FLASHBACK FLICKS: Breakfast at Tiffany’s
In my first edition of “Flashback Flicks,” I will be giving an analysis of a quintessential film that I recently revisited for the first time in years. The 1961 classic, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
I was about 13 years old when I purchased this film on DVD from Best Buy and watched it and like many others, instantly fell in love with the charm and magnetism of Audrey Hepburn who delivered her most iconic role in this film, loosely based on Truman Capote’s 1958 novel of the same name.
For years I watched this film, in awe of the extravagance of early 60’s New York society and the care-free nature of Holly Golightly. But it wasn’t until last night when I was scrolling through Netflix, looking for a movie to watch, that I selected this film, prepared to enjoy this movie that I’ve seen dozens of times, that I realized there is a much deeper theme to this film than just the extravagance and elegance we as the viewer experience the moment Holly steps out of the taxi cab to look into the front window of Tiffany & Co. while sipping her coffee and eating breakfast.
It was a completely new experience watching this film and after analyzing some key factors in the film, it is obvious why Holly Golightly is one of the most iconic cinematic characters of the 20th century.
Let’s take a moment and step away from the central plot of the film and highlight a couple key factors from the novel that are exponentially different from what was translated on screen. In Capote’s novel, which takes place in the 1940s, Holly Golightly is a Call Girl which is subtly implied in the film but not clearly defined ($50 for the powder room). In the novel, we are told about Holly and her fascinating behavior by an unnamed narrator. In the film, there is clearly an ongoing romance between the two main characters, however in the novel, the two do not end up together.
When adapting the book to the screen, Capote was very adamant about casting Marilyn Monroe as Holly. He revealed on several occasions that the character of Holly Golightly was written specifically to fit Marilyn’s presence.
Capote was very upset when Paramount cast Hepburn in the lead role. I can say without hesitation that Marilyn Monroe is my absolute favorite actress of the 20th century and I admire her far beyond her work. With that said, I honestly think that had Monroe taken the role of Holly Golightly, the film would have gone in a completely different direction and would have been far more of a comedy than a romance. I think casting Audrey was a brilliant decision on the studio’s part. It was incredibly risky given that Hepburn was not known for playing such unconventional characters but what Hepburn did with Holly Golightly’s character was make her likeable to everyone. It wasn’t so much that she was beautiful, though she absolutely was, it was more to the fact that Audrey’s romantic charm and quirky behavior in the film really resonated with audiences and has continued to do so since the film’s release. Although Hepburn had already been the leading lady in films for nearly a decade at the time, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is what cemented Hepburn as a Pop Culture icon.
One of the many iconic photos of Audrey Hepburn taken while filming
Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Now, back to the film. Holly Golightly is one of the most fascinating and interesting character studies of the 20th century.
From the moment we meet Holly, we get the sense that she is afraid, although we don’t know what she is afraid of. She covers up her fear by making herself a part of New York society, throwing lavish parties in her small apartment, spending evenings with wealthy men in exchange for money, and just when the “mean reds” set in, she finds sanctuary in visiting her favorite place in the world, Tiffany’s.
Before we really learn anything about Holly, we are introduced to Paul Varjak, a writer who moves into Holly’s apartment building and within moments of ringing the doorbell, is in Holly’s apartment as she carelessly tells him about her life. She also introduces him to Cat, her pet cat that she refuses to give a name to because they don’t belong to each other. Although Paul has secrets of his own, it’s clear from the moment he sees Holly, he is in love with her, helping her get ready for her weekly visit to Sally Tomato, a man she visits once a week at Sing Sing Prison in exchange for $100 dollars from his Lawyer as well as the “weather report.”
George Peppard as Paul Varjak.
Although Holly is the central character of the story, the film is really told from Paul’s point of view as over the course of several months, he accompanies Holly on her trips to Sing Sing, the parties she throws at her house, and of course, Tiffany’s. Holly feels comfortable with Paul. She compares him to her brother Fred who is in the army. During Paul’s first night in his apartment, Holly slips through his bedroom window, running away from her date and asks if she can sleep next to Paul. Paul, who Holly decides to call “Fred,” watches as Holly appears to be having bad dreams. When she wakes up, she runs off telling “Fred,” “I hate snoops.”
As I stated earlier in this article, one of the many things I love about this film is how it depicts New York life in the early 1960’s.
The best example of this is the scene in which Holly is throwing a high-spirted party and we see the comical effects the Director of this film puts in to highlight the social eccentricity of Holly’s party guests. A particularly funny moment is when Holly, holding an extremely long cigarette holder unknowingly sets fire to a woman’s hat. While Paul is trying desperately to get through the oblivious crowd to put out the fire, a guest asks Holly for the time, Holly turns over a man’s wrist to check, while simultaneously spilling the drink he is holding into the woman’s hat, putting out the fire. I love this scene for the hilarious acting as well as the beautiful fashions worn by the women.
The crazy antics during the infamous party scene.
As the film develops, we see a real friendship expand between Holly and Paul. His fascination with her continues to grow as he begins writing about her on his typewriter. It’s around this time in the film, we are serenated by Audrey’s beautiful rendition of “Moon River,” written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer specifically for the character of Holly Golightly. The simplistic and calming tones of Hepburn’s voice beautifully carry the song. It has since become a classical standard in cinema and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. It’s hard to believe that the song was almost omitted from the film as production at Paramount didn’t think it went well with the movie. When told of this possible cut, Hepburn stood up and said, “Over my dead body!”
"Moon River" is one of the most recognizable scores in cinema.
Halfway through the film, we are introduced to Doc Golightly (played by Buddy Ebsen) who seeks a friend in Paul and tells him that Holly is not who she says she is. Her real name is Lula Mae Barnes and they are married. After learning of this, Paul reluctantly reunites to the two and Doc tries to convince Lula Mae to come back with him to be reunited with his children and her brother Fred who will be returning home from the army in a few short months. Although the marriage was annulled long ago, Holly sees him off at the bus station and tells him, “I’m not Lula Mae anymore.”
As Doc sadly leaves, Holly begins to cry and then confesses to Paul “I am still Lula Mae. 14 years old, stealing turkey eggs and running through a briar patch.” Holly doesn’t know who she is and its clear she is afraid to find out who she is because she fears if she does, she will be disappointed and lose herself. This results in Holly going out in a drunken stupor and having a fight with Paul.
Days later, Paul finds out his work is being published and to help Holly get over the news of finding out the man she planned on marrying has not only been recently married but is also broke, the two spend the day together in New York City both taking turns doing things they’ve never done. Another great scene in the film, as we get to see more of what the New York lifestyle was back then.
Holly takes Paul to Tiffany’s as he has never been there before and as a gift to Holly, he has a ring he received from Doc from a Cracker Jack box engraved. When asked about doing the engraving, the salesman asks, “Do they still really have prizes in Cracker Jack boxes?” to which Paul replies, “Oh yes.” And with a slight smile, the salesman replies “That’s nice to know.” It’s moments like this in watching films that I really appreciate cinema because this situation clearly would not happen today.
After spending an exciting day together, Holly and Paul kiss and spend the night together. Paul wakes up to find Holly gone. After ending an affair he is having with a married woman, he seeks out to find Holly. Once he does, he tells her he loves her, only to find out she is planning to move to South America to marry her wealthy friend José. Feeling as though he is no different than all the other men she surrounds herself with, he gives her a check and tells her it is $50 for the powder room, implying he is just another rat she has entertained. At 13 years old, this is not something I completely read into, but now, that’s heavy.
Soon after, Holly gets terrible news that her brother Fred has died. Feeling like he can no longer comfort her, Fred moves out of the apartment building. Months later, Holly invites him over to say goodbye as she intends on leaving for Brazil the following day. The two spend the afternoon together in New York and in one last attempt, Paul tries to convince Holly to stay but she refuses. When the two arrive back at her place, they are arrested, and Holly is accused of being involved in Sally Tomato’s drug ring, not knowing what the “weather report” actually meant.
The following morning, Paul picks Holly up at the Police station and the two share a cab. He brings with him her cat and a letter from José explaining to her that he can’t be with a woman involved in such controversy. Despite her anger at José, Holly still intends on going to Brazil. Infuriated and confused by her behavior, Paul tells Holly he loves her, and she replies, “So what?”
Holly then goes on to say, “I am not Holly, I’m not Lula Mae either, I don’t know who I am. I’m like Cat here, we’re a couple of no name slobs, we belong to nobody and nobody belongs to us, we don’t even belong to each other.” Holly orders the cab driver to stop and lets the cat out of the car. The cab drives on until Paul tells the driver to pull over. As he steps out of the car, he tells Holly she is afraid of life, of love, of happiness. He tells her she’s terrified of being stuck in a cage but in fact she has already built that cage herself. He gives her the ring he engraved for her and slams the door shut.
In a waking moment of clarity, Holly runs out of the cab and goes back for Paul. As she approaches him, she begins searching and shouting for Cat. At 13 years old, I didn’t understand the true meaning behind this scene but watching the film now, it makes complete sense. When Holly is running through the alleyway in the rain, looking for her cat, she is really looking for herself. She is escaping that cage she has built. She has spent her whole life running away from love, fearful it will make her trapped, but she has trapped herself all along. After a moment of weakness, fearing she has lost the cat, meaning she has lost herself forever, she hears the cat crying and quickly retrieves it and embraces it for the first time. As she holds the cat tightly in her arms, she slowly approaches Paul as he enfolds her in his arms and they kiss, concluding the film with one of my favorite movie endings of all time.
So, what is it that makes Breakfast at Tiffany’s such an iconic film in pop culture? I used to think it was Audrey Hepburn’s charm, the combination of comedy mixed with the splendor of romance, the visual appeal of New York City and Tiffany & Co. at 5 AM in the morning. Perhaps that is all true still and is what makes me gravitate to the film itself. But in a charismatic study of this film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is more than just a fashionable retelling of Truman Capote’s illuminating novel about a Call Girl. It’s a film about those who are afraid, afraid of belonging and feel the need to be something they are not in order to survive when really all we need is love, and that can be through anything, from a person or from comfort in a safe place. Through exceptional acting, beautiful music, and a well-crafted screenplay, in watching this significant film in Pop Culture, we come to find that that we all have our own “Tiffany’s.”