BLOGGER'S NOTE: This article originally appeared on the Wonders in the Dark blog as part of the Great Romantic Movies countdown.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) is – alongside The World of Henry Orient (1964) and Manhattan (1979) – the quintessential, romantic New York City fairy tale. Based on the novella by Truman Capote, the film is, like the others, a classic, snapshot of the city at a specific, spectacular point in time. Seeing the Manhattan of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is like going back to the early Sixties with vintage vehicles a go-go and places that no longer exist. The film is one of Audrey Hepburn’s signature roles one for which she will always be remembered – but it almost didn’t turn out that way. Capote envisioned Marilyn Monroe to play protagonist Holly Golightly, while Paramount Pictures wanted Hepburn; but even the actress wasn’t sure she could play the part. Now, it is impossible to envision anybody else in the role.
Right from the start, with the endearing vision of Holly Golightly walking through the deserted streets of the city while Johnny Mercer sings “Moon River,” director Blake Edwards establishes a wistful, nostalgic atmosphere. It’s an iconic image and one that sets the tone for the rest of the film. As her surname implies, Holly is a carefree, single girl living an apparently glamorous life in the Big Apple. A single girl with expensive tastes, Holly was inarguably the prototype for Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City. Holly is “crazy about Tiffany’s,” the legendary jewelry store that we see her staring at dreamily in the opening credits. For Holly, going to Tiffany’s with coffee and danish in hand is like going to church.
Paul Varjak (George Peppard), a struggling writer, moves into her building and is quickly whisked into the whirlwind force of nature that is Holly. He’s been working on a novel for five years, but lacking inspiration, writer’s block was his only roommate. Sullenly defeated, Paul is still stinging from a bad review from The New York Times years ago (from which he can still quote, bitterly). We soon learn that he is being supported financially by his own “interior decorator” (Patricia Neal), which gives him something in common with Holly, bonding over early on for she dreams of marrying a rich man or, at the very least, dating men who lavish her with expensive gifts and money. What better way to maintain her glamorous life? Holly starts off as something of a fascinating enigma and over the course of the film we, along with Paul, learn about her life before arriving in New York City.
As he demonstrated with films like The Party (1968), Blake Edwards knew how to depict a bash on film and make you want to be a part of it. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is no exception with the famous party scene that takes place in Holly’s apartment one of controlled chaos as the tiny space is invaded by many people. The camera lingers on the more colorful pockets as it gets wilder until the cops arrive and bring it an abrupt halt. There’s a wonderful madcap vibe that makes you want to be there. It is one of the best parties put on film, capturing how fun a shindig like that can so easily get out of control.
Audrey Hepburn is adoringly loveable as Holly, an irresistible, charming individual. She is a classic bachelorette with very little furniture (even though she’s lived there a year), stays up late and sleeps in later. Edwards inserts nice little touches, like how she keeps a bottle of perfume in her mailbox, that provide insight into her character. Under Holly’s bubbly exterior, Hepburn’s performance hints at a loneliness, an inner sadness. She conveys a heartbreaking, wounded vulnerability underneath a cheery façade. This is evident in the famous scene where she sings “Moon River” on the fire escape of her apartment or when Paul wakes her up from a nightmare. There’s a certain fragility to Holly that Hepburn maintains over the course of the film until the climactic scene when everything comes crashing down. One gets the feeling that she needs to be rescued, to be saved, and this gives the film an almost tangible, melancholic tone while also making it easy for Paul (and us) to fall in love with her. Hepburn gives a complete performance displaying a full range of emotions that go from giddy happiness to utter despair.
Hepburn has wonderful chemistry with George Peppard; I love the give and take between them, like how Holly has a habit of calling him “Fred” after her brother who is in the army and whom she dreams of running off to Mexico with to raise horses. Peppard wisely plays it cool, downplaying his role, which acts as a nice contrast to Hepburn’s flamboyance. He has a tough job of playing the straight man to Hepburn’s colorful Holly. He is the audience surrogate. However, Peppard is excellent because he knows exactly how to react to all of Holly’s outrageous behavior. At first, his character seems more than a bit on the bland side and we don’t know much about his past except for tidbits of his relationship with Neal’s character. As the film progresses, however, bits and pieces of his past are revealed, fleshing out his character. Paul and Holly are both lonely souls trying to survive in the big city any way they can. For Holly, the city is her chance to escape and start anew. For Paul, he is merely passing time until his novel is written.
For the most part, the supporting cast is excellent with Martin Balsam as O.J. Berman, Holly’s Hollywood agent who has the habit of saying everybody’s name with “baby” after it; Buddy Ebsen playing a sad sack character that is a key figure in her past, and Patricia Neal as Paul’s deliciously elitist sugar mama. The only blemish is the racist Asian caricature that is Yunioshi, played by Mickey Rooney, which comes across as horribly dated and offensive. Fortunately, he is only a small part of the film.
It is said in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that “she doth give her sorrow so much sway.” For Holly to give herself back to her former life would be like caging an animal and resigning herself to a life where she has no happiness or freedom. To go back to that life would be to give up the happiness she has as Holly. In this respect, Breakfast at Tiffany’s could be read as a feminist tale of a woman freeing herself of traditional restraints of the era (like expecting to be a housewife, for example), but has constructed a cage of her own. As Paul says of her at one point, “she’s a girl who can’t help anyone, not even herself.” By the end of the film, Holly realizes that she can’t just change her exterior self by moving from city to city. To truly be independent she has to make an internal change. A truly beautiful woman has both guts and glamor – of which Holly has both in ample supply. Paul loves her for who she is and not as arm candy like her rich parade of men. She can’t be truly happy until she cuts those men out of her life and admit how she truly feels about Paul.
One could argue that her Holly persona is a bit of a flake, but it is merely part of her outer armor, protecting her from almost everyone she meets – except for Paul whom she allows to see glimpses of unguarded moments. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a majesterial film about two lonely people, each harboring their own dark secrets, that find one another and fall in love. It has the warm, inviting vibe of a Sunday morning spent having breakfast in bed. The film is a love letter to the city of New York. Even though the Manhattan of Breakfast at Tiffany’s only exists in yesterday’s memories, we can revisit it again and again every time we watch this film.