Much has been said about Holly Golightly and her contribution to the 60’s sexual revolution. Since its initial release exactly fifty years ago, numerous women have lived vicariously through Holly, and Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of the naïve and wily socialite is her most memorable role. When people think of Hepburn, they automatically picture her in that signature black Givenchy dress, holding her long cigarette holder with a smirk on her face.
It is quite surprising that Holly is remembered as a likable character. After all, it is fair to describe her as manipulative, materialistic and irresponsible. And the fact that the film’s director, Blake Edwards, originally wanted to cast the more sexually daring Marilyn Monroe implies that she wasn’t intended to be a sweetheart – in Truman Capote’s novella, the source material for the movie, the allusions to Golightly being a call girl was more direct. So where does her absolution come from?
Most people point to Audrey Hepburn’s disarming charm and the way she lights up on screen as the reason why audiences forgive Holly for her shortcomings. She may be a messenger for a drug ring, but with looks like that, who cares! And even if we should feel bad for Paul (George Peppard) after Holly decides to marry the Brazilian millionaire Jose for his money, we can’t help but place our sympathies on her instead after Paul hands her a check for her “services”. Never has gold digging seemed more adorable.
This is, of course, true. It is Hepburn’s magnetic portrayal that is the main reason why Holly has such a warm spot in our collective cultural memory. But the one scene in particular that made me forget of all of her flaws is the one where she sits on the balcony of her apartment, guitar in hand, singing Moon River as Paul looks at her from his apartment. This movie if anything is an exercise in charm, and that is certainly the most charming scene.
The song, for which the great Henry Mancini won his first Oscar, was specifically written to suit Hepburn’s vocal range. Producers originally wanted to cut the scene, but when they threatened to do so, Audrey Hepburn supposedly said, “Over my dead body!” Her insistence on preserving this scene is understandable as this is not only the most captivating of hers in the entire movie, but it also helps us understand her enigmatic character better.
Immediately before she starts singing, Paul writes the following on his typewriter: “There was once a very lovely, very frightened girl. She lived alone except for her nameless cat.” It perfectly encapsulates what we know about Holly at that point in the film – she is definitely beguiling, but there is a vulnerability in her brought about by her relationship with her brother, Fred, who was serving in the army. We also know her faults – she is terribly inconsiderate to her landlord, Mr. Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney), she parties all night and sleeps all day, and, as I’ve mentioned earlier, she “gets paid fifty dollars for the powder room” and is involved with the operations of Sally Tomato (Alan Reed), a mobster and drug dealer. Despite her allure, there are some questionable aspects to her personality.
But the first time we see her laid bare is when she sings Moon River. The audience’s gaze is similar to that of Paul’s. Like him, we are spying into a private, personal moment, voyeuristically watching Holly from afar without her knowing it. We don’t see her in one of her dresses or decked out in jewelry. Instead, she’s wearing a baggy shirt and comfortable jeans with a towel wrapped around her head. This time, she isn’t made up for anybody and is perhaps the only time in the entire movie where we see her truly being herself.
It is because of this nuance that we see Holly in a different light. Instead of just being a vapid café socialite, we come to see her as a dreamer – she is, as the song suggests, a drifter off to see the world. She is escaping a tortured past, a past we come to know more about later on in the movie, and she is trying her best to rebuild her life in the city. Yes, she makes mistakes but she is trying hard, and to have the tenacity to do that is admirable.
But perhaps more importantly, we realize that she is alone. She may enjoy the company of men, but she hasn’t found a companion yet. As implied again by her song, her only friend is Moon River, a metaphor for the journey that she’s on. And this is also perhaps the biggest appeal of Holly – with no one to provide or to care for her, the fact that she is able to make ends meet and enjoy the freedoms of singlehood speaks of her inner strength.
Both Paul and the audience get enamored with Holly, and the close-up shots of Audrey Hepburn’s face show just how extraordinarily beautiful she is. We also see glimpses of her past rooted in the country through the sweetness of her voice and demeanor. If Paul had any doubts about Holly, seeing her in this manner must have brushed his worries away.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s isn’t a perfect movie. It has structural and pacing issues, and the motivations that drive the characters to act the way they do aren’t always explained. It has also attracted controversy, particularly with Rooney’s “yellow face” performance. But what it has are moments – moments that have stood the test of time and are remembered fondly up to this day. And if there’s one moment that melts your heart and makes you believe in the movie, it is no doubt that of Holly singing Moon River.