How do you become an icon in the 60s by playing the role of a prostitute guised as a quirky society girl in New York: A woman who lives on the money and favours of rich men, sleeps all day and is out all night, has dealings with a drug dealer in prison, drinks champagne before breakfast, and lives alone in a half empty apartment with a nameless cat? You do it by making it seem full of glamour, sophistication and that sweet, irresistible charm only Audrey Hepburn could achieve, as she did in the timeless classic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.
Audrey sparkles in her role of “Holly Golightly”, an eccentric, idiosyncratic, and neurotic character with an opulent, yet care—free lifestyle on the margins of acceptable moral behaviour. In other words, Audrey not only makes a bad girl look good, she makes her look fabulous. Be that as it may, Truman Capote hated the fact that Audrey was cast instead of his choice, Marilyn Monroe. It’s easy to imagine how different the film would have been with Marilyn, however not so easy to separate Audrey from the iconic legacy of the film. Coco Chanel may have invented the Little Black Dress, but it was Audrey in her iconc outfit in the opening scene who is, as Holly Williams puts it,
“the face that launched a thousand prints, with posters of the movie adorning vintage-loving women’s walls the world over”.
But just who is Holly Golightly? It’s an excellent question because she is a girl who resists ever being pinned down. In the film we see her effortlessly transcending traditional female roles defined by such things as monogamy, chastity, domesticity and even their counterpart, the “femme fatale”. For all her sophistication, she is not exactly a proprietous “lady”, certainly not a “housewife”, and while her sexuality may be implied, it is never addressed directly. On the contrary, she is unashamedly and unapologetically independent, makes her own decisions and never stays in one place for too long.
In fact her rootlessness is at the center of her subversive power. Every time she leaves to start over in a new place, she transforms her identity. We first meet her in New York dressed in an elegant, black evening gown gazing into the window at Tiffany’s. Then we discover that before she was an aspiring actress in Los Angeles, and before that she was married to a “Doc Golightly” in Tulip, Texas at the age of 13, and even before that she was an orphan running barefoot through the briar patch with her brother Frank. As the film goes on, we learn of her plans to move to Rio de Janeiro to be the lover of a Brazilian politician. Like the bubbles that rise in a glass of sparkling wine and evaporate into thin air, the identity of Holly Golightly continuously dissolves and transforms. She is practically effervescent; we don’t know where she will go or what she will do next.
It all sounds very glamorous indeed on the surface, but as the nostalgic theme music “moon river” reminds us, her outward confidence is a façade for deeper inner conflict and insecurity.
We don’t know all that she went through before reaching the upper echelons of the New York social elite, but we do know that she suffers from the “mean reds”, when “suddenly your afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of”. She says looking into the window at Tiffany’s calms her down because of “the quietness, the proud look of it, nothing bad could ever happen to you in a place like that.”. It gives her sense of security, one, as Zachary B. Wunrow argues, she hopes to achieve by self-actualizing herself in her new identity. Yet, by desperately seeking to enact her ideal-self, Wunrow points out that she in turn makes herself into a commodity for rich men,
“Holly’s subversive identity ironically necessitates self-commodification. She must see twenty-six different men in the powder room in two months in order to feed herself and pay her apartment rent. The commodified Holly seeks to be valued, believing that “who a man thinks you are” can be gauged by the earrings he gives you. By acquiring Tiffany’s jewelry, an individual moves one step closer to becoming valuable – to being placed in a glass case, proudly on display for society.”
In this scenario, who she wants to be is actually entirely dependent on who men want her to be, and we watch her tragically fail, being rejected first by Rusty Troller (the 9th richest man in America under 50) and then by Jose da Silvia Pereira. She is ultimately unable to escape her past in the countryside of Texas, and who she really is, in the urban setting of New York. Towards the end of the film we witness how unstable she really is through her breakdown after finding out about her brother’s death, her irrational behaviour in trying to become the new Mrs. Jose da Silvia Pereira, and her inability to accept the predicatable outcome of being rejected by him once he discovers her social inferiority.
But like watching trainwreck happen, we can’t turn our eyes away. We know that this “glamour train” is headed for disaster, but in the meantime it’s so fun and Audrey is so stylish. In the final scene of the film, Hollywood too reassures us that we need not take it too seriously. Her friend turned lover, Paul Varjack, prevents her from making the mistake of flying out to Rio di Jeniero on a broken promise and confronts her about her desire to escape that which she can never get away from: herself. The solution? The status-quo rom-com story line of conventional love and matrimony sealed with an iconically romantic kiss in the pouring rain. Happily ever after.
Lovers of the book by Capote, and the writer himself, may be disappointed by such a superficial ending to the story, but the films glossy appeal is undeniable. As Lisa Allardice so adequately sums up,
“The film is the sparkling champagne to the novella’s dirty martini and each have their distinct pleasures.”.
Likewise, while the film allows us to enjoy the fantasy, Williams states,
“Despite the frothy, fizzing readability of Capote’s shimmering prose it leaves a more bitter taste”
So what wine goes best with such a dazzling if not frivolous film? I suggest a glass of prosecco, and a semi-sweet one at that. Prosecco has all the glamour and class of champagne without the seriousness (and the cost). And, just like O.J. Berman in the film says, “she’s a phony, but she’s a real phony.” So, so what if it’s not méthode champenois, it’s still bubbly and fun. It’s a type of wine that allows us to feel sophisticated, but also to enjoy a sweet momement of frivolity, just like Audrey Hepburn’s sparkling role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, directed by Blake Edwards, Paramount Pictures, 1961.
Wunrow, Zachary B. “Holly Golightly and the Endless Pursuit of Self-Actualization in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’.” Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse 6.09 (2014). <http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=915>
Allardice, Lisa. “My favourite film: Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2011/dec/29/favourite-film-breakfast-at-tiffanys
Williams, Holly. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s: How Hollywood retold a gritty story”. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20160412-breakfast-at-tiffanys-how-hollywood-retold-a-gritty-story