Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

by Lilly Muse on January 31, 2012 · 9 comments

in Movies, Reviews

That'll be $50 to remove my earplugs.

After a lifetime of never seeing Breakfast at Tiffany’s (how gauche), I recently took a lazy morning to revel in what critics have been saying for 50 years is Audrey Hepburn at her best. That may be true for the actress, but I couldn’t get past the obvious helplessness and sheer rudeness of “Holly Golightly” to see in her the lauded prototype of today’s chic, independent woman. Elegant in her timeless Givenchy and pearls, she embodies the “poor girl with a rich dream” thing with incredible facility.

Hepburn is exalted for her portrayal of Holly Golightly, a lifestyle sugarbaby whose name befits someone too afraid of commitment to furnish her Upper East Side brownstone or even to name the cat she considers more of a roommate. Holly is portrayed as a glossy, gold-digging socialite, though some claim the original character in Truman Capote’s 1958 novella is more obviously a call girl (Capote actually considered her an “American geisha”). She makes her living charming one rich dude after another, smoothly collecting her dues ($50 for the powder room) and then leaving them, drunk and horny, begging on her doorstep. She obviously works it (check out those clothes!), but it seems she does it by being an annoying and ungrateful tease.

Now, I can see how people find a charming, lovable free spirit in Holly, but I find it difficult to sympathize with her. She is damaged goods dressed in a beautiful elfin package, and she gets away with an incredible amount of bad behavior simply by calling it “charming” or “eccentric.” Her flippant attitude and disconnected ramblings show how she flounders in her self-centeredness. This is frustrating throughout the entire courtship with her male counterpart, Paul Varjak (George Peppard). New to the building, Paul first meets Holly when he buzzes her apartment because his new key doesn’t work. Hungover after a late night partying, she gropes her way to the door, and after nearly 30 seconds of this cute young guy repeating his attempts to talk to her, she finally thinks to remove her tasseled earplugs (those fabulous earplugs are probably my favorite thing in the whole movie). She invites him in and yammers on about what a wild flower she is, openly admitting that she’s searching for something to rival the serenity she feels in front of the Tiffany’s display window, all the while trying to land herself a rich husband and taking gigs running cryptic information for mafia boss Sally Tomato (though not that cryptic; is she really too daft to understand what she’s doing?).

As it turns out, Paul is himself familiar with being taken care of, as he’s being kept as a paid lover by an older, wealthy married woman doubling as his decorator (Patricia Neal). Paul struggles as a once-published writer with a five-year writer’s block, apparently both adrift without inspiration or identity, rather indifferent to the affections of his benefactress as well as his new friend Holly’s irritating insistence on calling him by her estranged brother’s name, Fred.

The two of them fumble fashionably through life, for a while falling dispassionately into each other’s orbits. Playing into her fantasy as she digs for gold among her “rats and super rats,” Paul finds her frivolous lifestyle amusing, until of course he realizes he’s kind of in love with her. He sticks with her though, even humoring her with a well-deserved trip to a strip club after they are both starkly confronted with Holly’s past as Lula Mae Barnes, a Texan child bride who absconded to the big city. I guess I can’t blame her too much—that’s kind of fucked up.

I’m not necessarily opposed to ripping off rich men as a viable plan for financial success, but Holly does little more than make it painfully clear what a lonely, broken little thing she is, and unlike her love interests, I don’t see the appeal in that. Throughout most of the movie Paul suffers in silence while she talks endlessly about how much she can’t stand her weasly series of sponsors, yet she’s determined to marry one of them to ensure she’s set for life. Yes, she wants to be free, and how does a mid-century girl stay free? Have money to do whatever you want, of course. But how does she intend on having that constant flow of money? By marrying into it (so she can inevitably be kept in a mansion, pushing out kids and hosting dinner parties). This girl crazy.

Of course, Paul has no room to talk since he’s still being supported by his decorator, but once shit starts to get real between him and Holly—presumably they sleep together—Paul immediately breaks it off with his sugarmama, declaring his plans to start supporting someone else for a change. After a frantic city-wide search, he finds Holly cold in the face of his passionate admission, clearly denying her feelings by informing him of her new romance with a rich Brazilian. What a bitch! Finally convinced she’s a nut who thinks all men are rats, he leaves her by shoving $50 in her hand, “for the powder room.” Nice touch.

Even after they’ve made up, she continues to rub it in Paul’s face how happy she is with her new guy. We get that she doesn’t want to be pinned down by something as fruitless as love, but how rude is that?! Of course, when she is arrested for her connection with drug kingpin Sally Tomato, her Brazilian millionaire politely renounces her through a note, unwilling to have his important family name scandalized. Paul finally takes the opportunity to give it to her straight, which ultimately leads to the happy ending where she redeems herself and chooses love. Aww.

Despite my distaste for Holly herself, the cultural effect of the film is significant. Holly transcended Hollywood’s idea of a heroine as either pure in her demureness or a balls-out sex kitten and showed us that a woman can be something in between; sexually experienced without spilling all her secrets on the street. Also, the fact that it’s understood that both she and Paul are being paid for their particular talents (I would call her more of a sexuality worker than downright sex worker), the storyline is free to skip over the tedium of a ‘50s-style seduction. So in the end the question is did our two protagonists find whatever it was they couldn’t reach through money and social acclaim alone? Well, Holly did finally accept the enormous responsibilities of being a cat owner, but she still never called her lover by his actual name. Draw your own conclusions. Aesthetically pleasing all around, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is worth a good look, but probe any deeper and you might come up empty, just a few bucks shorter than you started.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

matthew January 31, 2012 at 10:26 am

I forgot about the Sally Tomato part. The move is really nothing at all like the book. The book is about a closeted gay man who meets Holly and sort of finds her annoying and then charming until black people swoop in and ruin everything.

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Kai March 26, 2012 at 5:52 pm

I have to agree that the book is much better. When I first saw the film I liked Cat and I liked Paul, but there’s nothing sympathetic about Holly. At least in the book there’s so love connection to screw it up.

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Elle Elle January 31, 2012 at 1:58 pm

I’ve actually never seen this movie either, and hadn’t the slightest idea what it was about. After seeing this review, I actually have a higher likelihood of checking it out!

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Irony Butterfly Irony Butterfly February 1, 2012 at 1:08 pm

I love Holly Golightly – although I love her a little more in the story than the movie – it’s the ending. In the end of the story the cat and Holly break up and the cat has to move on with its life and found a place he belonged and looked happy, and Holly moves to Africa and we hope she does too. I don’t much fancy the end of the movie – while I like the thought of cat becoming a tame housecat, I’m not nearly so thrilled with that result for Holly.

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Vixen March 26, 2012 at 1:50 am

Gods I hated this movie! I checked it out because it was such a classic. But Holly irritated me so much. I would never become a good friend with someone that couldn’t show me the respect of calling me by my name let alone be in a relationship with that person. And the whole cat subplot pissed me off. She plans to move to Brazil so she just throws the cat on the street and tell him to fend for himself. And Paul wants to be with such a cold-hearted person?! And it was Paul that goes off to find the cat (because he’s a good person!) although she does follow and they find him. All through the movie she is self-centered and vain and then at the end we’re supposed to believe she suddenly changes into a responsible pet owner and girlfriend. Bullshit.

Spot on review by the way.

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InSu March 27, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Holly is a T-room queen. I was shocked when Doc says they have children. Watch/read the film/ or book again. The party scene has some hard to ‘read’ but readable TGs (CDs).
In the 1970′s “Are you real?” had replaced “are you a phoney?”

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hells bells March 31, 2012 at 7:41 pm

Are you saying Holly was transgendered?

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InSu March 27, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Clarification: “Are you real?” was oft asked in bars with both real and TG sex workers

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hells bells March 31, 2012 at 7:40 pm

I always thought that movie blew and mostly because of Holly. I don’t get why people love it so much. It’s cool that you broke down how the gender roles and romantic plot were unique for the time, but I’m still not feeling it. Great review!

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