With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
In a 2017 essay, Erin Horáková describes a phenomenon she calls “Kirk drift.” She argues that our commonly accepted pop culture image of William Shatner’s Captain Kirk as a suave womanizer has very little basis in the actual Star Trek canon. As Horáková puts it, “Macho, brash Kirk is a mass hallucination.” Yet once that image entered the zeitgeist it became a self-fulfilling prophecy that retroactively colored how viewers both watch and rewatch the series. I think something similar has happened to Breakfast At Tiffany’s and, specifically, to Audrey Hepburn’s performance as Holly Golightly. Today the film is generally remembered as a frothy rom-com about a tiara-wearing free spirit in 1960s New York—a sort of proto Sex And The City for the beatnik generation. In actuality, Breakfast At Tiffany’s is a beautifully nuanced, melancholic character drama as much as it is a kooky romantic comedy. So how did that gap in perception grow so big?
Some of the weirdness around Breakfast At Tiffany’s legacy springs from a strange compulsion to place Blake Edwards’ 1961 film in direct opposition to Truman Capote’s original 1958 novella. Capote himself disliked the film adaptation and felt betrayed when Paramount cast Audrey Hepburn in place of his preferred Holly, Marilyn Monroe. Perhaps partially because of that, cultural consensus holds that the film turned a gritty, bawdy tragedy into a sanitized, heteronormative romance. But while the tonal differences between the film and the novella are definitely there, they tend to get exaggerated in a way that does a disservice to the nuances of both versions.
Both the novella and the film center on Holly Golightly, a young would-be New York socialite who lives a transient, bohemian lifestyle while on the hunt for a rich husband. The film updates its setting from the 1940s to the 1960s, but still tells its story through the perspective of Holly’s new neighbor, a struggling writer who serves as the novella’s unnamed narrator and the film’s Paul Varjak (George Peppard). What follows is a sort of year-in-the-life story in which Paul gets sucked into Holly’s chaotic world, learns details about her tragic past, and watches her fashionable future potentially crumble as she struggles to lock down a suitable suitor. Save for its ending (admittedly a big change, and one we’ll get to), the film keeps far more than it cuts from the novella, including lifting huge portions of its dialogue directly from Capote’s book.
Crucially, both versions refuse to put definitive labels on things. So while some are quick to describe the novella as “a book about a gay man in love with a call girl,” that’s not necessarily accurate. The narrator’s sexual orientation is left ambiguous, and even Capote himself didn’t think of Holly as a call girl in the formal sense, but as an “American geisha” who spends her nights being wined and dined by rich men who give her $50 tips for the powder room and sometimes come back to her apartment with her. Yes, the novella more openly discusses topics like sex, homosexuality, drug use, and miscarriages, which wouldn’t have been considered appropriate for an early 1960s Hollywood film. But the film isn’t exactly prudish either. Holly still gets those $50 tips and still brings men back to her apartment. The film even adds a storyline about Paul being the “kept man” of a wealthy married decorator (a radiant Patricia Neal). When Holly teases Paul about the $300 his “decorator friend” left on his nightstand, she’s quick to add, “I was just letting you know I understand. I understand completely.”
Of course, there’s one massive and crucial caveat to make when discussing Breakfast At Tiffany’s, which is that it contains one of the most offensive depictions of an Asian character ever captured on screen. And it’s worth emphasizing that Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Holly’s Japanese neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi, isn’t just an “of its time” problematic example of a white actor portraying a non-white character in a Hollywood film, like Alec Guinness in Lawrence Of Arabia. In addition to being an example of yellowface, Mr. Yunioshi is an explicitly racist caricature—a socially inept buffoon who exists solely to be the butt of the film’s jokes. And even critics at the time took notice. In his review of the film, The Hollywood Reporter’s James Powers noted that although Rooney gave the part his customary all, “the role is a caricature and will be offensive to many.” Rooney doesn’t have a ton of cumulative screentime, but he’s unfortunately a continual presence throughout the film. And though everyone involved has since come to regret the portrayal, that doesn’t undo the concrete damage done to the Asian and Asian-American community. I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone who doesn’t want to do the mental gymnastics of compartmentalizing the racist elements of the film while still engaging with the rest of it.
But beyond that valid critique, Breakfast At Tiffany’s is saddled with a lot of unfair baggage, too. Director Blake Edwards—who would go on to direct the Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther films—brings a fantastic comedic flair to scenes like a madcap party at Holly’s apartment or a sequence where Holly and Paul try to figure out what item to shoplift from a five-and-dime. But the film isn’t just a breezy romp, as it’s sometimes dismissed. Edwards regularly undercuts those lighthearted sequences with moments of deep tragedy. In fact, what’s most remarkable about the film adaptation isn’t what it cuts but what it keeps: the huge emotional complexity of Holly’s backstory as a child bride from Tulip, Texas.
When Doc Golightly (a pitch-perfect Buddy Ebsen) first comes calling, Paul assumes the older man must be Holly’s father. But it turns out Doc is Holly’s “husband,” a rural veterinarian who took in Holly and her brother when they were on the run from an abusive home and then married Holly when she was “going on 14.” Caring but clearly deeply misguided, soft-spoken Doc can’t understand why teenage Holly ran away from a life where all she had to do was be his wife and raise the four children he had from his previous marriage.
It’s some of the darkest material I can ever remember a rom-com tackling, and Breakfast At Tiffany’s handles it with an incredibly delicate touch. Holly is deeply appreciative of this man who saved her and her brother from a life of destitution, but she’s simultaneously aware of the fact that their relationship was—for lack of a better term—deeply fucked up. It’s one area where the film actually adds more depth to its source material. While the novella has Holly tell Paul about what it was like to say goodbye to Doc after his surprise visit to New York, the film lets that heart-wrenching scene unfold in front of us. The dialogue is relatively restrained, but the complex emotional subtext conveyed through Ebsen’s and Hepburn’s performances could easily fill a book.
Yet there’s a curious refusal to recognize the depth of Breakfast At Tiffany’s. One 2009 retrospective described the film as “unquestionably escapist” and noted that it “eagerly encourages us not to think about how sordid and sad its characters and story actually are.” Nevermind that the film features a scene where Paul begins a story about Holly with the line, “There once was a very lovely, very frightened girl.” Or another where a character describes a record of Holly’s lifestyle as “a book that would break the heart.” Or another where Holly receives bad news via telegram and violently destroys her own apartment.
Culture writer Lili Loofbourow coined the term “the male glance” to describe the phenomenon in which people of all genders have been trained to assume that female-centric art is less serious than male-centric art. As she puts it, “Even when we’re moved by the work ourselves, our assumption, time and again, tends to be that the effects these female texts produce are small, or imperfectly controlled, or, even worse, accidental. The text is doing something in spite of itself.” The male glance definitely seems to have cast its eye on Breakfast At Tiffany’s. How else can you explain how Holly Golightly got reclaimed as an aspirational style icon when the film tells us over and over again that she’s an inherently tragic figure?
If I had to pick a spiritual cinematic sister to Breakfast At Tiffany’s it would be The Graduate, Mike Nichols’ revered classic that premiered six years later. Both films blend elements of comedy, drama, and romance while capturing a sense of youthful longing and ennui that exists on the outskirts of wealth. Both feature scenes of their central romantic couple attending a strip show. And, most importantly, both films rely heavily on subtext. The difference is, we’re primed to see that subtext as an intentional storytelling choice in The Graduate and primed to ignore it altogether in Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
The male glance also influences our almost pathological refusal to accept the legitimate acting prowess of Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn is regularly discussed as a style icon and a charming feminine presence, but she’s seldom referenced as a great performer in the way we discuss Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, or Dustin Hoffman. (Interestingly, I would say the same thing generally happens to Marilyn Monroe, except in the specific case of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, where she’s held up as the platonic ideal of an actor truly capable of tackling Holly Golightly—a sort of “I didn’t like Hillary, but I would’ve voted for Elizabeth Warren” scenario.) Hepburn turns in one of the most multifaceted, emotionally raw performances of her career in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, yet the film is often lumped in with her chic, fashion-filled romps like How To Steal A Million or Funny Face. That’s the equivalent of arguing that Ocean’s Eleven and Up In The Air are the same because George Clooney wears suits in both.
The difference between Hepburn’s version of Holly and the one in Capote’s novella is a matter of degrees. Capote’s Holly is glamorous when she needs to be but earthy and uncouth when she’s not trying to impress. Hepburn’s Holly, meanwhile, has that same core of imperfect humanity but almost never lets her mask slip. She’s always performing carefree femininity, even among friends and even in moments of tragedy. Yet Hepburn is talented enough to layer Holly’s exterior confidence with hints of inner desperation, too. When she crawls up her fire escape and into Paul’s room in the middle of the night, Holly pretends she’s engaging in a whimsical flight of fancy because her date got “tiresome.” But we also see her flinch in genuine fear each time her drunken, ornery date smashes something in her apartment below.
Holly’s faux devil-may-care attitude is a survival tactic for her, which is why it’s so ironic to see her regularly listed as an early example of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope. Holly may have quirky trappings of the archetype, but the film very much wants us to see them as performative trappings. Beneath her surface-level charms, Holly is deeply flawed, deeply selfish, and at times outright cruel. Narrative-wise, it’s actually Paul who fulfills the function of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in that he has very little arc of his own and is instead focused solely on helping Holly improve her life.
Unfortunately, Paul himself is a bit of a weak spot for the film. George Peppard isn’t disastrously miscast, but he’s a step or two away from the ideal foil for Hepburn. (He was also reportedly a bit of a diva on set and demanded his role be played as a dashing romantic lead despite being written as more of a bookish artist.) But his performance works well within the full context of the film. His climactic speech about Holly “belonging” to him sounds like retrograde patriarchal bullshit if you don’t understand that he’s echoing Holly’s own words back to her and challenging her flippant life philosophy more so than claiming literal ownership over her.
The single biggest point of diversion between the novella and the film is that the latter features a love story and an overt happy ending. That probably explains why Capote once said, “The movie became a mawkish valentine to New York City, and as a result was thin and pretty, whereas it should have been rich and ugly.” But while there’s no doubt that the two endings are very different, I’d push back against Capote’s assertion that the film lacks ugliness. There’s a sense of desperation and terror that runs throughout the rain-soaked climax, even as it ultimately offers a metaphorical ray of sunshine through the clouds. Even when Paul and Holly get their big, sweeping kiss it still takes place in a trash-filled alley.
Regardless of how well it works as an adaptation, Breakfast At Tiffany’s functions as a beautiful romantic dramedy—one that’s well deserving of a critical reappraisal. In her article on Kirk drift, Horáková admits that a “naïve encounter” with Star Trek is almost impossible these days, and perhaps the same is true of Breakfast At Tiffany’s. The film has become mass-marketed iconography, with images of Holly Golightly removed from their original context and placed on dorm room posters and coffee table books. But it’s worth trying to approach or re-approach the film with open eyes. Like the film’s Oscar-winning song, “Moon River,” there’s a plaintive heart beneath that lovely melody.
Next time: How does Sleepless In Seattle play on its 25th anniversary?