A film that has drawn critical acclaim, as well as criticism, is still as refreshing as it was 60 years ago. Immortalising styles like “The Little Black Dress”, the film has continued to be cemented in popular culture.
Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly fit right into the second wave of feminism that hit the United States of America in the 60s. The late veteran actress embodied a proto-feminism in her role, even if was unbeknownst to her at the time. However, the fact that Holly chose to use her femininity the way she wanted, did not settle well with the audience at the time.
Sixty years down the line, Holly may have been more at home in New York than she was in 1961. Leading the life of what can be colourfully termed as a ‘call girl’, the child-bride finally settled for love over money. Setting the tone for romantic comedies to come, Breakfast at Tiffany’s has remained one of Hepburn’s most memorable roles.
Most rom-com lovers would remember the movie as the torrid love story between the young, beautiful Holly and the handsome, talented Paul Varjak (played by George Peppard). Yet, there is more to the whirlwind romance that many have pieced together from pop-culture references instead of watching the film.
Holly appears to be a liberated feminist, who shakes off the shackles of child marriage and is trying her best to make a life for herself. She lives a flamboyant life filled with shiny ornaments and pretty dresses; uses her wit and charm to lure men; asks for “powder room” tip money from them. Eventually, she disassociates with the men once she has had financial gains. With this tornado of actions, audiences were often left guessing if the men entering and exiting Holly’s life had carnal relations with her.
Holly steps into the room to find the richest man and does all that she can to woo him. All for some quick benefits.
Writer George Axelrod had made alterations to Truman Capote’s 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s to adapt it for the silver screen. The alterations took out most of the backstory and indications that could reveal Holly as a ‘call girl.’ Capote, in his book, had likened Holly to an “American Geisha”. The movie downplays the sexual relations that Holly has with the men she chooses to charm.
The same kind of character protection is not afforded to Paul. In the movie, Holly finds out about his relations with Emily Eustace Failenson, who Paul calls E2. Holly even discovers her love interest being kissed by the older woman as she leaves behind money. Both the characters essentially earn their living by being what today can be termed as “Sugar Babies”.
Hepburn brought elegance and playfulness to the role of Holly. Capote had instead envisioned a Holly that would be more befitting to the one he wrote on paper. The original writer’s leading lady exuded sexuality. She dealt with an unwanted pregnancy and continued living a luxurious life despite her troubled past.
Capote had always wanted his Holly to be played by Merlyn Monroe. He felt that she exuded the oomph that would be the best fit as the spirited New York-dwelling survivalist. His wishes remained unfulfilled when the actress was advised against taking the role. While Monroe remains memorable for her lascivious “skirt scene”, Hepburn remains immortalised in the LBD, pearls, oversized glasses and cigarette holder.
Even Paul was supposed to have been played by another actor instead of Peppard. Director, Blake Edwards had first approached Steve McQueen to play Holly’s love interest. [Sidenote: One can only wonder how smouldering McQueen and Monroe’s pairing would have looked in the unforgettable rom-com].
Neither Edwards nor Capote managed to get the talents they wanted onboard. This did not stop the film from gaining immense popularity. Filmed on a $2.5 million budget, Breakfast at Tiffany’s gained critical and commercial acclaim. The film raked in $14 million at the box office. Hepburn was noted as the highest-paid actress at the time, as she was paid $750,000 for the film.
When it comes to critical response, the film has been appreciated universally. The movie tried to transform the free-spirited woman (from the book) into a girl lost in the big city. This calculated move of trying to portray parts of the film as a cautionary tale was a purposeful move to abate controversies. Sans nudity or sexual scenes, the film only goes as far as showing characters kiss, hug or cuddle. These attempts were made to make it well-suited for its times.
However, there has always been the question of Holly being the ‘wrong’ kind of role model for a younger audience. Her grit and survival instincts are shrouded by her association with a drug lord and her questionable means of income.
As hard as the filmmakers tried to hide Holly’s follies, they did not seem to care about the racist depiction of I.Y. Yunioshi. Edwards and actor Mickey Rooney continue to point out that they had no racist intentions when portraying the character. The caricature of the Japanese man with yellow-face and prosthetic teeth does not fit into the present aesthetics of good filmmaking. Both the director and the actor had expressed their remorse for the racially insensitive portrayal.
Controversies aside, Breakfast at Tiffany’s remains one of the most memorable Hollywood movies. Its entry into the National Film Registry in 2012 marked 51 years of the movie. Aside from influencing fashion ensembles and popularising a noted jewellery brand, the movie offers complex roles and a memorable trip to 60’s high-flying New York.