A Real Phony in New York

Yesterday it dawned on me that I hadn’t seen a single Audrey Hepburn film. Not Charade, not Roman Holiday, not My Fair Lady and certainly not Breakfast at Tiffany’s. For whatever reason, Hepburn’s charming on screen persona has eluded my film watching habits and that needed to change.

So it was with Breakfast at Tiffany’s that I blissfully and unknowingly jumped into Hepburn’s world. And when I say unknowingly, I mean it. I didn’t know the plot, why it was critically acclaimed and beloved or what exactly they might be having for breakfast at Tiffany’s place. And who’s Tiffany?

 

And while I found Breakfast at Tiffany’s to be a supremely satisfying, fun and impressive movie, I was thrown off by a few things I didn’t expect to find – like the male prostitution – until I realized Truman Capote was indeed the novella’s author and it all began to make perfect sense from a scathingly satirical approach. Well everything except for Mickey Rooney’s supremely racist performance as upstairs neighbor I.Y. Yunioshi, but we’ll ignore that for now.

At the root of Capote’s story is Hepburn’s now iconic screen character Holly Golightly, a most confused woman who makes a living off of other men. It’s low, crass and falsely luxurious. I read up on the story and film a little before gathering my thoughts and writing them down and have seen her even referred to as a prostitute. Sex is not an obvious or discussed factor in Blake Edwards’ film, but it certainly exists in society’s mind. Interviews with Capote call her an “American geisha” and an example of a more liberated woman, which at the dawn of the 1960’s had to make her a huge, strong character for women. But is her relying on the wallet of a man strong? I don’t think so.

But I also believe that conflict is the root of Holly’s identity confusion. She doesn’t know what she is. In fact, I think she even says that towards the end of the film. Others call her a phony, but the real kind of phony, you know? And all the while Paul Varjak, a male gigolo and writer, who moves in to her building is trying to shed his somewhat similar identity of the crude profession that keeps him relying on women for money. The film’s end, a tender albeit stereotypical exchange of love in the falling rain, has Paul fighting to make Holly realize she can belong to someone and that just like him, doesn’t need to rely on false love of others to get by in life – I think.

Whatever it was, it’s an exchange that helps culminate what my favorite part of the film is – the joy and discomfort of watching the budding relationship between Paul and Holly unfold. The first sequence that stands out is the party scene early on in the film. Paul gets a sweet note from Holly inviting him by for a drink. A drink that turns out to be with dozens of other New York socialites and loud music. Holly uses the party to find her next rich suitor, at heart a very less than tactful and shallow movement. But Paul, who clearly is interested in Holly, doesn’t appear too rattled. The entire sequence is wonderfully filmed – lots of active, colorful and moving bodies in a few small rooms, with plenty of dry and slapstick humor to go along. But more importantly, the sequence is exhibit A of Holly’s confusion and fake set of priorities. This is her on display and “on the job,” so to say. It remains a key for the rest of the film and the development of their confusing relationship.

The second sequence that left an impact on the characters of both Holly and Paul (and their relationship) is their day out together where they try to do things they’ve never done. It’s harmless, fun and innocent – a complete change of pace from their typical daily lives of social chaos and confusion and the antidote to the party sequence. The two seemingly enjoy each and every minute with one another – a sweet, tender approach at viewing their relationship. It’s also one of the funniest sequences in the entire film, especially their visit inside New York’s famed Tiffany & Co. where they seek a gift for $10 and all they can come up with is the engraving of a cheap ring found inside a box of Cracker Jack.

But I mustn’t let these adorable and genuine scenes let me digress too much from what’s really at hand in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s at heart a dark tale of secrets. Holly gets a visit from her husband? And her name isn’t Holly? And she has children? She won’t return to them, she considers herself a different person. There’s this whole back story unexplored and I find it fascinating. It plays up to the confusing identity crisis Holly holds as problem number one throughout the film. She doesn’t know what her role in the world is, she doesn’t know who she is or who she should love.

And as genuinely nice the entire film is, it still holds onto a number of less than attractive portrayals of people – hopefully meant in a satiric way. The socialites, including Holly at times, are both maddening and stupid. Their priorities are a mess and their lifestyle is infuriating. Objects and money rule their small, closed world, not desire and emotion. And the racist yellowface performance by Rooney, existing in film form only for laughs, is something that you can hardly muster a laugh at today.

While not everything about Breakfast at Tiffany’s is perfect – George Peppard’s performance as Paul is that kind of stiff, typical performance we often saw from the less charismatic leading men in those days and the film’s movement between drama and comedy is a bit strange and unbalanced at times – it’s an overly enjoyable romantic comedy. Edwards does deserve credit for tastefully and eloquently capturing New York City and Hepburn in all of their beauty, but nothing other than the nice framing and vibrant colors really sticks out to me.

Holly Golightly is rightfully an iconic American character (perhaps for all the wrong reasons) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s deserves its place inside American cinema’s hall of fame.

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