A Real Phony: BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S’ Timeless Heroine

"She honestly believes all this phony junk that she believes.”

From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.

For April we are celebrating Breakfast at Tiffany's, which is playing at select Alamo Drafthouses this month. Get your tickets here!

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Editor's note: the author of this piece requested to remain anonymous - es

Stepping out of a cab after a night on the town, gazing dreamily through the windows of Tiffany’s as sunlight peeks down 5th Avenue, Holly Golightly feels almost too modern for 1961. It’s not (just) the fact that she escaped a disastrous date, or partied until dawn while looking effortlessly elegant in clothes that generations of women would kill to wear. It’s that she is the personification of reinvention, and of self-determination – whether she’s redeeming a single evening’s entertainment or shedding a cornpone origin story that fails to suit her cosmopolitan dreams. Alternately glib and profound, compassionate and distractingly offensive, Breakfast at Tiffany’s offers a beautifully messy, remarkably contemporary portrait of female empowerment that somehow uses an era that feels like it never existed to tap into feelings and ideas that remain utterly timeless.

Certainly it helps that Audrey Hepburn plays Holly. A part originally envisioned by original author Truman Capote for Marilyn Monroe, Holly was a girl who in 1960 could ask, and receive, $50 from a fellow “for the powder room,” and Hepburn’s virtuous turns in the likes of Roman Holiday, Sabrina and Funny Face stood in stark contrast to the character’s less savory qualities. But even after screenwriter George Axelrod initially tailored his script for Monroe, she passed on the project at Lee Strasberg’s suggestion it would be bad for her image – the character was still a prostitute at that point – leaving the door open for Hepburn to step into the role. 

Suffice it to say that Axelrod and the producers churched up the character a bit – the $50 bill business is still in there, but if she’s a sex worker, there’s no mention of it in the film. But Hepburn lends Holly charm, grace and utter believability, whether she’s helpfully directing the police to a party raging at her own apartment, skillfully seducing the “ninth richest man in America under 50,” or battling her own “wild thing” impulses as she slowly falls for Paul Varjak, the restless, “promising” young writer who sees in her a kindred spirit. She lends the character both an irresistible whimsicality and a melancholy humanity that resonates throughout the film, juxtaposing her excursions as a party girl and would-be social climber with the cost of leaving behind a husband and a brother, not to mention a former life that she never quite came to terms with.

At the same time, there’s something really wonderful about what a mess she is, because of the certitude with which she owns that entanglement of contradictions. Holly is unequivocally irresponsible – she has no real job (and isn’t interested in one), lives in a messy, undecorated home, makes poor, potentially unsafe choices, and lives a life far beyond her means. But for the most part, she acknowledges these incontrovertible truths, and the movie really only loves her more because of them. As Martin Balsam’s O.J. Berman says about her at one point, “She’s a phony. But she’s a real phony. You know why? Because she honestly believes all this phony junk that she believes.” 

Particularly in an era of Bridesmaids and Young Adult, where female movie characters can be immature and screwed up without the filmmakers or the audience judging them more harshly than, say, they might one of Seth Rogen’s early roles, this characterization feels not just progressive, but transgressive on a historic level, as it came at a time when an expectation of perfection – or at the very least, fealty to certain kinds of domestic obligations – was often presented as the only option for women. 

Meanwhile, Breakfast at Tiffany’s purely delights in the lifestyles and attitudes of young people in a way that had not been seen before, certainly not in commercial films like this one. Their bustling social lives notwithstanding, both Holly and Paul are not just unmarried and sexually active, but somewhat clearly are involved with multiple partners – or have been, at least – and in unconventional relationships. (Paul is, for all intents and purposes, the “kept” sidepiece of a woman who is herself married.) Holly makes an idle promise to let her neighbor Yunioshi take unspecified pictures that hint at more than simple glamour shots. She and Paul visit a strip club while drunk, and rather than moralizing, speak admiringly of the buxom young woman performing for them. They make harmless mischief as they get to know one another, showing the audience who they are, often filtered who they think they are, or pretend to be. 

And in true 2017 fashion, they use pop culture landmarks as a safety blanket, and sometimes, barometer for their self-worth. Holly’s affection for Tiffany’s isn’t purely, or even particularly materialistic; rather, it’s a tranquil destination that offers a respite from the super rats and mean reds of reality, and reassures her of the beauty and possibility of the world. Tiffany’s is her Buffy, her pumpkin spice, her Beyoncé. All of these are, of course, commodities, but they provide us, just as Tiffany’s provides her, with something to gratify our souls, and sometimes, give us something bigger to believe in. Simultaneously, Paul’s gift, a ring that came as a prize in a box of Cracker Jack, both recalls a childlike sort of purity and innocence – “a feeling of solidarity, almost of continuity with the past,” as the salesman puts it – and symbolizes a unified future, thanks to its Tiffany’s engraving.

Suffice it to say there are some unfortunate – and in contemporary parlance, deeply problematic – elements in the movie, specifically Mickey Rooney’s unambiguously racist portrayal of Yunioshi, which both its producer Richard Shepherd and director Blake Edwards have since said they wish they could change. Rooney’s performance feels as shockingly out of place – and especially time – but it also inadvertently amplifies what makes Holly and so much of the rest of the film feel so current and alive: Hepburn, leveraging her magnetic screen presence, creates a vivid, relatable and most of all unapologetic character in Holly, who lives a decidedly flawed life, but one for which she demands acceptance. Ultimately, it’s this emphasis on imperfection that makes Breakfast at Tiffany’s the enduring classic that it has become: flawed and failing, offensive and inappropriate, Holly’s life is a delightful, sad, entertaining, tragic, but eventually inspiring case study in how to get good and lost, in order to better find yourself – and look impossibly good while you’re doing it.

Get your tickets to Breakfast at Tiffany's here!

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