Breakfast at Tiffany’s: 50 years on

The Scotsman
12 January 2011
It’s been 50 years since Audrey Hepburn’s version of chic wild thing Holly Golightly first hit the big screen. Ever since, women have seen something compelling in her story – especially those not fooled by the ‘happy’ ending

Audrey Hepburn poses during filming back in 1961. Picture: AP

THE TAXI pulls up on a deserted Fifth Avenue, the strains of Moon River swelling reedily behind it, and out she gets. Her slight, black-clad frame somehow supporting an anchor’s weight of pearls, hair streaked and coiled elegantly up and away from a clavicle that could cut diamonds; face hidden behind huge tortoiseshell shades. With that scene Audrey Hepburn, as Holly Golightly, became Hollywood’s most influential icons.

This year marks 50 years since the release of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the film adapted from Truman Capote’s bestselling novella. The deaths of co-star Patricia Neal and director Blake Edwards in August and December last year mean that none of the film’s major players made it to the anniversary, save Mickey Rooney, whose odious knockabout “yellowface” turn as Holly’s Japanese neighbour Mr Yunioshi now tends to be regarded by the film’s legions of fans as an unsightly blip on an otherwise perfect love story. Contemporary US cable stations often edit Rooney’s sections out of their screenings completely, while fansites devoted to Hepburn’s elegance excuse the racism by explaining that the film comes from “a different time”. A different time it may be, but the Yunioshi of Capote’s novella, published three years earlier, is written straight, and is actually a Californian of Japanese extraction.

However horrendous Rooney’s caricature is, at least it’s impossible to pretend it’s anything else. In fact, he’s come to function as a distraction, allowing the film’s other problems – which, for a contemporary audience, ought to be many – to go unnoticed.

Everyone has their favourite old movies, the one they use as comfort blankets on rainy days or when they’ve got a case of the mean reds, but Breakfast at Tiffany’s is adored and revered like few others. Certainly Hepburn, in the wardrobe designed for the character by Hubert de Givenchy, was hugely influential on the fashion of the coming decade: the epoch-making looks of Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton are prefigured in her schoolgirl-thin limbs and heavy eyeliner, and she’s regularly credited with popularising that evergreen wardrobe staple, the little black dress. However, 50 years on, Holly Golightly transcends mere fashion, having become in her ubiquity a symbol of something else entirely. Those huge, melting eyes gleam out from mugs, diamante-studded handbags and pencil cases in every high-street gift shop. A screened print of Holly, peeping coyly over her shoulder, jaunty tiara as standard, is IKEA’s best selling wall decoration, worldwide.

This cult of Hepburn-as-Holly affects a certain demographic of person: usually women in their late teens and twenties. I felt the pull myself, dragging out the foot-long cigarette holder for every university fancy dress party; a friend and I even teased up our coiffures, pulled on our LBDs and caught a yellow cab to Tiffany’s at 5am during a holiday in New York. Hollymania is something bigger than celebration or fan worship, though: it’s identification. Many women really do want to be Holly, and not the complex, fascinating “wild thing” written by Capote, either. Examining exactly why is a rather daunting matter.

Received wisdom has it that Holly is an escort, and that the film is being squeamish about it, although Capote’s Holly states that she’s only had 11 lovers in her 18 years (adding the terribly sad coda “because anything that happened before I was 13 doesn’t count”).

It’s a lot for a teenager of any era, but not necessarily enough to make a regular living off. Capote actually clarified this, years later, in an interview with Playboy: “Holly Golightly was not precisely a call girl. She had no job, but accompanied expense account men to the best restaurants and night clubs, with the understanding that her escort was obliged to give her some sort of gift, perhaps jewellery or a little powder-room change … If she felt like it, she might take her escort home for the night. These girls are the authentic American geishas.”

Neutered by the puritanical Hollywood Production Code, Hepburn’s Holly sells strictly her charm – again, though, 1961 being “a different time” is no excuse for this whitewashing. In 1960 Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley Maclaine were nominated for Oscars (with Taylor going on to win) for BUtterfield 8 and The Apartment respectively, both in roles that engaged with active female sexuality. Taylor’s character is Holly through a darker glass: a call girl wildly sublimating childhood sexual abuse into promiscuity (she dies at the end). Maclaine plays a charming city girl living (just) off her wits and a wealthy, married lover. Hardly empowering roles by today’s standards, but both have an honesty that survived the Code because the actors were prepared to take risks with their public images. Hepburn, known for playing princesses, was not.

Tiffany’s doesn’t go so far as to reinstate Holly’s virginity, but coyly insinuates she only goes all the way men she really loves, in a chaste single bed (of which we’re treated to more than one shot). In short, she’s ripe for redemption, and so adorable that her business of making $50 for every “trip to the powder room” goes not only unquestioned but is taken at face value. In an early scene in both novella and film, Holly shuts the door on unattractive gentleman caller Sid Arbuck. They’re written almost identically, except that Hepburn’s Holly is mimsily appalled that this monster should think he has “rights” to her after paying her powder room tax (in fact, it’s implied she’s slipped out with his $50 immediately after getting it). Capote’s tough cookie doesn’t sleep with Sid Arbuck because he only gave her 20 cents.

It’s a portrayal made uneasier by the way Hepburn tackles the age difference (Holly is 19; Hepburn was 31) by playing childlike. Whether this comes from Hepburn’s or Edwards’s interpretation, the disturbing infantilisation of Holly pervades the whole script. The version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s we celebrate is the story of a sweet, lost child in need of rescue by a lover who falls for her precisely because “she can’t help anyone, not even herself”.

Part of the blame has to be laid on George Peppard as red-blooded love interest Paul Varjack, a charisma-free slab of granite who sneers way through every scene. If Tiffany’s had to be Hollywoodised from fascinating character study into romance, the idea of two sex workers falling in bruised, honest love is an interesting one. However Peppard, reportedly disliked by everyone on set, refused to play Paul in a way that would emasculate his image, and all his more vulnerable scenes with “sugar mummy” Neal were cut. His clanking lack of chemistry with Hepburn helps twist the “love story” Hollywood demanded into something sinister. On falling for Holly, Paul insinuates himself into her life despite multiple rejections, then at her lowest ebb pulls her to pieces and claims the parts for himself. “You belong to me,” he tells our wild thing, repeatedly, with creepy, dead-eyed intensity.

We want to believe in Breakfast at Tiffany’s because Hepburn’s charm blinds us to its realities. The only real romance is the one between identifying viewers and a helpless, princessified version of themselves, and that’s never going to end happily. Capote’s Holly fled to Rio, and was last heard of riding horses across Africa. Hepburn’s Holly capitulates, in the rain, by the trash cans and the pawnbroker, to a bully who told her she couldn’t look after herself. That final kiss, the one that heads up countless lists of The Most Romantic Moments of All Time, is tragic, and all the sadder if we keep pretending it isn’t.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is on general re-release from 21 January.

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