Phony, but a REAL phony: Jess Wilton on Breakfast at Tiffany’s

By Jess Wilton

The lights go down, “Moon River” begins to play, the taxi pulls up to Tiffany’s in the violet glow of a New York dawn, Holly Golightly steps out onto the deserted sidewalk, and even the most cynical, objective viewer begins to feel a bit giddy. Forty-five years after its original release, Breakfast at Tiffany’s remains a reliable source of nostalgia, sentimentality, and reckless escapism. But its staying power doesn’t lie solely in the enormously appealing, slightly twisted characters from Truman Capote’s novella, nor has it held a place in our hearts simply for in its powerful themes of urban identity crisis. These things add dimension to any great film romance, and help sustain the viewer through multiple screenings, but honest-to-goodness Hollywood spectacle constitutes the shallow soul of this valentine; The City, Audrey Hepburn, Mancini’s music, they are all so good to see and hear that they render actual content almost secondary.

Still, this film’s cultural influence is unmistakable (would we ever have had Sex in the City if it wasn’t for Holly Golightly?), and its literary heritage unquestionable (think back, past Capote, to Edith Wharton and Henry James). And, although the romance between Holly and “Fred” is a creation of George Axelrod’s screenplay, not a part of Capote’s novella, both stories play upon our fears that, whether we try to make our own identities or allow others to make them for us, or even reinforce them with furniture and fashion, we’ll never truly connect with other people.

Of all the free-floating, identity-starved characters in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly stands out as both the most afflicted and the most self-aware. One of the film’s most memorable refrains is O.J. Berman’s frequent insistence that Holly is a “phony—but a real phony.” So it makes sense for Holly to be the embodiment of both shallowness and depth. She answers the door half naked, climbs through the window and into the bed of a man she met that morning, and throws wild, hedonistic parties for throngs of people she doesn’t know. She deliberately owns nothing and refuses to name her cat, yet there’s a tangible sense of tension behind everything she does. She seems to prattle, but never wastes a word. Behind the radiant smile, Audrey Hepburn allows Holly’s pain and self-loathing to peek through in tiny grimaces, through the slightest narrowing of the eyes. Her lack of self-consciousness, and her persona built firmly on style and wit form the beginnings of the “modern girl.” Over the past four and a half decades, Holly has represented the epitome of single, urban chic. She was one of the first to thumb her nose at conservative 1950’s sexual politics, and, rather than reviling her for this, America cherished Holly, leading generation after generation of young women to idolize Audrey Hepburn.

There are, however, some problems. In a very post-modern, Fight Club-ish sort of way, Holly asserts her individuality by virtually erasing her core self. She becomes a product of her clothes, her environment, her few possessions. A real phony, her claim to authenticity is her total lack thereof. Her reverence for Tiffany’s stems from the fact that a retail business, even at the height of its commercial spectacle, makes her feel more at home than an apartment or any one human being. The film’s resolution to this problem, in its unabashedly sentimental final scene, may be one of the most pleasurable moments in cinema, but it doesn’t claim to miraculously endow Holly with a stable sense of self. It’s as if both characters, having exchanged their inner selves for the outer personas they have created in order to stand out in the New York crowd, give up and decide it doesn’t matter if they have any sort of identity, as long as they’re in love. This shallowness, in fact, is crucial to our ability to connect with the film. Most of us, after all, can’t stay in love forever, and have to keep the initial flame alive through some deeper understanding of our partner. For Paul (Fred) Varjac and Holly (Lula Mae) Golightly, the credits roll and they are forever suspended in the giddy nothingness of an early relationship.

The film’s timelessness, then, stems not only from its spectacle, but also from its acknowledgment of certain inner challenges we still haven’t quite figured out – especially those of us in the big cities. After all, we still flock to the cities to lose ourselves, often living amongst other people’s things (like Paul) or making do with no things at all. We desperately want attention, but can’t trust anyone. And if we can’t afford swanky trinkets, we at least want to live near them and look upon them from time to time.

And then there are those elements of the film that place it firmly in its cultural moment. Some of these we might like to forget (Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in particular), and some we enjoy for the cultural nostalgia (I’m fond of O.J. Berman’s penchant for technology—the “executive phone,” the adjustable bed. I seem to remember adjustable beds being a very big deal to my grandparents, who would have been about Mr. Berman’s age in 1961, though they never achieved his caliber of wealth). Beyond these trifles, there’s the film’s ambivalence about 1950’s decadence and hedonism, which illuminates a cultural turning point in America. Like the infamous party scene, the film contains equal amounts of reverence and distaste for the excessive drinking, dressing up, sleeping around, and spending money that had seemed like so much fun for the past few years. It’s almost as if, in anticipation of the turmoil to come, American culture began to put the brakes on, throwing its lost souls of post-World War II resplendence into each others’ arms for safety.

Caitlin Written by: