Breakfast at Tiffany’s is Audrey Hepburn’s most iconic film, no doubt about it. We catch it on TV all the time, and modern films reference it regularly, either indirectly by “homage” (Love and Other Disasters), or by actually showing the film within another film (like Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown, which uses clips from the movie and the song “Moon River” as a recurring motif/club to the head). It’s been voted the most stylish film, due to the everlasting change Audrey’s Givenchy-designed wardrobe had on women and fashion, and how her portrayal of Holly Golightly is so widely known and copied. But when it was released, Breakfast at Tiffany’s didn’t make as big a splash as you’d expect now. In composer Henry Mancini’s autobiography Did They Mention the Music?, he speculates that maybe the film was a little too swingin’, a little too ahead of its time and the public mindset in 1961. But even then, women were scrambling to copy Audrey’s distinctive “pineapple” hairdo and adopted orange-striped tabbies faster than animal shelters could provide them.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is based on a novella of the same name by Truman Capote. Capote specifically asked screenwriter George Axlerod to tailor the part to Marilyn Monroe, and Marilyn was first approached for the role when it came time to cast. Within two days, Marilyn’s advisor said that she would not play a “woman of the evening.” It was odd to jump from Marilyn to Audrey with casting, but Warren G. Harris’s biography suggests that it was more a matter of Audrey owing Paramount a film than anything else. Either way, she was coaxed into the part by husband Mel Ferrer and director Blake Edwards. She only asked for three months to get back in shape after giving birth to her first son, Sean.
With this film, audiences saw a new side to Audrey. Until now, she had been the wide-eyed ingenue, completely innocent and just begging to be protected. But with motherhood came the feeling that she needed to prove she was more than that, and the role of Holly Golightly showed that Audrey Hepburn had grown up. Holly was a completely independent woman who didn’t need anyone, not even a man — but she would gladly take his money. While nothing is ever said outright in the film, due to censorship codes of the time and Audrey’s own insistence, Holly does make her point to her upstairs neighbor and newly kept man, Paul Varjak. They strike up a friendship during their comings and goings, sometimes through the fire escape outside their windows and sometimes through the main stairwell in their building. As time — and Holly’s wild, furniture-busting parties — goes on, Paul grows fond of Holly and the girlish,vulnerable side he catches only glimpses of. He’s her main friend and ally and helps Holly pick herself up when she gets knocked down by the viciousness of life. And, of course, he falls for her. But Holly is afraid of commitment, especially since Paul doesn’t have a large bank account. She does what she does because she wants the money. She nobly wants to save up her money (or marry into it) to support her brother Fred, and she’ll “do whatever it takes to get it.” That includes trying to marry rich trolls, apparently. Paul disapproves, but like a true friend sticks by Holly’s side, and the climax of the film is him finally confronting her with her self-made train wreck of a life. She’s afraid, he says, of life and what comes with it, and leaves her to decide what she really wants from herself, others, and from life itself. While the whole film is something young women aspire to re-enact, the finale is something just about every woman alive has dreamed of. But to find out what that ending is, you’ll just have to watch for yourself.
This film is a great starting place for new or aspiring Audrey fans. It was the first film of hers that I ever saw, and it has definitely changed my life. It’s usually the film most suggested by other Audrey fans or even just casual fans who love the film for its style and Holly’s kookiness. While a first viewing may leave you thinking, “Well it was pretty good, and Audrey certainly was charming, but it’s lacking some depth,” like I did, keep watching. It’s a film that can be viewed many times, whether your full attention is on it or not, and you catch something new every time you watch. For those of you who have seen it a few times, have you caught the meaning of the piano scales on the street? What the colour red represents and where it shows up? Or even just noticing that every single outfit Audrey wears in the movie is actually in Holly’s tiny closet — with room to spare! The point is that while the film may seem like a piece of fluff on the surface, just another romantic comedy, there are deeper and deeper layers the more you look. Once I began to watch more of Audrey’s films, Breakfast actually dropped in my esteem quite a bit. But one day when I had my own mean reds, I put the movie on and really noticed things I hadn’t before. And every time since then, something new catches me and opens another little door in the story that makes it that much fuller. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is certainly worth watching and owning, and deserves its high place in Audrey’s legacy.