The intriguing thing about going back in time with cinema is just how much, despite technological and social advances, we might relate to the lives of people throughout history—that is, if a film has been built on the fundamentals of being human and thus stands the test of time.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, despite superficial title and trite references, is one such movie.
At first glance, this movie deceives. For what can possibly happen around a woman obsessed with Tiffany’s jewelry store? A lot. And the construction, flow and grip of this movie help us to process it, move with it and reap the benefits of contemplation as we embark on a romantic journey that is strangely new-age in its approach to how two people can heal each other. Aside for one slip,* this movie is flawless.
We find Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) in the first–most famous–scene browsing through the Tiffany’s window along 5th Ave. in New York City. She trapses through the isles. A ritual walk through diamonds and precious metals. She is swiftly showcased in a scene with her male counterpart Paul (George Peppard) to explain that this trip to Tiffany’s is a sure cure for the “mean reds”–bad moods that plague her.
It’s immediately established that Holly is a woman of high standard, right down to the last detail–see tassled earplugs and blingy eyemask for sleeping. And Paul makes a first impression as a quiet, classic, unsuspecting, and devastatingly handsome gentleman. But Holly doesn’t let on that she even notices these qualities and we, as the audience, are kind of going “huh? girl, did you SEE this guy?”
The movie is a flowering out through deep complexities of contextual looks into their lives, and we soon yearn for them to get together—as an act of social symbiosis, a way for each of them to be saved by love.
Holly’s escapism into the party scene and the pursuit of partnership with the richest men in the world is presented as a psychologically complex attempt to deny a past wherein she was a poor, southern mouse who married at age 14 and took on a family of four. The only link to her past being her brother, Fred, who we never meet or see because he’s off fighting in the war.
The tension set up around Fred is genius for with all of her ardent efforts to escape the past, Holly is obsessed with this man and his return–their connection obviously close and serving a purpose to connect her with the only scrap of identity she has. This lack of identity is further set up through the cat she keeps–an orange tabby, who in my opinion deserves some kind of feline oscar for all of the scenes it made with its behavior. She calls the cat “cat” and “poor slob without a name.”
Paul’s situation is equally complex. He is actually a male prostitute—something that in the 60s must have been wild to behold as a concept on the big screen. But he’s a high-end one who serves only one client, the wife of a well-to-do elderly man who obviously does nothing for her. The client does little for Paul except cut him checks and put him up in fancy apartments. She’s obnoxious but real in character. One thing might save Paul, and that’s that he can write.
Holly encourages him with a battery of questions at the movies outset–“when did you last write?” she coos. “Yesterday,” he says matter of factly. “It’s a nice typewriter,” she continues “but there’s no ribbon in it.”
These little nuances throughout the movie become tiny anchor points for details shared later on–like when we discover half-way through that, as Paul explains his writing successes and payment for work, Holly had bought him the ribbon for his typewriter.
We are more directly cued into the ways that Paul helps Holly, for when her ex-husband, Doc Golightly (Buddy Ebsen) comes into the picture, asking her to ‘come home,’ Holly asks Paul to accompany her to the bus station and stand by her when she tells the old man to ride the bus back south alone. Doc tries to bribe Holly by threatening not to take Fred in on his return and to even write to tell him to take another tour in the war. Holly gracefully pleads for him not to do this and says she’ll take Fred in–thus catapulting her into an intensified need for funding to support another person in the future.
Paul and Holly, through colorful, sing-song scenes, build a friendship that in the entryway of their apartment building becomes romantic. We only see the kiss but the chemistry is so dead on that it’s really overwhelming and, if I may speak for everyone, we are satisfied with the notion of it.
The morning after their first night together, Paul opens his striking blue eyes and slides a bit in his soft, white sheets to find her gone. He searches for her around the city and finds her at the library, researching Brazil so that she can woo a rich, Brazilian politician, Jose ‘Villalonga,’ she met at a party to be her husband. It’s an ice-cold situation. Paul confesses love at this point but our chests collapse a little to watch him completely stonewalled by Holly’s conviction.
We are then brought into one of the great scenes in film in my opinion. For I judge acting by the actors ability to let go completely. When Holly and Villalonga are coming back from a party, he spots a telegram at her door. She steps forward in a hot pink dress and matching heals to interrupt his retrieval of it and they juggle it back and forth in play before she grabs it and smiles.
We are flashed into Paul’s room from which he hears her scream and glass smashing. He rushes down to her apartment to find Villalonga beside himself–innocent yet shocked at her behavior. Paul rushes into the room where Holly is completely possessed, haywire, screaming and pulling furniture over, smashing the carefully placed bottles of perfume on her beauty stand, ripping into down linens. Paul swoops right into the mess and gets a hold of her, and we see his presence, his steadiness as her limbs flail and she fights him–he gingerly releases her weakening form onto her bed and physically encourages her to to calm down as he places his hand on her shoulder and leans in a bit, waiting. She rests into a sob, and, sensing her stable, Paul returns to Villalonga.
The telegram, Paul discovers, declares horrific news. Villalonga still seems hesitant and voices concern about being with such an emotional woman who could put his stature on the line. Paul exits but not before instructing ‘the other man’ to go in and take care of Holly.
Complications include early revelation of Holly’s relationship to a mafia jailbird, who pays her to visit him and even tips her to stand up, turn around and walk to the restroom. This comes to bite her as she is about to depart for Brazil to be with Villalonga—she is arrested the night before, and Paul works some connections to see how she can be represented for only being a (paid) friend to a member of the mob.
To avoid too much exposure, Paul thoughtfully books a hotel for Holly and meets her at the precinct with items she would need most, including “cat.” Holly listens to him explain her accomodations and finds that there is still time to catch the flight so insists to the driver that they go to the airport. An argument ensues. Another amazing scene built on amazing writing and we are whisked into an ending where Paul breaks his silence and, in one of the most moving speeches I’ve heard, challenges Holly to look at her freedom as the cage that holds her back from true love.
*There is one, huge flaw in the movie, one that at the time seemed normal, I guess. Mickey Rooney is cast as an Asian landlord, decked out in buck teeth and oil with black hair slicked and thick, black glasses and a ghastly accent. An ‘artistic’ decision that ranks right up there in offensiveness with blackface.