Friday, December 10, 2010

Look But Do Not Touch

The iconography of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is its most powerful legacy.

The images of Audrey Hepburn in her famous sunglasses, form-fitting black dress and oversized pearls have been so successfully branded that they have come to represent our collective idea of glamour with an intensity few other Hollywood classics can match. Hepburn now adorns every variety of product imaginable: There are posters, coffee mugs, purses and t-shirts galore to choose from, all of which immediately identify the purchaser as someone who understands that chic does not necessarily have to be new or gaudy – or so they hope.

Indeed, the only comparable icon that communicates retro-style and coolness today in quite the same way is Jacqueline Kennedy, a woman who talked and dressed a heck of a lot like Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly.
The fact both women – one the wife of a president, the other a fictional character – forever  seemed both bored and beautiful only adds to their appeal. The unpracticed aloofness of the sort of woman capable of appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair is something F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about quite convincingly at the height of the Jazz Age. That the nation continues to this day to appreciate what I will call polished-yawners as inherently feminine, fashionable and positive is a topic for another day, but there is no doubting a great deal of Breakfast at Tiffany’s success and its canonization by subsequent generations is mixed up in that opinion.
Imagine then how the contemporary moviegoer – having absorbed a lifetime of Hepburn glamour – must feel when they actually sit down and watch the 1961 movie that is based on Truman Capote’s novella? To put it bluntly, Hepburn’s Holly Golightly does look great in that little black dress, but she is also trading oral sex in bathrooms for money. Exactly how the pre-teens with the movie poster on their wall react to this realization is probably something to behold.

Henri Mancini, who penned the film’s oft heard theme of “Moon River,” said it took him a long time to figure out what Holly Golightly was all about. If he has figured her out, he might be the only one. Holly was a hard-scrabble, somewhat empty-headed socialite to Capote, an eccentric and overly naïve wanderer to filmmakers and something quite else to audiences, many of whom like to think of her as the central player in “a hymn to love and to loneliness – to sex and to style” – hence the posters and mugs and what-have-you.

Capote himself said “the book was really rather bitter, and Holly Golightly was real – a tough character, not an Audrey Hepburn type at all.” Having read the book, I was prepared for the subtle intonations of immorality as well as the carefully-inserted hints that Holly Golightly’s seemingly happy-go-lucky approach to life might not be so enviable after closer inspection. I was not prepared for most of Capote’s frank exploration of socialites to be jettisoned (a good exploration of the film’s legacy and its difference from the novella can be found here).
In both Capote’s original version and the film, the character who gradually unravels Holly’s charade is her downstairs neighbor – a down-on-his-luck writer named Paul Varjak, played here by George Peppard.
Like Holly, Paul is quite literally selling himself for money. Unlike Holly, he is ashamed of his actions and realizes how much damage the transactions are doing to both his outward character and his personal self-esteem. Paul falls in love with Holly’s charade precisely because of its uniqueness and power (say what you like about her, but Golightly is an interesting character with a worldview that is entirely her own). His love survives his discovery of how dark and desperate the inner life behind Holly’s string of pearls and sunglasses really is. The intangibilities of love triumphing over all worldly impediments – like, say Holly being married – is  not a new theme, but at least in this film we have two characters who grow into their victory with enough original material to bolster their journey’s predictable course.

But what still endures beyond all of this is the image of Holly – or Hepburn, seeing as the two are virtually inseparable these days – standing in front of the window display Tiffany’s. Holly goes to Tiffany’s whenever she feels down because the “quietness and the proud look” of the place make it safe and beyond physical or emotional danger.

The irony of all this is incredible when you think about it.

The act of Holly staring at a window and finding a self-created meaning is much like the act of taking a movie poster or a still image from a film and branding it as the embodiment of glamour. As with all illusions, the process is built for observation alone. Try to touch what you have created and it falls apart. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a very beautiful movie with a very ugly heart beating inside. That the filmmakers tried to dress this up with fetishes of fashion and a happy ending does not change this.

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