“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” - Blake Edwards (1961)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), directed by Blake Edwards, has always been immensely popular with audiences, though critics have tended to dismiss it as a lightweight romance.  To be sure, the film has all the commercialized luster and trappings of Hollywood, including some almost burlesque comedy scenes, but I think it still holds up as one of the great movies. Although the film is based on Truman Capote’s 1958 novella of the same name, it departs significantly from the original story so that the two works have rather different feelings to them. Capote was unhappy about some of the changes made, but the screenplay, by the gifted writer and director George Axelrod, has its own virtues apart from the novella.  Capote’s story is more bittersweet, more bleak, while the film holds more promise about life.  From my perspective, both works are outstanding in slightly different ways, and I recommend you both see the film and read the book.   Here, though, I will just concentrate on the film.

Actually, critics who do like the film sometimes have a hard time articulating why.  After all, the story about a frivolous, selfish girl hardly seems to have much of a plot to it, features some outlandish characters, and contains many implausible moments throughout.  Yet the film rises above all that and manages to capture something almost mythic about love.

As with Capote’s novella, the film story depicts the life of a glamorous young lady, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), as seen from the exclusively focalized perspective of a young writer, Paul Varjak (George Peppard), who is Holly’s neighbor.  Since much of the film is a profile of Holly Golightly, your appreciation of the tale will depend on the degree to which you find her interesting. 

The narrative goal takes awhile to crystallize, but it is clear from the outset that this is going to be a relationship narrative.  The question is: what will happen to the relationship between Paul and Holly?  The story goes through about seven stages, the first two of which provide the viewer with background information about the life of Holly.  The remaining five acts represent narrative episodes depicting Paul’s evolving relationship with Holly.

1.  Paul Meets Holly
The film starts with Paul moving into the apartment above Holly’s in an east side Manhattan (New York City) brownstone.  They soon chat and learn about each other.  Holly is a socialite, but she lives off the favors (“50 dollars for the powder room”) of men she meets at various night spots.  It’s never quite clear just how promiscuous Holly is, but her incessantly flirtatious nature suggest that she is used to seducing men for money, in a high class way, of course.  One evening she sneaks up the fire escape ladder and enters Paul’s apartment in order to flee one of her overly aggressive drunken conquests.  Wearing only a bathrobe, she chats with Paul, and they get to know each other. Holly says that she wants to earn money to look after her older brother, Fred, who is currently in the military but is evidently mentally impaired.  She also earns money by making weekly visits to a mafia narcotics boss, Salvatore Tomato, who is a prisoner in Sing Sing penitentiary north of New York City.  It later becomes evident that her visits are used to pass coded information between the mafioso and his fellow gangsters.

Though Paul has published some stories, he is unemployed and  financially supported by his lover, Emily Eustace Failenson (Patricia Neal), an older, married woman of considerable wealth. So both Holly and Paul are living off favors from the opposite sex – not exactly an admirable profile from either’s perspective in terms of a potential relationship between them.

2.  Holly the Socialite’s Party
Paul is invited the next day to party in Holly’s apartment, which turns out to be wild, almost ridiculous affair.  Here is where the burlesque comedy comes in, as we meet a cast of odd New York socialites.  A socialite friend of Holly introduces her to two wealthy men in her company, Rusty Trawler, whose underwhelming appearance is compensated for by his being the “ninth richest man in America under the age of fifty”, and a rich Brazilian patrician, José da Silva Pereira.  Paul meets Holly’s Hollywood agent, O. J. Berman (Martin Balsam), who tells Paul how he has taken Holly from the backwoods of Texas and groomed her to be a star.  But, he tells Paul, just when he had arranged a screen test for Holly, she had tripped off to New York City.  When Berman had asked her why, she responded, “when I find out what I want, I’ll let you know.”

At this point in the story, forty minutes into the film, we have enough information about Holly and Paul.  And we know that though Paul is relatively taciturn, he is very attracted to Holly.  But Holly is a will-o-the-wisp who calls everybody “darling”, even the taxi drivers.  The rest of the story concerns the progress made concerning their evolving relationship.

3.  “Doc” Golightly’s Story
The first hurdle is presented by the appearance of “Doc” Golightly (Buddy Epsen), a Texas veterinarian who shows up in New York City and reveals that he is Holly’s husband and wants to take her back to Texas. This is the first of the seemingly insurmountable hurdles that Paul faces in his quest for Holly. Paul is crushed to learn that Holly, then known as Lula Mae Barnes, had married “Doc” when she was only fourteen, and he reluctantly agrees to let him take Holly away.  But Holly tells Paul that her marriage had been annulled and sends “Doc” packing on a bus back to Texas.  OK, one hurdle cleared.

4.  The Rusty Trawler Affair
Paul and Holly get drunk together at a nightclub, and then Holly reveals to Paul that she intends to marry the wealthy Rusty Trawler for his money.  Again Paul is miffed.  However, luck comes Paul’s way in two forms.  He gets one of his stories published, and he learns that Rusty Trawler, who had run into financial straits, has gone off and married someone else for her money.  Another hurdle has been cleared.

5.  Paul and Holly on the Town
Now Paul and Holly go out to celebrate Paul’s new publication.  They visit Tiffany & Company’s famous jewelry store, where they have a wonderful interaction with a Tiffany salesman (memorably played by John McGiver), who treats their impecunious circumstances with respectful dignity. They also visit the famous New York Public Library and finally indulge their impish urges by robbing a five-and-dime store. By the end of their day, they are in love and embrace each other in a passionate kiss.  The next day Paul, now committed to Holly, breaks off his relationship with his friend Emily.

6.  The José Affair
Paul, now in the thralls of love, looks to find Holly, but she has gone out.  When he eventually finds her in the New York Public library, she is cold and indifferent to him.  She tells him that she has now decided to marry José da Silva Pereira for his money.  Incredulous, Paul can’t believe that he has been dumped so abruptly.  José, it turns out, is a gentleman and is sincere about wanting to marry Holly, so Paul can do nothing.  At this point Holly learns that her brother, Fred, has died in an accident, and is overcome with grief.  But Paul realizes that it is now up to José to comfort her.  Paul’s relationship with her is over.

7.  Finale
Time passes.  It seems that the better part of a year has gone by, and Paul has gotten a job and moved elsewhere. He gets an invitation from Holly to visit her and say good-bye just before she is to depart on a plane to Brazil. The meeting is cordial, but Holly is totally immersed in her future plans for life with José.  When after a farewell dinner out they return to Holly’s apartment, however, they are arrested by the police in connection with Holly’s relationship with mafia boss Salvatore Tomato.  Her paid weekly visits to Sing Sing prison had been used by the mafia to exchange coded messages, so Holly is jailed. 

Paul calls O. J. Berman in Hollywood, who arranges to get Holly released on bail and tells Paul to pick up Holly and put her up at a new address.  While collecting Holly’s things, including her cat, at her old apartment, Paul finds a message from José.  It turns out that having learned about Holly’s arrest, José’s concern for his family’s social standing has led him to break off their engagement.  When Paul picks up Holly in a taxi and the message is revealed to her, she tells him that she is going to Brazil anyway – now not to marry José, but just to explore an exciting new place and find more rich men to seduce.  She tells him that she is like her mongrel cat, a gypsy and eternally wandering free spirit.  Then she pitches her cat out of the taxi and tells it go look for mice.  Paul can’t believe that she could be so heartless.
"I love you; you belong to me,” he implores. 

“People don’t belong to people,” she responds. 

But he tells her: “People do belong to each other.  Because that’s the only chance anybody’s got for real happiness.”
Then he says his final farewell and storms out of the taxi to go back and look for the cat. 

But for once, Holly has a change of heart.  She goes to him . . . and to retrieve the cat.
So what is it that makes Breakfast at Tiffany’s a great film?  It is all about the depiction of Holly Golightly and her way.  I have personally known a Holly Golightly, and probably you have known someone like that, too.  Holly uses people by charming them.  This is her habitual way of survival and is second nature to her. But she runs away from any real personal involvement.  Joni Mitchell’s song, “Cactus Tree”, comes to mind in this respect, a stanza of which reads:

    There's a lady in the city
    And she thinks she loves them all
    There's the one who's thinking of her
    There's the one who sometimes calls
    There's the one who writes her letters
    With his facts and figures scrawl
    She has brought them to her senses
    They have laughed inside her laughter
    Now she rallies her defenses
    For she fears that one will ask her
    For eternity
    And she's so busy being free

Some people have asked me, why would such a person like Holly be appealing?  When it comes down to it, isn’t she just an exploitative narcissist?  Well, I don’t think so.  The Holly Golightly here, as well as the one I knew, is completely guileless.  As O. J. Berman had told Paul, Holly is a phony, but at least she’s a “real phony”.  She believes in the dream world that she fabricates. Her social kisses are on the lips, not this French-inspired buss-on-the-cheek business. She innocently shares her thoughts with everyone, and she never intends harm (although her frequent disappointments with the men she has “dated” led her to designate most of them as “rats” or “super rats”). She invited intimacy with everyone, and this part was sincere, but she was afraid to go further and hold on to something. This combination of openness and invited intimacy – carrying an assumption that everyone is inherently good, combined with an innocent vulnerability – is what makes Holly appealing.  And Audrey Hepburn’s performance embodies this ideal image of vulnerable, timorous openness perfectly.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s features a number of established Hollywood performers, including Patricia Neal, Martin Balsam, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Epsen, and John McGiver.  But their portrayals, though emphatic and effective in their way, were rather schematic and in stark contrast to Audrey Hepburn’s genuineness.  George Peppard’s restrained performance as Paul is a good complement to Hepburn’s. He effectively portrays the barely concealed anxiety of a frustrated man in love who is not supposed to reveal his feelings.

In fact, though, it is Audrey Hepburn’s performance that makes the movie.  Her acting style is so natural to her visible persona that one doesn’t really think of her as a real actress.  She just seems to be herself every time.  But when she acts, she inserts herself so perfectly into the role, that it makes a natural fit with the interactive context.  The attraction people feel is to her whole being and not just to her physical appearance. Perhaps this was why she was nominated for a best acting award for most of her film performances over her career.  Audrey Hepburn even does a good job singing the evocative song, “Moon River”, which became a classic.  But for some reason Truman Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the lead role, and while Ms. Monroe might have given a decent performance, it would have been different and resulted in a different film.  I can’t believe that she could have conveyed the essence of Holy Golightly’s personality as well as Audrey Hepburn did.

In the real world, the Holly Golightlys out there invariably run away in the end, always looking for their next adventure, but never finding true happiness. But films, particularly great films, reflect our dreams more than actual reality.  Rather than run away, the will-of-the-wisp Holly lingers in Breakfast in Tiffany’s, . . . and in our own dreams, too.

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