It’s a shame that Audrey Hepburn’s cultural branding got so entangled with Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
When you conjure up Audrey Hepburn, you probably see her as she looks on the iconic Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster. The image is deeply ingrained: slinky black dress, coiffed hair, Cat slung about her neck and an impossibly long cigarette holder dangling from her mouth. That’s elegant Audrey to a T.
In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hepburn plays the part of Holly Golightly to its full potential. It’s not the actress’ fault the film is a dud. No little black dress can hide the fact that this character is, to put it in words she might use herself, just too gruesome.
From the moment Golightly’s “good” physicality is contrasted with the appalling Mr. Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney), she becomes monstrous in her own right. Rooney’s portrayal is much-treaded ground. Suffice it to say, his performance alone is enough to sour the entire film. This is not the stuff that makes classic, timeless cinema. Mr. Yunioshi reveals Golightly, and all of us who are watching, to be buffoons.
Even without Yunioshi poisoning the well, Golightly represents Audrey Hepburn at her least likeable. Her character insults the public library. She’s a petty thief who steals from an honest five-and-dime store. She gleefully points the cops to her own party as she runs off with a rich man. And let’s not forget, her sanctuary is Tiffany’s.
Holly is a “true phony” – a country bumpkin who earnestly adopts a glamorous lifestyle for the sake of her poor brother. In practice, that leaves the audience with little more than a façade: lots of phoniness, much less truth. She bats her eyelashes innocently, and runs about saying “Quel” this and “Quel” that, dreamily unplugging earplugs, and, by quirky circumstance, avoiding setting things on fire. There’s simply nothing to hold onto but the notion that Holly is capable of that one pure, virginal love for her brother. All else is projection.
It doesn’t help that the film was adapted from one of Truman Capote’s tackier compositions. Written from the perspective of Holly’s love interest – and in tortured-writer-as-observer fashion to boot – Golightly is set up to be looked at, not understood.
If anyone is more insufferable than Holly it is her love interest, the useless Paul Varjak (George Peppard). First things first, he barges into Holly’s apartment, so invading her territory and finally ruining her bachelorette lifestyle. This whole scenario is improbable: When he arrives, he claims he forgot his key. He then asks if he can come inside and use her telephone. A much more dangerous plot might have unfolded. But rather than providing Wait Until Dark-style thrills, Varjak is dead dull. His tan skin and matching hair actually leave him looking like some flat beige textile in the garish apartment his “decorator” has arranged.
Varjak’s final speech – the one that turns Golightly into the pushover she was always meant to be – is ridiculous. Let’s put the rampant sexism aside. In the annals of great love speeches, none opens with the phrase, “You’re chicken!”
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is about 45 minutes longer than anyone should have to bear. In the same way that Varjak slowly beats Golightly down – until finally, in a moment of desperation, she falls into his arms – so the film tricks the viewer into rooting for the two to get together: If only they’d kiss, then this epic would be over! The soundtrack, meanwhile, is as cloying as Golightly’s vapid, mile-a-minute rants. “Moon River” and other saccharine strains remind us we are watching a romance. It’s a fruitless effort to make us believe Varjak is emoting anything.
There are a few bright spots. Unfortunately, while handled with initial kindness, they’re ultimately extinguished in favor of keeping Holly and Paul center stage. Varjak’s “decorator,” played by Patricia Neal, is a compelling subject. Even after all of director Blake Edwards’ efforts to throw this woman’s sexuality into question (look no further than the purple plaid suit), she remains self-possessed. She has the independence Holly doesn’t, and we’re supposed to think that makes her unhappy. But Neal’s eyes undermine this mission; her performance is nuanced, if brief.
Still, Breakfast at Tiffany’s blows its single best chance at maintaining a genuine emotion. When Holly finds out her beloved brother has died, she throws a fit. Varjak holds her until she goes limp – trope fulfilled. He then watches as she sobs on the bed. Her face glitters. Like any elegant woman, she is wearing a pink tiara. Varjak selflessly exits the apartment, letting Holly’s new beau take over. Thus Golightly’s entire emotional premise is abandoned in favor of letting Varjak pout a little. More insulting is the implication of her brother’s death: Holly is up for grabs.
It’s a shame that Audrey Hepburn’s cultural branding got so entangled with Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She is much better remembered in a movie like Sabrina, where her character holds her own, and her male costars hold up their end of the bargain.