For 60 Years We’ve Been Misunderstanding ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’

Breakfast at Tiffany's
© Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The opening of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is iconic, like a cinematic Bible scene in the Church of Hollywood.

All the sacrosanct signifiers of the film are captured in those first minutes; the emergence of a Givenchy-clad Audrey Hepburn, stopping before a Tiffany’s window with a coffee and a pastry, while ‘Moon River’ plays in the background. The myth of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Holly Golightly is a stand-in for glamour and class. It is a story that has been passed down, subject to parody and praise—a digitally replicated Hepburn even appeared in a 2013 Galaxy chocolate advert.

And yet, underneath all the glitz, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a story of a young woman fleeing an underage marriage, becoming a sex worker and involving herself in organised crime.

Admittedly, the movie has been bleached of the darker themes from Truman Capote’s original story, but echoes of them can still be found. Over the decades, Breakfast at Tiffany’s has been watched through rose-tinted glasses, blind to what takes the film from nostalgia-fest romcom to a more complex drama. It is time that everyone stops misunderstanding Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

“I mean any gentleman with the slightest sheik will give a girl a $50 bill for the powder room,” Holly explains when she first meets George Peppard’s Paul Varjak. At first glance, it’s a baffling statement. You really have to scrape back the euphemistic layer to truly understand. In his own words, Capote created Holly as an American Geisha. In today’s parlance, you might call Holly an escort or a sex worker. While the film is more subtle than the book in its suggestion of how Holly earns her money, there are plenty of implications. There’s the aforementioned $50, the interactions between Holly and Paul about their ‘situations’ like a sex worker pseudo-union, and the break off of Holly’s engagement due to her salacious existence.    

Yet, audiences allow themselves to believe the almost-actress-proto-It-Girl trope, leaving Holly’s source of funds a convenient mystery. This is perhaps due in part to the casting. The film’s glamour is part-and-parcel with Hepburn’s own elevation as a bastion of Hollywood’s Golden Age, her ingénue roles and air of innocence following her throughout her career. Could you really suspend your disbelief and believe Audrey Hepburn as a call girl? As a 2016 BBC article stated, “we think we know Holly Golightly—but really, we know Audrey Hepburn.”

Now, 60 years on from the film’s release, the cultural and social relationship to sex work has evolved. Today, Holly may well be considered entrepreneurial rather than scandalous. Putting her sex work in context, with what she has been through and where she has come from, you should be in awe of her ability to land on her feet.

It’s a surprise reveal that Holly was married at the age of 14. Inferred from Holly’s once-husband’s account, Holly and her brother Fred were not brought up by their parents. Instead, Holly’s marriage was possibly one of convenience, to get away from the ‘mean no-account people’ who raised her. And yet, by the time Holly is in New York, and when Doc Holiday shows up, we learn that the marriage had been annulled.

So, we have a backstory of a suggested cruel upbringing and illegal underage marriage. Suddenly, Holly appears more of a tragic heroine than a dolled-up figurehead of New York society.

But the scenes where this is explored are possibly a little exposition-y, Doc narrating the life and times of Holly aka Lula Mae Barnes on a park bench. There is no fashion to covet, no party to peek into Holly’s world. From the outside, it lacks what we think Breakfast at Tiffany’s is made up of, almost incongruous to the film. And yet it shouldn’t be forgotten, or go unappreciated. Doc’s role is to pull back the curtain on Holly’s Wizard of Oz persona, reveal a history that clearly informs her present. Sure, she’s swapped stealing milk and eggs for men and bourbon, but we can still see the child bride craving for freedom, funds, and, of course, Tiffany’s.

Nobody could really imagine Holly as a criminal. Criminals don’t wear crocodile heels or a bejewelled sleeping mask, or somehow pull off the men’s-shirt-as-nightie look. Yet, Holly finds herself entangled in narcotics based organised crime. In a turn of events that don’t quite add up, every week she visits Sally Tomato at Sing Sing prison, a convicted tax evader since, as Holly points out, “they couldn’t prove he was part of the Mafia, much less the head of it.” Each week, she visits Tomato who gives her a weather report to pass on to his lawyer. The reports have a certain Lewis Caroll-esque ring to them; “snow flurries expected this weekend in New Orleans” and “cloudy over Palmero” for example. Of course, it turns out these aren’t just little riddles to prove Holly’s visited, but code. Holly might not be a drug mule, but she’s certainly carrying messages.

Naturally she denies she understands what she’s doing, only that it pays $100. And that would make sense in how the world has viewed Holly and Breakfast at Tiffany’s; a waif, taken in by the Big City, used by criminals. When she’s arrested, we trust that Holly doesn’t know anything, resorting to her high-end French and the casual cigarette at the police precinct, being both too ‘proper’ and too naïve.

But now, can we believe this? We know that Holly had a troubled upbringing, entertaining herself with stealing (a ‘pastime’ she still dips into), and is a sex worker, a crime in New York during the 1960s. Is it so hard to believe that being a somewhat knowing accomplice isn’t something Holly would do? Surely, she’s canny enough to know that ‘snow flurries’ are not referring to snow at all, and she’s all too gung-ho to skip bail.

So maybe the glitz and the glitter of Tiffany jewels is not the entire DNA of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or even Holly Golightly herself. By squinting your eyes past the shine, you begin to perceive parts of the Holly that Capote imagine; an escapee of underage marriage, a sex worker, an accomplice to a drug ring. While it’s a challenge to piece this insight with the cultural understanding of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, our appreciation of the film, and our love for characters like Holly, deepens. A simple happy-go-lucky It Girl no more, Holly remains an icon of not only glamour, but survival and an almost outrageous tenacity.

Words by James Reynolds

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