Breakfast at Tiffany’s opened on this day in 1961 at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, with an opening scene that easily ranks as a favorite among fans of classic film and fashion. A taxi pulls up in front of Tiffany & Co. at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, and Audrey Hepburn steps out in that now-legendary black Hubert de Givenchy gown with its graphic back detail, topped by ropes of Roger Scemama’s costume pearls. (Fun fact: Givenchy originally designed the gown with a side slit, but it was deemed too revealing, so in the Paramount Pictures wardrobe department, Edith Head, as the film’s costume supervisor, altered the final gown so it featured a closed skirt — and honestly, when you watch Hepburn take those first steps toward Tiffany & Co., that detail is a bit noticeable once you know.)
Here’s the complete opening title sequence, because you know you want to watch it:
Much has been documented over the years about how this Blake Edwards film differs from Truman Capote’s 1958 novella, with plot details about Holly Golightly decidedly watered down for an early-1960s audience. (In the novella, Holly becomes pregnant by Jose but suffers a miscarriage, while the film’s happy ending also differs from the book, with Holly leaving the U.S. to travel the world instead of staying with Paul — a name that only exists in the script, by the way; in the book he’s Capote’s narrator, but we never know his identity.) Paramount Pictures also set Breakfast at Tiffany’s in current-day 1960s, rather than Capote’s 1940s setting in the novella, a decision that certainly contributed to the film’s now-iconic style.
Following the film’s premiere on Oct. 5th, 1961, it’s clear that critics differed in their opinions — the New Yorker called it “a fluffy, costly, beguilingly photographed, not unhumorous but utterly false comedy” — but they roundly agreed on one integral element of Breakfast at Tiffany’s: Hepburn’s performance. The Hollywood Reporter's James Powers wrote, “Miss Hepburn is responsible to a great degree for the credibility of her complex character and gives a winning portrayal,” while Dilys Powell of London’s The Sunday Times noted that, though he never quite believed the character of Holly Golightly as written by Capote, calling her “a sentimental fantasy,” he was won over by the star of the film: “In the cinema Miss Hepburn, with her incomparable amalgam of high spirits and delicate sensibilities, discipline and spontaneity, bewitches one into acceptance.”
A.H. Weiler of the New York Times, meanwhile, was far more effusive in his praise. “It is a completely unbelievable but wholly captivating flight into fancy composed of unequal dollops of comedy, romance, poignancy, funny colloquialisms and Manhattan's swankiest East Side areas captured in the loveliest of colors,” he writes. “Above all, it has the overpowering attribute known as Audrey Hepburn, who, despite her normal, startled fawn exterior, now is displaying a fey, comic talent that should enchant Mr. Capote, who created the amoral pixie she portrays, as well as moviegoers meeting her for the first time in the guise of Holly Golightly.”
Variety agrees: “What makes ‘Tiffany’s’ an appealing tale is its heroine, Holly Golightly, a charming, wild and amoral ‘free spirit’ with a latent romantic streak. Axelrod’s once-over-Golightly erase the amorality and bloats the romanticism, but retains the essential spirit (“a phone, but a real phony”) of the character. And, in the exciting person of Audrey Hepburn, she comes vividly to life on the screen. Miss Hepburn’s expressive “top banana in the shock department” portrayal is complemented by the reserved, capable work of George Peppard as the young writer whose love ultimately enables (in the film, not the book) the heroine to come to realistic terms with herself.”
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Hepburn as Best Actress, and won two: for Best Score and Best Original Song, “Moon River,” with both trophies going to Henry Mancini (Hepburn lost to Sophia Loren’s performance in Two Women). And in the 58 years since Breakfast at Tiffany’s premiered, the film's aura has only deepened: On Sept. 23rd in Shanghai, Tiffany & Co. opened an exhibition, “Vision and Virtuosity,” a comprehensive celebration of the jewelry house that includes one room devoted to the book and film, with memorabilia that includes never-before-seen stills, Hepburn’s notated script and an Edith Head sketch of a Givenchy design. The exhibit is open to the public through Nov. 10th.
The film’s style, of course, continues to captivate, with two of Holly Golightly’s looks (the opening-titles floor-length gown and the dress seen in the sketch seen) forever cementing the notion of the Little Black Dress. Indeed, in 2006, one version of the Givenchy opening-titles gown was auctioned at Christie’s in London at a price that far exceeded its auction estimate of £50,000-£70,000: When the gavel went down, the winning bid was £467,000, or close to $1 million in 2006 dollars, with buyer’s premium, at the time setting a world record for a film costume.
Ultimately, if you can’t get to Shanghai or you don’t have the cash for a Givenchy original, there is one more affordable accessory still available from the film: Hepburn’s sunglasses, crafted by London-based Oliver Goldsmith. The aptly named Manhattan oversized sunglasses, featuring tortoiseshell frames and green lenses, remain among the brand’s most popular styles and sell for $365. Mix in a vintage LBD and ropes of costume pearls, and you’re ready for an early-morning stroll past Tiffany & Co. Chances are, you won’t be alone.