when a bus explodes near Jack’s favorite coffee shop (such a ‘90s staple), our intrepid hero is contacted by the bomber and told of a specific bus that has a bomb on it that will arm itself once it reaches 50 miles per hour and blow up if it then goes below that speed. Jack has to find it and then figure out a way to either disarm the bomb or get the passengers off without the bomber’s knowledge. He’s aided in this endeavor by Annie (Sandra Bullock), one of the bus passengers.


I like the little bits of business in the movie, like the attention paid to some of the bus passengers, most notably Alan Ruck’s good-natured yet annoyingly overly chatting tourist and how Annie comes up with a lame excuse, like gum on her seat, in order to move away from him without hurting his feelings. It is things, like that moment, that provide bits of insight into these characters and makes them more relatable. There are also moments of levity like Glenn Plummer’s understandably irked car owner providing a humorous commentary to Jack commandeering his vehicle and then driving like a maniac to catch the bus. These moments are used judiciously to help alleviate the tension at key junctures in the movie.

In 1994, Keanu Reeves was still known mostly for independent movies like River’s Edge (1986) and My Own Private Idaho (1991) and dabbling in studio fare like Parenthood (1989) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). If there were any questions about his leading man credentials prior to Speed, they were quashed by the movie’s massive success. I like that De Bont makes a point of showing Jack thinking things through and figuring out that the bomber is in the building at the beginning of the movie. And so, the beauty of Speed is that it’s not just a battle of wills between Jack and the bomber, but also of wits. Reeves does a fine job in the thankless stereotypical action hero role. The actor doesn’t inject too much personality into the character beyond acting heroic, but comes to life in his scenes with Sandra Bullock who temporarily frees him from the constraints of his underwritten role and actually steals many of their scenes together. That being said, he excels at the physical stuff, building on the action chops he displayed in Point Break and anticipating the even loftier action movie notes he would hit with The Matrix films.

I like that Annie isn’t your typical damsel in distress and Sandra Bullock doesn’t play her that way. She takes the wheel of the bus after the driver is incapacitated and offers witty, witheringly sarcastic remarks, like when Jack asks her if she can drive it (“Oh sure, it’s just driving a really big Pinto.”). She engages in amusing, Joss Whedon-flavored banter with Jack, which helps break up the tension every so often. Annie is not an ultra-confident action heroine, but just someone trying to do the best they can under extraordinary circumstances. It is this appealing girl-next-door quality that audiences fell in love with and transformed Bullock into America’s sweetheart for a few years. With her adorable good looks and spunky charm, Bullock is very likeable as Jack’s foil. There is something inherently appealing about her that makes you like the actress. Annie not only shows resilience in the face of overwhelming danger, but also a vulnerability that is refreshing in an action movie and quite endearing.


It doesn’t hurt that Bullock has terrific chemistry with Reeves. It’s not something you can manufacture: it either exists or it doesn’t and the two actors play well off each other as Annie humanizes Jack. They make a good team working together to keep the bus moving while he tries to figure out how to get everyone off safely. It’s really only until the final showdown with the bomber that she’s reduced to a stereotypical damsel in distress role. The success of Speed paved the way for an ill-conceived sequel that Reeves wisely opted out of, leaving Bullock to try and recreate the magic of the first one with Jason Patric, whom she did not have good chemistry with like she did with Reeves, which can’t be stated enough.

Thanks to his memorable turn in Blue Velvet (1986), Dennis Hopper enjoyed a string villainous roles in several movies (see Super Mario Bros., Red Rock West, Waterworld, and so on) and he looks to be clearly relishing a mad bomber character that alternates between gleefully tormenting Jack and ranting about what he’s owed. Hopper’s baddie isn’t your typical movie psycho, but a guy with a specific agenda that gradually becomes apparent over the course of the movie.

Having learned from master action movie director John McTiernan where he was the cinematographer on Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October (1990), Jan de Bont shows considerable action chops on Speed, from the daring elevator rescue that kicks things off to the preposterous jump the bus makes over a large section of missing freeway. De Bont understands that what makes most top-notch action movies work is dynamic editing. Kinetic action is best conveyed with the right amount of editing so that when something dramatic is happening the movie often cuts to a reaction shot of someone, for example, to show how he or she are dealing with it. No matter how implausible the action if the actors sell it, we’ll believe it, much like the aforementioned bus jump.


Screenwriter Graham Yost had cut his teeth writing for television and found himself between jobs when he wrote the screenplay for Speed – then called Minimum Speed. He finally got a job writing for Full House when he got the call that his Speed script had sold. He soon quit the sitcom. Jan de Bont was developing a movie about skydiving at Paramount Pictures when he was shown the script for Speed. He liked the premise and wanted it to be his directorial debut, sticking with the project even when the studio put it in turnaround and it eventually migrated over to 20th Century Fox. However, he wasn’t the first choice to direct with the likes of John McTiernan and Walter Hill approached, but both of who turned the project down.

For the role of Jack Traven, the studio approached Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks and then Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. Someone mentioned Keanu Reeves and Yost remembered that he was quite good in Parenthood. The actor was initially hesitant to do the movie after reading Yost’s script: “There were situations set up for one-liners and I felt it was forced – Die Hard mixed with some kind of screwball comedy.” Coming off Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993), Reeves spent two months in the gym in order to look the part of a police officer. He immersed himself in the role, training with the actual LAPD SWAT, which inspired him to get a military-style haircut. This freaked out some studio executives who felt the look was a little extreme. He further immersed himself in the role by also picking out his character’s clothes. While Speed was in production, Reeves’ good friend and fellow actor River Phoenix died from a drug overdose. De Bont adjusted the shooting schedule so that Reeves had a chance to deal with it.

As originally written, Annie was an African-American paramedic and at some point, Halle Berry was approached. Yost wanted someone funnier for the part and thought of Ellen DeGeneres. The studio wanted actresses like Meryl Streep and Kim Basinger, both of whom passed because they didn’t buy into the movie’s premise. The studio didn’t want Sandra Bullock and De Bont had fight for her: “I couldn’t see Julia Roberts driving this bus. I could not see several other actresses … I felt I needed an actress who you could believe would have taken the bus and Sandra had this kind of every day look – I mean that in a good way – in the way she dresses, the way she behaves, very casual.” De Bont brought Bullock in to audition with Reeves several times to not only convince the studio that she was right for the role, but to also develop a rapport between the two actors that would be readily evident in the final movie. At the very last moment, the studio relented and allowed him to cast her.


Everyone agreed that the script needed work and a week before principal photography was to begin, De Bont brought in Joss Whedon, then a script doctor on films like The Quick and the Dead (1995) and Waterworld (1995), to do some revisions, which involved, according to Yost, rewriting almost all of the dialogue. He also cut back on some of Jack’s superficial humor and made him a more earnest character, tweaked the plot, like showing how Jack was able to track down Dennis Hopper’s bomber, and changed Alan Ruck’s character from a lawyer who is killed to a tourist. De Bont remembers, “I would call him early in the morning and say, ‘Joss, I need two lines for this.’ And then he’d call me back 10 minutes later. He’d come up with some great little sayings that were basically continuing the tension, while at the same time pushing some relief into it as well.” De Bont came up with the action set pieces, like the 50-foot bus jump, that he had always wanted to see in a movie.

Speed enjoyed mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “All of this is of course gloriously silly, a plundering of situations from the Indiana Jones and Die Hard movies all the way back to the Perils of Pauline, but so what? If it works, it works.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The summertime no-brainer needn’t be entirely without brains. It can be as savvy as Speed, the runaway-bus movie that delivers wall-to-wall action, a feat that’s never as easy as it seems.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “Nothing Speed puts on screen, from fiery explosions to mayhem on the freeway, hasn’t been done many times before, but De Bont and company manage to make it feel fresh and exciting.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “It’s a pleasure to be in the hands of an action filmmaker who respects the audience. De Bont’s craftsmanship is so supple that even the triple ending feels justified, like the cataclysmic final stage of a Sega death match.” Finally, the Washington Post’s Hal Hinson praised Sandra Bullock’s performance: “If it weren’t for the smart-funny twist she gives to her lines – they’re the best in the film – the air on that bus would have been stifling.”

Like any good action movie thrill ride, Speed puts its characters through its paces by confronting them with one danger after another. What makes this movie so appealing is how Jack and Annie work together to figure out and overcome the obstacles that confront them. Not every problem is solved with a gun like in so many action movies from the 1980s. In fact, in Speed, guns are rendered useless, forcing Jack to be much more resourceful. If there isn’t much depth to these characters it’s because there doesn’t need to be. Speed has nothing more on its mind then to be an entertaining ride and on that level it works like gangbusters.



SOURCES

Bierly, Mandi. “Speed 20th Anniversary: Screenwriter Graham Yost Looks Back on the ‘Bus Movie’ That Became a Classic.” Entertainment Weekly. June 10, 2014.

Gerosa, Melina. “Speed Racer.” Entertainment Weekly. June 10, 1994.

Kozak, Jim. “Serenity Now! An Interview with Joss Whedon.” In Focus. August/September 2005.


Tapley, Kristopher. “Sandra Bullock, Keanu Reeves and Jan de Bont Look Back at Speed 20 Years Later. HitFix. June 10, 2014.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Tex

In the early 1980s, Disney struggled to become relevant and in the process decided to gamble on several live-action films that weren’t the kinds of projects the Mouse House were known for making, chief among them Tron (1982), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), and Tex (1982). The latter film was an adaptation of the popular S.E. Hinton novel of the same name. Her first four Young Adult novels (The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, Tex, and That Was Then This Now) were all set in and around Tulsa and struck a chord with young people because they refused to talk down to their intended audience. They also dealt with the class conflict between rich and poor kids in a way that not many other authors were doing at the time. Her novels featured worlds inhabited mostly by teenagers with an emphasis on the intense friendships between them as well as the friction between siblings in an unflinchingly honest way. At first, Disney picking up the option for Tex seemed like an odd move as the book took a frank look at two brothers trying to stay together with very little money and each one heading off in different directions. However, it did fit in with the current regime’s desire to think outside the box and the end result was a smartly written, well-acted slice-of-life tale of regular folks just trying to get by.

Tex McCormick (Matt Dillon) is a rebellious teenager who would rather spend time with his horse Rowdy then waste time in high school where he’s flunking out anyway. He lives in a modest house with his older brother Mason (Jim Metzler) who’s trying to scrape together enough money to go to Indiana University and play basketball. Their mother is dead and their father (Bill McKinney) is a deadbeat, spending most of his time on the road working rodeos. It seems like the only reason Tex stays in school is to hang out with his best friend Johnny (Emilio Estevez) and flirt with his beautiful sister Jamie (Meg Tilly).

The film refuses to sugarcoat the tough times Tex and Mason endure as they try to survive on their own. For example, Tex comes home to find that Mason sold his horse and he understandably flips out. There’s an almost scary intensity to their fight as we realize just how hard it is for them to make ends meet and how Mason has to make difficult choices for the both of them. Director Tim Hunter expertly captures life for young people in the Midwest at that time. We see Johnny and Tex goofing around at the local county fair and yet Hunter tempers this by having the latter go see a psychic. The director doesn’t treat it like some kind of joke, but rather an eerie foreshadowing of things to come.


Hunter does a nice job of portraying Tex’s day-to-day life in a naturalistic way that is reminiscent of films from the 1970s. There is nothing flashy about his direction as he wisely gets out of the way of the actors and lets them do their thing. As a result, he gets some wonderfully grounded performances out of his talented young cast with the relationship between Tex and Mason as the heart of the film. This is due in large part to the solid screenplay by Hunter and Charles S. Haas, which features realistic dialogue and scenes that feel like we’re intruding on these characters’ lives.

For a brief time, Matt Dillon was the go-to actor for Hinton adaptations, appearing in The Outsiders and Rumble Fish (1983). With Tex, he shows versatility at an early age, playing a vastly different character then he would go on to portray in the aforementioned films. While those were very stylized takes on Hinton’s novels, Tex wisely opts for a much more grounded approach, which is appropriate for the subject matter. Dillon had the brooding good looks that made him a teen idol at the time, but he delivers a strong, Brando-esque Method performance as a teen trying to do all the typical things someone his age does, while facing some pretty harsh realities.

Jim Metzler is excellent as older brother Mason who is torn between quitting school and getting a job to support Tex, and getting a scholarship to Indiana University in order to get out of their dead-end town. He’s been forced to grow-up fast, much like Darrel in The Outsiders (1983) who dropped out of school in order to support his younger brothers. Mason may ride Tex about going to school and staying out of trouble, but he sticks up for him, like when Johnny’s father (Ben Johnson) stops by to question Tex about getting his sons drunk the night before.


Tex is a potent reminder of how good Emilio Estevez was early on in his career, appearing in memorable efforts like The Outsiders and Repo Man (1984). He has a minor role as Tex’s best friend and he plays well off of Dillon – a rapport they would have in their next film together – The Outsiders. Meg Tilly is quite good as Tex’s tomboyish love interest. Jamie is armed with a caustic wit, which she uses to flirt with Tex. Like him, she’s going through changes and has a lot to sort out, which leaves their potential romance up in the air.

While making Over the Edge (1979) with Matt Dillon, the young actor asked screenwriter Tim Hunter if he’d adapt one of S.E. Hinton’s novels as they were his favorites. In fact, many of the kids cast in the film were fans of her books. Intrigued, Hunter read a copy of Tex while it was still in galleys. After a string of commercial failures, Disney wanted to try something different. Hunter knew that the studio were going in this direction and approached them with Tex and asked to direct. As luck would have it, at the time Disney vice president in charge of production Tom Wilhite was determined to hire young, inexperienced filmmakers with talent.

In 1979, Hinton received a phone call from Disney expressing an interest in adapting her novel Tex into a film. Initially, she wasn’t interested in the studio adapting one of her novels. “I thought they’d really sugar it up, take out all the sex, drugs and violence and leave nothing but a story of a boy and his horse.” Wilhite personally visited with Hinton and convinced her that the film would be faithful to her book. She agreed to option her book, but only under the condition that her beloved horse Toyota be cast as Tex’s horse in the film.


If Hinton had any other reservations about the project, they went away when she met with Hunter, the film’s director who also planned to co-write the script. They got along famously and she took him around Tulsa, showing some of the actual locations used in the book. At first, she wasn’t convinced that Dillon was right for the part of Tex, especially after their first meeting, which left her unimpressed, but there was no questioning his commitment to the role. Dillon arrived two weeks early so that Hinton could give him riding lessons.  In addition, she helped scout locations, cast actors and rewrote bits of dialogue during filming.

Disney originally looked at Stockton, California to shoot Tex, but Hunter lobbied for Tulsa and convinced the studio to shoot there. Principal photography began on May 11, 1981 on a $5 million budget. The film received good reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “There is more to this movie’s story, but the important thing about it isn’t what happens, but how it happens. The movie is so accurately acted … that we care more about the characters than about the plot.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Metzler’s performance: “In a much less flashy role, Mr. Metzler is equally impressive; if Mr. Dillon’s Tex gives the movie its glamour, Mr. Metzler’s Mason gives it backbone.” People magazine praised Dillon’s performance: “Tex, in which his face shows the play of thought in fresh, unexpected way, raises him to the level of a young Paul Newman. Dillon, now 18, finds humor and honesty in the role with a disarming lack of guile.” However, Disney dropped the ball in marketing Tex and it didn’t do well at the box office. It went on to be selected for the New York Film Festival, which prompted Disney to re-release it in selected theaters where they hoped word-of-mouth would give it a second life.

While the problems Tex and Mason face may not be earth-shattering in the grand scheme of things, they are to these characters and the film really captures how everything seems like life or death at that young age. These are not easily solvable problems and it is refreshing to see that in this day and age. Tex flew in the face of previous Disney films by refusing to sugarcoat the real world problems its characters faced. It also demonstrated, yet again, Hunter’s affinity for the trials and tribulations of teens, which he would continue to explore with his next film River’s Edge (1986).



SOURCES

Farber, Stephen. “The ‘Oddball’ Who Brought Tex to Disney.” The New York Times. October 10, 1982.

Farber, Stephen. “Directors Join the S.E. Hinton Fan Club.” The New York Times. March 20, 1983.

Hinton, S.E. Some of Tim’s Stories. Speak. 2009.


Wooley, John. Shot in Oklahoma: A Century of Sooner State Cinema. University of Oklahoma Press. 2011.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Flashpoint

Thanks to the Watergate scandal, the 1970s was a fantastic decade for paranoid conspiracy thrillers with such fine examples as The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and All the President’s Men (1976) among the very best of that era. Audiences had become cynical and jaded about their government and were receptive to films that questioned authority. By the end of the ‘70s, a certain amount of fatigue set in and people wanted to see more upbeat fare like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) – escapist entertainment. By the 1980s, it was getting harder for conspiracy thrillers to attract mainstream audiences with rock solid films like Blow Out (1981) and Cutter’s Way (1981) failing at the box office. The little-seen Flashpoint (1984) also deserves to be mentioned with these other two films as one of the best thrillers to come out of this decade.

Logan (Kris Kristofferson) and Wyatt (Treat Williams) are two United States Border patrolmen that serve in the worst performing sector in Texas. So much so, that their boss (Kevin Conway) has brought in a pencil-pusher from Washington, D.C. to demonstrate a new scanning system that involves geo-sensors buried in the ground that will pick up an illegal immigrant trying to cross the border. Once the sensors are in place not as many agents will be needed, which means roughly two-thirds of their staff will be fired. Understandably upset at the prospect of planting the very technology that will conceivably cost them their livelihood; Logan and Wyatt continue to do their job.

One day while out on a call, Logan nearly crashes his jeep and in the process uncovers a vehicle buried in the ground. After doing some digging, he finds $800,000 and shows Wyatt what he found. Further searching uncovers a rifle and a license plate that dates back to 1963. They decide to check on the money and if it’s legit they’ll keep it in case they’re fired. Logan and Wyatt soon find out the dead guy in the jeep was not your average crook and cross paths with a hard-nosed FBI agent by the name of Carson (Kurtwood Smith) who arrives to take charge of a drug bust.


Logan is the laid-back veteran who’s been around long enough to know how to work the system while Wyatt is a young hothead that believes he can still make a difference. They make a good team, complimenting each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams play well off each other and are believable as a duo that has worked together for some time. This is conveyed in the way they interact with each other, like the scene where Logan and Wyatt come across two women (played by Tess Harper and Jean Smart) whose car broke down in the desert. While checking out the engine the two men think up an excuse to keep these lovely ladies around long enough to take them out for a night on the town.

Williams is well-cast as the quick-tempered Wyatt, playing him as a man who hasn’t had the integrity beat out of him by the system. It exists in Logan too, but it has been lying dormant until the drug bust case and the appearance of the FBI agent that goes with it awakens the feeling. Kristofferson does a nice job of playing a guy who isn’t as jaded about the world as he would like others (and maybe himself) believe. Wyatt almost has himself convinced, but this case continues to gnaw away at him and he finally has a reason to give a shit about something again.

The always watchable Kurtwood Smith is excellent as the no-nonsense Carson. He takes what could have been a typical antagonist role and makes it special in a scene where Carson questions Logan’s decision to pass up a promising career in the military to be a border patrol guard out in the middle of nowhere. It’s a wonderfully acted monologue as the FBI agent lays it all out for Logan:


“The law of supply and demand … Your fucking job depends on those wetbacks. And if we didn’t have ‘em, we’d invent them. Otherwise, how would your department justify the millions it gets from Congress each year? It’s the American way, pal. Supply and demand. And when the supply is lacking you create it. Every morning I get up and I thank God for drugs and murder and subversion. Because without them we’d all be out of a job.”

Logan thinks he knows how things work, but he meets his match with the amoral Carson who has no illusions about what he does and why. Smith nails this scene without any flash – just straightforward acting with a slight air of menace as he portrays a man that Logan could have easily become if he hadn’t chosen to be a border patrolman.

Flashpoint received mixed reviews from the critics that saw it. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Flashpoint is such a good thriller for so much of its length that it’s kind of a betrayal when the ending falls apart. Why did they try so hard and then give up at the finish line?” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Tannen’s strength is his ability to grab his audience’s interest quickly and to hold on to it, even by the most superficial means. Even when the movie doesn’t entirely make sense, it manages to be effective.”


Flashpoint is an engrossing mystery that gradually reveals itself the deeper Logan and Wyatt become involved in it. The film only gets more interesting as the scope of the conspiracy becomes known and we’re right there with our two protagonists as they uncover it. It is refreshing to see a thriller that eschews wall-to-wall action and convenient coincidences that plague many contemporary thrillers in favor of two protagonists that actually use their intelligence and abilities to figure things out. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its exciting moments, like when a wounded Logan outmaneuvers three armed antagonists using his wits as much as his marksmanship.


That being said, Flashpoint places an emphasis on the duo’s savvy and keen observations of a given scene by studying things like tire tracks or surveying the terrain. The problem Logan and Wyatt face is that they get involved in something that puts them in grave danger. The film didn’t do very well because it flew in the face of the feel-good capitalism of the Reagan era by not only criticizing the problem of illegal immigration in America, but also the dirty secrets the U.S. government keeps. Flashpoint’s commercial failure can be chalked up partly to bad timing and now the time is right for it to be rediscovered.


Check out Sean Gill's fantastic review of this film over at his blog - Junta Juleil's Culture Shock.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Breakfast at Tiffany's

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This article originally appeared on the Wonders in the Dark blog as part of the Great Romantic Movies countdown.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) is – alongside The World of Henry Orient (1964) and Manhattan (1979) – the quintessential, romantic New York City fairy tale. Based on the novella by Truman Capote, the film is, like the others, a classic, snapshot of the city at a specific, spectacular point in time. Seeing the Manhattan of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is like going back to the early Sixties with vintage vehicles a go-go and places that no longer exist. The film is one of Audrey Hepburn’s signature roles one for which she will always be remembered – but it almost didn’t turn out that way. Capote envisioned Marilyn Monroe to play protagonist Holly Golightly, while Paramount Pictures wanted Hepburn; but even the actress wasn’t sure she could play the part. Now, it is impossible to envision anybody else in the role.

Right from the start, with the endearing vision of Holly Golightly walking through the deserted streets of the city while Johnny Mercer sings “Moon River,” director Blake Edwards establishes a wistful, nostalgic atmosphere. It’s an iconic image and one that sets the tone for the rest of the film. As her surname implies, Holly is a carefree, single girl living an apparently glamorous life in the Big Apple. A single girl with expensive tastes, Holly was inarguably the prototype for Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City. Holly is “crazy about Tiffany’s,” the legendary jewelry store that we see her staring at dreamily in the opening credits. For Holly, going to Tiffany’s with coffee and danish in hand is like going to church.

Paul Varjak (George Peppard), a struggling writer, moves into her building and is quickly whisked into the whirlwind force of nature that is Holly. He’s been working on a novel for five years, but lacking inspiration, writer’s block was his only roommate. Sullenly defeated, Paul is still stinging from a bad review from The New York Times years ago (from which he can still quote, bitterly). We soon learn that he is being supported financially by his own “interior decorator” (Patricia Neal), which gives him something in common with Holly, bonding over early on for she dreams of marrying a rich man or, at the very least, dating men who lavish her with expensive gifts and money. What better way to maintain her glamorous life? Holly starts off as something of a fascinating enigma and over the course of the film we, along with Paul, learn about her life before arriving in New York City.


As he demonstrated with films like The Party (1968), Blake Edwards knew how to depict a bash on film and make you want to be a part of it. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is no exception with the famous party scene that takes place in Holly’s apartment one of controlled chaos as the tiny space is invaded by many people. The camera lingers on the more colorful pockets as it gets wilder until the cops arrive and bring it an abrupt halt. There’s a wonderful madcap vibe that makes you want to be there. It is one of the best parties put on film, capturing how fun a shindig like that can so easily get out of control.

Audrey Hepburn is adoringly loveable as Holly, an irresistible, charming individual. She is a classic bachelorette with very little furniture (even though she’s lived there a year), stays up late and sleeps in later. Edwards inserts nice little touches, like how she keeps a bottle of perfume in her mailbox, that provide insight into her character. Under Holly’s bubbly exterior, Hepburn’s performance hints at a loneliness, an inner sadness. She conveys a heartbreaking, wounded vulnerability underneath a cheery fa├žade. This is evident in the famous scene where she sings “Moon River” on the fire escape of her apartment or when Paul wakes her up from a nightmare. There’s a certain fragility to Holly that Hepburn maintains over the course of the film until the climactic scene when everything comes crashing down. One gets the feeling that she needs to be rescued, to be saved, and this gives the film an almost tangible, melancholic tone while also making it easy for Paul (and us) to fall in love with her. Hepburn gives a complete performance displaying a full range of emotions that go from giddy happiness to utter despair.

Hepburn has wonderful chemistry with George Peppard; I love the give and take between them, like how Holly has a habit of calling him “Fred” after her brother who is in the army and whom she dreams of running off to Mexico with to raise horses. Peppard wisely plays it cool, downplaying his role, which acts as a nice contrast to Hepburn’s flamboyance. He has a tough job of playing the straight man to Hepburn’s colorful Holly. He is the audience surrogate. However, Peppard is excellent because he knows exactly how to react to all of Holly’s outrageous behavior. At first, his character seems more than a bit on the bland side and we don’t know much about his past except for tidbits of his relationship with Neal’s character. As the film progresses, however, bits and pieces of his past are revealed, fleshing out his character. Paul and Holly are both lonely souls trying to survive in the big city any way they can. For Holly, the city is her chance to escape and start anew. For Paul, he is merely passing time until his novel is written.


For the most part, the supporting cast is excellent with Martin Balsam as O.J. Berman, Holly’s Hollywood agent who has the habit of saying everybody’s name with “baby” after it; Buddy Ebsen playing a sad sack character that is a key figure in her past, and Patricia Neal as Paul’s deliciously elitist sugar mama. The only blemish is the racist Asian caricature that is Yunioshi, played by Mickey Rooney, which comes across as horribly dated and offensive. Fortunately, he is only a small part of the film.

It is said in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that “she doth give her sorrow so much sway.” For Holly to give herself back to her former life would be like caging an animal and resigning herself to a life where she has no happiness or freedom. To go back to that life would be to give up the happiness she has as Holly. In this respect, Breakfast at Tiffany’s could be read as a feminist tale of a woman freeing herself of traditional restraints of the era (like expecting to be a housewife, for example), but has constructed a cage of her own. As Paul says of her at one point, “she’s a girl who can’t help anyone, not even herself.” By the end of the film, Holly realizes that she can’t just change her exterior self by moving from city to city. To truly be independent she has to make an internal change. A truly beautiful woman has both guts and glamor – of which Holly has both in ample supply. Paul loves her for who she is and not as arm candy like her rich parade of men. She can’t be truly happy until she cuts those men out of her life and admit how she truly feels about Paul.


One could argue that her Holly persona is a bit of a flake, but it is merely part of her outer armor, protecting her from almost everyone she meets – except for Paul whom she allows to see glimpses of unguarded moments. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a majesterial film about two lonely people, each harboring their own dark secrets, that find one another and fall in love. It has the warm, inviting vibe of a Sunday morning spent having breakfast in bed. The film is a love letter to the city of New York. Even though the Manhattan of Breakfast at Tiffany’s only exists in yesterday’s memories, we can revisit it again and again every time we watch this film.