Some things – doilies, say, or Harold Macmillan – were quite popular in 1961, but now, thankfully, belong squarely in the past. Blake Edwards’s “classic” adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, re-released this week, is one such cultural fad.
I say “adaptation”, but “bowdlerisation” would be fairer. Main character Holly Golightly’s drug habit and illegitimate child are written out (Holly herself is effectively a child bride); Blake Edwards clearly didn’t want Capote’s ironic probing into the American underbelly to get in the way of a blockbusting flight of fancy.
I say “flight of fancy”, but “flight into fatuity” would be fairer. It’s difficult to decide what grates most as Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard smoke and litter their way through Manhattan’s classy Upper Eastside. The latter’s performance as the leading man is confused and inconsistent, and inevitably fails to rise above his character’s incoherence as a struggling writer who, actually, doesn’t seem to struggle much, soaking in champagne breakfasts like an alcoholic, aristocratic sponge. And, I should add, with just as many holes in his priggish arguments that “life’s a fact, people belong to each other and that’s the only chance anybody has to be happy”. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to admire the perfect, Humphrey Appleby scansion with which he manages to say “I’ve never drunk champagne before breakfast before. With breakfast before, but never before, before.”
Most memorably, Audrey Hepburn kookily portrays Holly Golightly as a vacuous socialite. I say “socialite” because it seems absurd to describe someone who lives in a Manhattan townhouse as a “callgirl” (even if she has come to afford this townhouse through methods that can only be described as… well, let’s skip that, just like the film does) To her romantic misadventures Hepburn tries her best to add charm, but ultimately comes over as simple, selfish and morally dubious. True, thousands of women-viewers have for decades begged to differ. This says more about their character than about the film’s.
Holly’s admirers fancy her as a Dorothy Parker-type figure, a witty female who is more than a match for the pretensions of any male intellectual. “A girl can’t read that sort of thing without her lipstick”, she says. But as Dorothy Parker pointed out, “There’s a helluva distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.” Holly’s performance is mere callisthenics, a verbal fitness video, repetitive and brainless, and best followed by a shower.
Certainly, she looks as stylish as ever in her Givenchy dresses, and Peppard is similarly good-looking, as are the implausibly clean streets of New York, but style is no substitute for substance.
Not that these touches are without its pleasures. Viewers will warm nostalgically to Henry Mancini’s iconic, if dated, score (including the Oscar-winning first-ever rendition of Moon River), but one cannot expect the same of Mickey Rooney’s turn as the absurd-accented and buck-toothed ‘comedy Jap’, a painfully racist performance in yellowface that recalls a Hollywood one would really rather not (among the movie’s earliest lines include: “Me so sorry! Me love you long time!”).
A classic, we are told, stands the test of time. Breakfast at Tiffany’s effortlessly flunks it. Never has there been a film more undeserving of its place in cinematic history, but it does deserve to be consigned to it.
Some artefacts from the 60s, however, do not deserve this fate. Harold Wilson, for starters, or pop-tarts: spectacularly popular back in the day, but now out of fashion. To that list add Cabaret (Cripps Auditorium, ), Kander and Ebb’s mesmerising musical meditation on the rise of Nazism. Its popularity now pales in comparison with fluffier Nazi-themed musicals like The Sound of Music, Bent or The Producers (I can’t be alone in noticing that Nazism has proven curiously ripe for musical material). One can only welcome, then, MMPS’s deft revival of this subgenre’s most sophisticated exemplar, raising in true cabaret-spirit deadly serious questions alongside more than a few show-stopping musical numbers.
Cabaret shows Nazism to be more a pall-bearer to the decaying hearse of Weimar vibrance than some long-knived hatchet-man, rejecting the clichéd narrative of an innocently liberal culture spontaneously subsumed by fascism. Instead Cabaret combs the kernels of corruption inherent within a no-holds-barred culture, to which Cabaret is as much indictment as homage.
Millie Benson’s effulgently vivid performance as the innocent ingénue, Sally, show-stealingly captures fin-de-siècle modernism’s decadent, decrepit and dying gasps as the Kit Kat Klub’s patrons and performers sing and dance away the onset of a mass movement out to extinguish the liberty their every lyric and lock-step agonisingly celebrates.
Despite occasional misplaced feel-goodery, director Charlie Risius handled the haunting historical context with admirable subtlety, adumbrating the nastiness to come before unveiling it, the ambiguous black-and-white imagery during the patriotic paean “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” eventually giving way to Swastikas. But the choreography, though crisp, lacked the delectable depravity 30s Berliner cabaret epitomised. No hinting, too, at the symbiosis between sexual and political perversion. Indeed, the sexual subtext is skirted over in favour of populist polish, which the punters lovingly lapped up. Yet, as the naughty noughties dovetail into the EDL and Geert Wilders, an awareness of the relationship between cultural excess and political perniciousness would have added some germane freshness.
A virtue is made of the venue’s small size, creating an intimacy particularly effective in foreboding a sense of impending tragedy as the Kit Kat Klub’s carefree cosmopolitanism yields to nationalism’s corrosive cancer. Better-acted than most things this reviewer has seen at the ADC, Rupert Mercer’s American prig and Jake Arnott’s nuanced Nazi merit mention. Thankfully, the romances were restrained, not overdone (the film processes them into low-brow soap, probably from Lidl; this is classier, more John Lewis) and the orchestra was literally the show’s unsung hero.
Without a doubt Cabaret entertains eminently, from emcee Rob Young’s Kurt Weill-style overture to the doom-laden finale (the Kit Kat Klub insists throughout that ‘life is a cabaret’; one knows by the end it’s no such thing). This is a marionette’s-eye view of history, one through which all would be well-served to glance.