A LOVE LETTER TO BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S
I adore BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S completely and see it as a story of quirky and flawed characters finding a love that transforms their outlook on life. TIFFANY’S brings us into the gilded world of New York party girl Holly Golightly and her neighbor Paul Varjak, a kept man. They must deffer their dreams and use their charms and looks as currency. The parties, the fashions, and humor make this film a pleasure to re-watch. Yet my love and admiration for the film comes from Audrey Hepburn’s beautiful performance as Holly, a “real phony” piecing together an identity that will hopefully give her access to a stable and comfortable world. The film remains clever, compelling, and enjoyable over time because of the gradual and character driven tension weaved through Holly and Paul’s relationship. Everything in the love story comes back to and relies on character, choice, and finding the something real over selling out for something fake.
In one of my favorite opening shots, we meet Holly Golightly having a coffee and danish in front of Tiffany & Co., not really admiring the jewelry or observing shoppers, but recovering and regrouping from the night. Tiffany’s is a kind of totem for Holly standing for admired, but distant qualities from her own life She explains this more to Paul in their frenzied first meeting.
Holly Golightly: You know those days when you get the mean reds?
Paul Varjak: The mean reds, you mean like the blues?
Holly Golightly: No. The blues are because you’re getting fat and maybe it’s been raining too long, you’re just sad that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?
Paul Varjak: Sure.
Holly Golightly: Well, when I get it the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany’s. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there. If I could find a real-life place that’d make me feel like Tiffany’s, then… then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name!
Holly’s explanation of “mean reds,” the rudderless feeling of being alone and unsure of your footing make us instantly relate and root for her character. We later hear OJ Berman describe Holly as a “real phony”, but considering who she is and what she’s striving for, it may not be such a slight.
Holly Golightly has taken her situation- poor beginnings, no family, and lack of legitimate opportunities- and found a way to get along. You could imagine being a perhaps unsuspecting courier for a mob boss and getting “$50 for the powder room” from a parade of endless johns and “super-rats” would grind down a her spirit and dreams. Holly keeps herself going with Tiffany’s to remind her she’s better than her worst actions. She’s a bold figure in films, particularly of a time that demanded villains and morally bent characters get their wicked end. Making Holly more real than phony is all due to Audrey Hepburn. In her performance, we see beyond what Holly does to who she really is. Hepburn’s elegance, wit, and energy makes Paul and the audience want to spend time with her. Hepburn nails both sides of Holly - the fun loving gold-digger at her party and then transforms into a simple dreamer strumming a guitar and singing “Moon River” on her fire escape.
Many romantic comedies today pump on the story of two opposites repelling and attacking against the background of ridiculous antics. Yet BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, pairs two similar types who form a friendship of unique understanding that holds judgment. Their first meeting sets up an explicitly sexual encounter and then subverts it. Holly sneaks into Paul’s apartment late at night when both characters are partially undressed, but too tired to do anything but talk. Holly agitates Paul when he says he’s a writer since his typewriter has no ribbon in it. Paul inquires about Holly’s “$50 for the powder room” comment and listens to her real goal of making a home for her brother one day. Their common occupations mollify the encounter and help the audience to see the unvarnished versions of their characters. We come away from the scene viewing Holly and Paul mainly as friends.
As the romantic plot kicks in, I think the story remains fresh because the barrier keeping Holly and Paul a part directly relates to their choices and moving from a cynical outlook to a more hopeful, but risky one. Holly’s visions of marrying rich get turned into a strategy once she discovers her brother’s life and future are in danger. Holly’s ex Doc Golightly returns and says she will need to either support her brother herself or have him sign up for another tour in the army. She decides to make herself the “Next Mrs. Rusty Trawler” to get the money she needs to help her brother. Instead of finding support from Paul, he chastises her saying, “If I were you, I’d be more careful with my money. Rusty Trawler’s too hard a way of earning it.” She returns it insisting he take her money because he “should used to taking money from ladies by now.” Their comfortable friendship existed on a plane of no judgment. I think Paul disapproves of Holly because he wants to be with her, but more than that, he knows she would be crossing a line from getting $50 from guys to get by to selling herself for money. Holly turns on him implying he has already sold himself out.
They reconcile in a fun and lovely escapade around New York. We return to Tiffany & Co. for Holly to show Paul her adopted church. Instead of looking from the outside and dreaming, Paul and Holly decide to make the place their own and buy something for their price: $10. They meet the most patient sales associate in cinema who agrees to engrave a Cracker Jack ring.
Paul returns the experience by bringing Holly to the library to try and check out the book he wrote. He cannot help but enjoy her loud antics in the quiet library and agree Tiffany’s is a much nicer place. Their day of fun ends in the vestibule of their apartment with a kiss. I still get chills watching that scene, seeing how different their characters seem in that one moment. Holly, a vivacious siren, looks diminutive and innocent. Paul too who cowers to his “decorator” and even Holly, conveys a new strength and determination of a leading man.
The previous day has shifted something in Paul. With new found confidence he decides to cut ties with 2E, played by the sassy Patricia Neal. Paul proposes they end things “stylishly” and neatly. 2E tries to maintain power in the situation, first accusing Paul of finding another female patron with money who can take care of him, then writing him a check for “vacation with pay.” Paul rejects her offer saying:
Paul: No Thanks. I’ve got a check of my own. When you get yourself a new writer to help, try and find one my size. That way you won’t have to even shorten the sleeves.
He’s done selling out and wants to live by his writing and be with Holly.
Paul sets out to find Holly with her ring from Tiffany’s in hand. To his surprise he finds her in the library researching South America. Like Paul, Holly displays a new sense of focus and determination to change her life, but with disastrous implications. She plans to marry the Brazilian, rich, and politically connected Jose who has his eye on her. Instead of glowering in disapproval, Paul insists they should be together. Holly reacts coldly treating him like one of her many disposable “rats.”
Holly: Do you think you own me?
Paul: That’s exactly what I think.
Holly: That’s what everybody always thinks, but everybody happens to be wrong.
Paul: Look, I am not everybody! Or am I? Is that what you really think? That I’m no different from all your other rats and super-rats? If that’s it… if that’s what you really think… there’s something I want to give you.
Holly: What’s that?
Paul: $50 for the powder room.
Holly and Paul who reserved judgment and respected each other as friends and similar souls degrade their relationship beyond repair. We want them to be together, but more than that, we want Holly to make better choices and break out of her stubborn pursuit of rich men.
The ending of the film beautifully recalls beginning scenes between Holly and Paul to show how Paul and Holly have grown beyond that first meeting and set the stage for the final confrontation. Paul comes into Holly’s apartment, transformed from a barren room with a halved out tub and empty bookcase to a garish, cramped place with oddities hanging from every wall. All that remains the same is Holly’s nameless Cat. Instead of being half dressed when Paul first met her or in one of her stylish black dresses, Holly is casual in a sweater, slacks, and flats (still fabulous). Holly, like her apartment, has gone overboard with the delusions Paul warned her against: selling yourself to marry rich and powerful. Holly holds on to her fantasy, but Paul, retaining his leading man presence and working as a writer, pokes holes into it while referencing his feelings for her.
Paul Varjak: [about Holly and Jose] So you’re getting married, then?
Holly Golightly: Well, he hasn’t really asked me, not in so many words.
Paul Varjak: Four you mean?
Holly Golightly: Huh?
Paul Varjak: Well that’s how many it takes: Will. You. Marry. Me.
Paul’s warnings come true once Holly is arrested and Jose dumps her to avert public scandal. Instead of admitting Paul was right and turning around, Holly rebounds with anger, wanting him to give her a list of the 50 richest men in Brazil and committing herself to finding a rich sap. Audrey Hepburn expertly shows us the ugliest side of Holly’s ambition and convinces us she is a lost cause.
Paul returns with equal anger at Holly’s stubbornness and George Peppard nails one of my favorite movie recriminations.
Paul: You know what’s wrong with you, Miss Whoever-You-Are?
You’re chicken, you’ve got no guts. You’re afraid to stick out your chin and say, “Okay, life’s a fact, people do fall in love, people do belong to each other,” because that’s the only chance anybody’s got for real happiness.
You call yourself a free spirit, a wild thing, and you’re terrified somebody’s going to stick you in a cage. Well, baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somaliland. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.
I’ve been carrying this thing around for months. I don’t want it anymore.
Holly seems unmoved by Paul’s speech, staring straight ahead, until he tosses a ring into her lap, the ring from Tiffany’s.
In that moment, Tiffany’s and all it stands for becomes real in the person of Paul and her abandoned Cat. We see Holly make the right choice in running after Paul and searching for Cat. The final kiss is a bonus to the happiness you see in Hepburn’s eyes at the sight of Cat. We rejoice more in Holly changing her mind and rejecting her cynical scheme. Paul too, is worthy of Holly now and we can leave that rainy New York alley with faith in them and perhaps in ourselves to be brave, hopeful, and lovely.