Monday, April 29, 2013

Breakfast at Tiffany’s: The Elusive Holly Golightly

Emilia Clarke and Cory Michael Smith in Breakfast at Tiffany’s at the Cort Theater.(Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Truman Capote’s fiction has a delicate sensibility – southern-poetic, like that of Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams – but an edge as hard as penny candy , and adaptors of his most famous short work, the 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, keep tripping over it. The story, set in Manhattan during the Second World War, is about a quirky, self-invented free spirit named Holly Golightly who lives on the tips the many men she dates give her for the ladies’ room. Mostly it focuses on her relationship with the narrator, an aspiring writer who lives in the apartment above hers and becomes friendly with her when she climbs through his window to escape an overly ardent admirer. She calls him Fred because he reminds her of her brother, who’s fighting overseas. Capote’s transparent inspiration was Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (the friendship between the writer and Sally Bowles in Weimar-era Berlin) and though Capote isn’t explicit about Fred’s sexuality, he plays the kind of role in her life, just as Isherwood plays in Sally’s, that a straight man clearly couldn’t.

Fred’s ambiguous sexuality was one of the many elements that director Blake Edwards and screenwriter George Axelrod sacrificed in the 1961 movie version, which many people are fond of (mostly, I think, people who don’t know the source material). Audrey Hepburn is miscast as Holly: she’s too elegant and too grounded, so her meandering life feels like a lark. Still, she’s charming and she wears the Givenchy clothes stunningly. And the movie has both enough big-budget comfort and enough engaging accessories (the cocktail party scene, Mickey Rooney’s outrageously funny revue-sketch caricature of a Japanese) to get by – until Buddy Ebsen shows up as Holly’s backwoods hubby and we’re asked to believe a back story about Holly that Hepburn can’t possibly embody. Worse, the movie turns into a romantic comedy with Hepburn paired with the colorlessly handsome George Peppard as the writer.

Richard Chamberlain & Mary Tyler Moore in Breakfast At Tiffany's
Half a decade later the novella was turned into a notorious musical with historical details that buffs once dished with the enthusiasm they would later lavish on the musical Carrie. After the show was attacked by critics on the road, producer David Merrick fired the book writer, Abe Burrows (who had, up to that point, also been the director) and replaced him, in a coup worthy of Terry Southern, with Edward Albee. Albee rejiggered the script to make it a meta-literary extravaganza in which Holly is merely a character imagined by the writer hero. The  composer-lyricist Bob Merrill kept valiantly churning out songs; you can hear all twenty-seven of them on the two-disc set of the score , though only two of them, “Caio Compare” and “Grade ‘A’ Treatment,” are worth listening to. But the Boston reviews were even worse than the ones in Philadelphia had been, and the experiment nearly scuttled the careers of the two stars, Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain, both making their stage debuts after hit TV series. And perhaps it would have defeated both stars permanently if Merrick hadn’t opted to close the show during its sold-out New York previews.

Richard Greenberg’s dramatic version, which recently closed on Broadway, is the latest attempt to dramatize Holly Golightly, and she continues to elude her adaptors. Unlike his predecessors, Greenberg is faithful to Capote, even reproducing much of his stylized dialogue. But he errs in the opposite direction from Axelrod and Edwards: the play feels literary rather than dramatic. Sean Mathias has staged the party scene cleverly; Derek McLane’s set design and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting are effective. But the play itself is like an intractable piece of furniture that stares back at you while the other folks in the room keep circling it optimistically. And then there’s the additional problem of Emilia Clarke, the actress from HBO’s Game of Thrones, who was someone’s misguided idea of an audience-grabbing TV-to-Broadway transplant. You need what a friend of mine calls a moonbeam to play the role of Holly: a young Margaret Sullavan, a young Blythe Danner. Clarke is a nickel-plated faker who puts quotation marks around every other word and is especially awful in her big, undifferentiated emotional scenes, and her scratched-alto vocal affectation becomes tiresome long before the end of her first scene with Cory Michael Smith, who plays Fred. (She does have one good moment, strumming guitar and sings a bluegrass tune on the fire escape. In the movie, of course, the song Hepburn warbles in this scene is the great Mancini-Mercer “Moon River.“) Smith, whose rangy frame suits Colleen Atwood’s forties outfits, is an appealing leading man, though he tries too hard. You get his character; you don’t ever get hers.   

Smith and Clarke (Photo: Nathan Johnson)
The depiction of the writer is the one place where Greenberg veers away from the original. You can understand why a contemporary gay playwright might want to explore Fred’s homosexuality but the character’s coming-out story isn’t interesting, and it feels glued onto Capote’s story. Fred deludes himself that he might be attracted to Holly, but she sees through him; so does the audience, as soon as he refers to himself as “a young, young, young man,” quoting Blanche DuBois’s description of the teenager who comes collecting for the newspaper in A Streetcar Named Desire. Holly’s calling him out when he kisses her on the Brooklyn Bridge one night comes across as needlessly harsh, not to mention superfluous: I don’t think the tension between these two characters needs more layers than Capote already supplied.

The supporting cast includes Suzanne Bertish, who’s far better as the New Yorker editor who fires Fred than she is in her main role as a retired opera diva with big, tangled hair who roller-skates around the city; Kate Cullen Roberts as Holly’s friend Mag Wildwood, who competes with her for the same men; and Tony Torn as the round-headed, square-framed Nazi sympathizer Rusty Trawler, who courts both of them. Robert isn’t very good, but Dorothy Whitney was no better in the movie; perhaps the role is unplayable, though Sally Kellerman gives her numbers some style and drollery on the CD of the musical. (She’s the only performer on the recording who appeared in the show.) George Wendt is miscast as the big-hearted bartender Joe Bell. The reliable John Rothman doesn’t get enough to do (he has two brief roles); as the Hollywood agent who claims he discovered Holly before she ditched the west coast for New York, Lee Wilkof makes a lively meal out of his two scenes. Murphy Guyer is both believable and affecting as Doc, Holly’s estranged husband; instead of throwing the play off course, the way Doc’s appearance derails the movie, here it brings the material into focus, if only temporarily. I admire Greenberg’s devotion to Capote, but this Breakfast at Tiffany’s should be the last attempt to give this material a dramatic shape. Three strikes and you’re out.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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