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.