Some films are well liked when they first come out and for several years afterwords but ultimately fade in time, mostly because they are lost on the following generations. For example, who really remembers 1963’s Tom Jones? Others manage to really find the right culture niche and stick around, winning over new audiences through the years. 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of those movies. Over five decades after its release, it’s still considered iconic; and for that alone it’s worth looking into.
I have my own ideas about why this film, which stars Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly– an unorthodox, free-spirited gold digger– has persisted through the years. Partly, I think it’s because of Audrey Hepburn herself. Hepburn was an amazingly talented actress (that she was a consummately good person outside of acting is icing on the cake), and she finds the right balance for the character: optimistic and generally kind, yet also not concerned with what other people think (for better or for worse), and clearly hiding some fears below the surface. That Hepburn makes the character likable throughout is a testament to her acting skill; I could easily see this role being far less well received had it been a touch more cynical or a touch less sensitive. Hepburn works in the right amount of charisma and emotion, and it shows. Additionally, on a more superficial level, there’s a genuinely unique beauty to Audrey Hepburn–tall, svelte, with striking eyes– that I think has contributed to the film’s lasting appeal; there’s something very innate and natural about her beauty that few possess. And of course, the filmmakers do give her some stunning outfits to wear. That iconic black dress with a pearl necklace and sunglasses look she has at the beginning of the picture is still one of the most iconic images of any actor or actress ever put to film. A movie theater I occasionally go to features an image of her on a banner in the lobby as a mile marker in the history of cinema.
I also think the staying power of this movie is due in part to some convenient timing: as the more rigid cultural norms of the last several decades have broken down; we see more and more openness and even appreciation for the kind of life Holly Golightly leads in the film: partying, avoiding traditional gender/economic/societal roles, and, in particular, not being tied down by normal romantic relationships. Of course, there have always been people living those kinds of lives at any moment history; but recently its seen much more open proliferation; as a result I think there are more people now then there were perhaps forty or fifty years ago that admire the things Holly Golightly stands for, or at least can relate to her on the matter. In that sense the character is ahead of her time and means more to newer generations than to older ones.
Or something like that. Maybe I’m just stretching with that last paragraph. At the very least, I think that some people have an attraction to/veneration for the character that has endured over time.
It’s worth noting that the film itself doesn’t really approve of Holly Golightly’s life. We see this mostly through the character of Paul Varjak (played by George Peppard), Holly’s neighbor. Like Holly, he has his own issues with relationships (he sleeps with the woman who sponsors his writing), but is more honest with himself, and he clearly has both a keen sense of self-respect and a generally strong moral compass. Basically, he is a descent guy; and an interesting contrast to Holly. That he has a professed love for her only makes the dichotomy between the two that much more compelling. As he gets more and more involved with Holly, his disapproval of her lifestyle becomes more and more vocal, producing some great lines of dialogue in the process. His final lines in the film, where he summarizes everything that is wrong with Holly–that she is a coward who won’t find real happiness until she learns to commit– make for a pretty powerful moment; and when Holly finally turns a new leaf and embraces a relationship with him, a real sense of catharsis is felt.
I’ve heard people describe Holly Golightly as an example of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl–an archetypal eccentric female character in a work of fiction whose only real purpose is to get the male character to be more fun/more adult/embrace life/put things in perspective, etc.–but I don’t think that’s really the case. Paul doesn’t have much growing to do. He already seems to be a decent person when the movie starts, and the only real change he goes through is that he responsibly ends his relationship with his sponsor when he realizes he is in love with Holly. Holly, on the other hand, is the character that really has to grow in this movie: to learn to embrace honest healthy relationships, and it’s Paul that helps her do that. He helps her to change, not the other way around. So it’s Paul who occupies the Manic Pixie Dream Girl role in this story, not Holly. Although since Paul is neither a girl, nor a manic pixie, I will coin the phrase Self-Respecting Labrador Dream Guy, to describe him.
In preparation for this review, I read the original novella by Truman Capote that this film is based on in order to know what got altered. For one, in the novel, Holly is a bit edgier: in addition to her gold digger American geisha activities, she is also bisexual and uses drugs and is pregnant out of wedlock at one point in the story (she ultimately loses the child in an accident). I understand why none of these things made it into a film released in 1961; but they do give a spin to the character that was lost in the movie and work to highlight how different she is from other people. Another noticeable difference is that the novel is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator (no one named Paul Varjak appears in the story) who is nowhere near as proactive as Paul is, nor is there a sponsor he is sleeping with. Also, the character of Mr. Yunioshi–presented in the film as a comical Japanese stereotype– wasn’t anywhere near as racially provocative or as prominent as he was in the movie.
Probably most different between the book and the film is the ending of the story: in the movie, Holly–who wanted to move to Brazil to continue gold digging– shrugs off Paul’s profession of love for her and abandons her cat (a symbol of her inability to “belong” to others) in the rain. However, after Paul calls her out on her fear of commitment and heads out, she has a change of heart and runs after both him and the cat, finding the latter in an ally and reuniting with Paul, ready to begin a new life. In the book, the nameless narrator makes no such profession of love (they have no romantic relationship here), and his only accompanying critique of Holly’s life is basically to call her a bitch (he actually uses that word). Holly does abandon the cat all the same, and does go back to search for him after a change of heart, but can’t find him, contemplating that she missed her chance. She does wind up moving to Brazil and disappearing from the narrator’s life, with no real indication that she has changed her lifestyle. It’s definitely a more somber ending, which is fitting given that the book is told with a straighter tone than the comparative lightheartedness of the film.
In general, I understand why most of these changes were made; and while I like the novella, I actually prefer the film version. I think softening the edges on Holly’s character makes her more likable; and adding more story (and a name) to Paul Varjack, along with making him a more active player in the narrative, creates a dichotomy that the story really benefits from. I have heard a fair amount of criticism of the ending, with people saying that it is “too Hollywood” or “tacked on,” and with some people going as far as to suggest it is somehow anti-feminist that Holly’s only salvation is to run into the arms of a man.
I don’t really agree with that point of view, and I think it’s selling the film short to suggest those interpretations of the ending. I have no doubt that the ending is a “Hollywood one” but I don’t think its tacked on or otherwise not fitting with the story. The screenwriters and director invested a lot more in Paul Varjak than was present in the original novella, and the romance that develops between him and Holly in the film feels organic as a result, and dovetails perfectly with the broader theme of Holly’s challenge of commitment and having healthy relationships with people. Yes, Holly reuniting with Paul and immediately making up is convenient, but her change of heart is more or less as abrupt in the novella when she runs after the cat. The filmmakers just gave a happier conclusion to the story, and I’m fine with that. Plus, Hepburn’s acting during this scene is pretty spectacular; she sells some very complex emotions in a short period of time, and even changes her voice a little bit to indicate a new sense of emotional honesty in the character*. It’s the moment where her performance really shines for me, and so I think it works alright.
And if you’re not onboard with Paul Varjak’s unilateral statement towards Holly that the only way anybody can be happy is to be in a relationship with someone else, okay. That’s admittedly painting with a broad brush. But clearly, the theme of the film/novella is that, at the very least, the character of Holly needs to embrace that sort of thing, lest she forever be out chasing for abandoned cats in the rain. Not every man or woman needs to be in a relationship to be happy, but for this story, Holly did; and there is something satisfying and hopeful in seeing that she was capable of change. So don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater on that one.
The only thing I can’t really defend about this movie is the character of Mr. Yunioshi; yes he’s a pretty bad stereotype, and yes, the filmmakers intentionally forced this interpretation on him for the movie; and no, he’s not amusing enough to justify the racial insensitivity. What’s really strange is that most of his parts in the movie are based in the novella around a completely different character–a female attendant in Holly’s apartment–who wasn’t nearly as offensive in her depiction. So the filmmakers really bent over backwards to put this character in the film this way. Again, I don’t approve, but he’s also just a side character in a movie that I otherwise really enjoy; so I’ll live with it.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a classic; one whose edification I am happy to contribute to. As Audrey Hepburn’s most iconic film, it’s worth a watch; as one of the best romantic comedies ever made, it’s worth a watch; and as a good film in general, it’s worth a watch. Anyway you slice it, its worth seeing, and I recommend just that.
*There’s a very minor theme in the movie that Holly changes her speaking style somewhat as part of the facade she puts up. It’s easy to miss it in the finale, since she doesn’t say too much, but her speaking style does revert to something more natural at the end. It’s a nice touch.