The iconic image of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, nonchalantly tapping her cigarette holder, is a horribly overfamiliar one. Variations of this famous publicity pose have adorned a trillion t-shirts, posters and tote bags over the last half century and today it seems more ubiquitous than ever. You'd never guess Hepburn was playing an escort if you weren't already acquainted with Blake Edward's film or Truman Capote's more explicit 1958 source novella. In fact, the economic realities behind Holly's lifestyle are treated so euphemistically in playwright George Axelrod's screen adaptation that it has almost proved possible for lazy merchandisers to successfully whitewash this inconvenient truth out of popular memory entirely. Today's consumers appear to prize Hepburn's elfin beauty and slender grace above all else. Having only half-comprehended her best-known character, they have co-opted Holly as an emblem of kooky/cute female befuddlement, an Annie Hall or Frances Ha for the early sixties. There is a case for Holly Golightly as proto-hipster: she keeps her telephone shut up inside an old suitcase to muffle its ringing, plays guitar on the fire escape and enjoys stealing animal masks from thrift stores and guzzling champagne before the sun is over the yardarm. The character's confused pop cultural afterlife would all be fine (because, ultimately, who really cares about fictional characters being properly understood before they're splashed around as role models?), but I just can't believe that all those who sport Hepburn's likeness on their walls or indeed about their person have actually sat through Edwards' ugly little romantic comedy lately and doubt very much that they'd think much of it if they did.
For Holly herself is much more than a charmingly chaotic eccentric with a chic wardrobe. She's a deeply haunted individual, a functioning alcoholic repulsed by her New York clientele of "rats and super rats" (and thus, by extension, herself and her choices), tormented by concern for her G.I. brother Fred and on the run from a past she is ashamed of, specifically her underage marriage to Doc (Buddy Ebsen), with whom she has two children that she's abandoned. Her refusal to name her cat turns out to stem from a deep rooted horror of "ownership", meaning people laying claim to her or otherwise attempting to possess her or pin her down to a serious romantic commitment. Paul Varjak (George Peppard) appears to be the right man to make an honest woman of her (well, these were different times) but he too proves to be a self-loathing sex worker, a failed writer supporting himself as a kept man. There's is a sad and troubled courtship between two wounded souls in which tragedy is only narrowly averted. Despite the undeniable charm of the leads, I'd say this psychodramatic scenario makes for a largely depressing viewing experience - aside from a raucous house party scene and Holly and Paul's twee day together spent doing new things - with the action rather drably shot and lit by Edwards throughout. Only a jaunty score from Henry Mancini (which unleashed 'Moon River' on an unsuspecting galaxy) and lively support playing from the likes of Patricia Neal and Martin Balsam help lighten the mood. The moment in which Holly learns of Fred's death via telegram and trashes her apartment, wild with grief, is powerfully played but also genuinely upsetting. Add to this Mickey Rooney's appallingly racist yellow-face turn as Mr Yunioshi, an irate and clumsy Japanese grotesque who lives upstairs and is prone to pratfalls ("Miss-a Gorightry!" etc.), and you have a decidedly more problematic product than the t-shirts promise.