When Who You Are Is Different From Who You Think You Are

March 19, 2010

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a classic film starring Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, will be playing at the Harris Theatre from March 19th to 25th. The film centers on a young woman in 1960’s New York and her neighbor, a writer who is smitten with her. Holly’s goal in life is to be free from all emotional constraints, an impossible wish that ends up bringing her, and those who love her, much heartache.

Breakfast at Tiffany's poster

Nineteen sixties New York is an alternate reality in which everyone smokes all the time, and smoking is not so much a habit as a social facilitator. People smoke in bed, in taxis, and in pretty much every scene of the movie. The fashion is an elegant art deco, and everything from clothing to telephones has a stylish, classy, arty look to it. Even the language is somewhat foreign and romantic. The characters over-use the word ‘darling’, pronouncing it with a prolonged soft A and a muted R. They use words like ‘plenty’ and ‘powder room,’ and men refer to each other as “Fred baby” and “Paul baby.”

What I love most about this movie are the details. No matter how may times I see it, I always notice something new. For example, Holly keeps perfume and lipstick in her mailbox in order to do quick touch-ups, presumably in case her make-up has degenerated between her apartment and the front door of her building. As for her apartment, I’m pretty sure that her couch is half a bathtub with a couple cushions on it. Also, the movie stars the best-trained cat in the history of showbiz, who, in every scene in Holly’s apartment, is to be found in a different impossible-to-reach location. The cat even jumps off of objects and lands on people’s shoulders. This cat symbolizes Holly, and is in some ways a second manifestation of her character. It is a wild thing ensnared in the trap of Holly’s making.

Audrey hepburn poster

The theme of the film is whether people can belong to each other, and the different types of belonging that exist. Many of the men Holly dates, whom she refers to as ‘rats’ behind their backs, assume that paying for her dinner and giving her petty cash for the powder room give them certain rights. Holly, on the other hand, thinks that no one can belong to anyone, which translates to her breaking off relationships with and turning the cold shoulder on anyone she gets too close to.

Holly is a modern Anna Karenina, a woman aware of her beauty and intrigue. She is so good at playing the role of aloof beautiful woman that she convinces even herself that she is so. Holly goes to great lengths to make her emotional apathy apparent, even refusing to name her cat on account that she intends to set it free whenever the mood strikes her. An important question is asked by one of the characters, and this question defines all of Holly’s character. “Is she or isn’t she a phony?” Her acquaintance who asks has decided on the answer for himself, and I would tend to agree with him. “She’s a real phony. She honestly believes all this phony junk she pretends to believe.” It is much like Kurt Vonnegut’s admonition that “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Holly has chosen for the most part wisely; she pretends to be someone wild, stylish, and intriguing. The philosophy she has chosen for herself is an alienating one, but, in a city the size of New York, you can never run out of people to amuse yourself with and then dismiss.

Holly Golightly poster

Despite, or perhaps because of, her naiveté and self-absorption, Holly is a lovable character. She has created a bizarre yet internally consistent world for herself, and the joy of the movie is entering that world. She also gives some great life-advice, which, since seeing the movie for the first time, I have devoutly followed: “Never accept drinks from disapproving gentlemen.”

On Wednesday, March 24th, the film will be preceded by a red-carpet reception at 5:45. Drinks, hors d’ oeuvres, and dessert will be served.


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