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Revisiting 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'

After 53 years Hepburn still able to entertain, stands as amazing testament to female liberation

By Brian Boyle, news editor
On April 26, 2014

  • Men’s soccer coach Rudy Zeller smiles after being drenched with water by his team after the Comets shut out Yuba College 2-0 on Nov. 12, his last game as coach. George Morin / The Advocate

"Breakfast at Tiffany's" is a very interesting film. The 1961 movie stands as a testament to the growing sexual revolution, with Audrey Hepburn's portrayal of the rather sexually free Holly Golightly. The movie has also been ranked as the number two most racist film in history by complex.com, for the use of the character Mr. Yunioshi.
 Yunioshi is Golightly's neighbor, who lives above her in their apartment building. A Japanese immigrant, Yunioshi embodies every possible negative stereotype that has been leveled against the Japanese, and to add insult to injury, the recently deceased Mickey Rooney, who passed away on April 6, portrays him. The producers painted Rooney's face tan, put buckteeth on him and told him to squint. In 2011, a planned public screening of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" in San Francisco sparked an online petition to boycott the showing entirely.
Yet, despite the blatant racism in the film, it is hard not to love "Breakfast at Tiffany's."
 The film is based upon the book of the same name, by author Truman Capote.
Set in New York, the movie follows about one year of the life of Golightly. Golightly is a young, beautiful woman. She is the 1961 version of Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton. A socialite to the bone, Golightly spends her days travelling around New York, enjoying parties and going on dates with men of varying age. Golightly has no job, and ultimately has no need for one. As she is wont to say, "Anyone who is a gentleman will offer a girl $50 for the powder room."
The film's opening scene has become iconic. In silence, save for the a backtrack of "Moon River," which was written for the movie, Golightly eats a croissant while gazing through the window of Tiffany's jewelry store before walking home. Her explanation for this ritual is one of the first glimpses into Golightly's mind. She explains that she is sometimes subject to the "mean reds," and when she gets them, the only cure is to go to Tiffany's, where "nothing really bad could ever happen."
Golightly makes sure to explain that the "mean reds" are different than the blues. "The blues are for when you're getting fat, and maybe it's been raining too long. You're just sad, that's all," Golightly said. "The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you're afraid, and you don't know what you're afraid of."
While at home, Golightly is interrupted from sleep by her co-star George Peppard (1928-1994) who plays Paul Varjak, a struggling author who, much like Golightly, has resorted to selling his company for money. Varjak is a kept man, with his benefactor being a slightly older, married woman (Patricia Neal), who pays him for his time and for sexual favors.  The movie very carefully treads over how promiscuous Golightly is, but the implication is that, though she may not be sleeping with every man who pays her, she is trading sex for money.
Varjak falls in love with Golightly almost immediately, which is understandable, as the stunningly beautiful Hepburn plays her. This is a problem for Varjak, because as she expresses upon climbing through his window late at night to snuggle with him till she falls asleep, Golightly is only interested in being friends.
It is soon revealed that, unlike Varjak, Golightly has a more compelling reason for choosing the oldest profession, and a rather dark past to go with it. Golightly is attempting to earn money to support herself and her brother Fred, who is in the military. Golightly describes Fred as very sweet, but very slow.
Golightly has also been married. When she was only 14 years old she married a man in his 50s, Doc Golightly (Buddy Ebsen). Their marriage took place in 1955, long after the death of the idea that a 50-year-old man marrying a 14-year-old could be normal.
The movie is a romantic comedy, and, unlike most in the genre, is hilarious. Laughs come readily from Golightly's sarcastic outlook on much of life, as well as from her attempts to evade the many "rats" that would pursue her.
Given the time, "Breakfast at Tiffany's" uses sexual innuendo liberally. Golightly is not your typical woman of the times. Where many other movies of the period have attempted to make women seem sexually pure, Golightly's past is blatantly muddied. Golightly is forward, and brazen, more so than any female character in a movie previously. Golightly's motto is  "It is quite useful to be top banana in the shock department."
The two characters inevitably fall in love, though their romance takes many interesting turns. Golightly is fickle and continuously rebuffs Varjak. One day she'll be hot, and the next day cold. Varjak spends much of his free time watching as Golightly chases after a string of wealthy men.
After the two share a romantic day together followed by a passionate kiss that fades to black, he finds her suddenly cold, and that he is apparently just "another rat" in her eyes.  The use of calling men "rats" by Golightly seems to refer only to men that she has slept with, or at least attempted to bed her.
Varjak all but spits in Golightly's face, but instead opts to treat her in kind. Varjak slips her a $50 check, letting her know it is "For the powder room."
Varjak longs for Golightly, yet is content for much of the film to watch her rush headlong into relationships that are always doomed to fail, content to be her friend for a long time. When the two are on screen together, they convey an attraction that, while subtle, seems all too real. Both are in possession of their own baggage, but they are capable of understanding one another completely.
Golightly is a free spirit trapped in a cage of her own making. A tough woman, having endured years of pedophilic abuse, raising four children that were not her own while supporting a brother that needs her, Golightly is not bowed by her burdens. She bares them proudly, and will do anything to overcome them. Unlike many leading ladies of the time, Golightly does not want saving, she is attempting to sacrifice herself to save those she cares about. While doing this, she also refuses not to support her friends.
Varjak is a failing author, whose only real fan and advocate is Golightly. She embodies traits that Hollywood had long used to create leading women that appeared pure and above reproach. Golightly is loyal, she is supportive and above all generous, and yet she is sexually liberated: The film challenges its audiences to question how they view women, while also thoroughly entertaining them.
Golightly is such a strong, impressively captivating character that she elevates the movie far above its racist elements. Conversations have been had about separating authors and directors from their work, usually associated with claims of pedophilia against Phil Spectre and Woody Allen, but "Breakfast at Tiffany's" requires a different conversation. With this movie, one has to attempt to separate the film from itself. Would the film suffer if Yunioshi were not in it? Not even slightly, yet he is there nonetheless.
The movie flies in the face of the conventional way movies portrayed women at the time, which marks "Breakfast at Tiffany's" as one of the greats. Golightly is a very sexual character. She plays the field, lives alone except for her cat and speaks her mind regardless of if anyone wishes her too. "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is rare in that it has a female lead that is an actual person, and not a composite of what Hollywood wished women would be.
The film is not without its failings. The run time is about two hours long, yet it feels much longer. This is largely due to it having multiple endings, one being placed right in the middle. "Breakfast at Tiffany's" was not the first movie to make this mistake, and many have refused to learn that if a director has an ending in the middle of the movie, the second half will seem inexplicably longer.
The movie also overuses the song "Moon River." The song was written specifically for the movie, and for Hepburn, who had no formal training as a singer. The song only covers one octave in order to disguise her lack of practice. Yet the song is in the movie so often that by the time it plays at the end, it is hard not to be sick of it.
Despite the very superficial failings and the blatant racism, "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is an amazing film. At the time, it was one of the most progressive movies in regards to how women were portrayed. The movie is hilarious, and able to keep one laughing or smiling from start to finish.
Romantic comedies are not everyone's thing, it's understandable, but if one loves a good romance, "Breakfast at Tiffany's" may be one of the best ever filmed. 


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