“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”: Sex Before the Sex Revolution

(I wrote this “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” review for a Pop Culture research project.)

Holly Golightly’s (Audrey Hepburn) early morning stroll along Tiffany’s remains one of the most iconic moments in motion picture history. She nibbles on her breakfast Danish as she laments her poor date the night before by yearning for something greater in the windows of New York City’s premiere jewelry outlet. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (d. Blake Edwards, 1961) is loosely based on a Truman Capote novella by the same name. Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe – a pure sex symbol of the fifties – to play Golightly, but Monroe declined. She was avoiding promiscuous parts like Holly Golightly as an attempt to create a more wholesome image. (Gristwood, 163) Following Monroe’s decline, Edwards begged a more conservative Audrey Hepburn to take the part. As the film industry did in the fifties and sixties, the novel was sweetened and cleansed for a squeaky-clean film production. But Hepburn’s character – though conservative in theory – became “a precursor for the counterculture image of more independent-minded young women during the late sixties.” (Monaco, 153) Hepburn’s Golightly slyly – and perhaps unknowingly – brought sex to film before the sex revolution deemed it acceptable.

Offbeat, wide-eyed Holly Golightly is a naïve beaut mindlessly prancing about New York City in the sixties. She’s a free spirit who refuses to name her cat because that would be too big of a commitment. Instead of committing, Golightly slips into classy parties and hooks up with city millionaires. Then, Golightly politely excuses herself from their relationships after the wealthy men shower her with gifts and riches.

Golightly’s childlike attitude takes a dramatic hit when upcoming author Paul Varjak (George Peppard) moves into her apartment building. Varjak arrives right after Golightly spends the morning eating breakfast outside of Tiffany’s department store. Varjak’s charm trips up Golightly’s strict individuality. Their flirtation is climaxing when Doc (Beddy Ebsen) – Golightly’s ex-husband – appears outside of her apartment. Golightly successfully pushes him away, but he serves as a stringent reminder of the non-committing lifestyle she once hid behind.

After Golightly has legal issues for unknowingly relaying secret messages to a mobster in prison, she attempts to escape the country. Golightly releases her cat and almost escapes with a rich man to Brazil. But the millionaire drops Golightly. In turn, Varjak puts his foot down and – for once – is able to hold Golightly back.

The discourse of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is obvious from the start: the title itself is a metaphor for mental therapy. When Golightly and Varjak visit Tiffany’s, she says all of her sadness, dread and concerns are erased.

“Nothing very bad could happen to you there,” Golightly says. “If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name!” (Edwards)

This quote illustrates the film’s greatest theme: the human need for stability and the desire for freedom. But at this point in the film, Golightly continues to deny the need for stability. She is only living freely. Yet this quote indicates to the viewer a flash of desire for stability – something that is human nature. Eating a meal – breakfast – at a department store – Tiffany’s – is utterly ridiculous. Accordingly, that’s what the title aims to accomplish. Hepburn herself supports that unattainable desire in a letter she wrote to Tiffany’s on the 150th anniversary of Tiffany and Co.

“Happy birthday, dear T.,” Hepburn writes. “With love – but also with envy – for after 150 years you don’t have a wrinkle. Your devoted friend, Audrey Hepburn.” (Loring, 1-2)

The idea of envying a store is ridiculous. Golightly avoids stability by placing it into an impossible fantasy. That fantasy is “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Although the story revolves around a fantasy, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a highly conservative film. Golightly’s liberated spirit is squelched at the climax of the film when Paul Varjak stops Golightly from leaving. He seems to shut down Golightly’s freedom.

“Life’s a fact,” Varjak says. “People do fall in love. People do belong to each other because that’s the only chance anybody’s got at real happiness.” (Edwards)

When she agrees to “belong to” Varjak, Golightly isn’t planning on getting a job or living the life of a workingwoman. Instead, her free spirit and liberal past has been destroyed because “life’s a fact” and “that’s the only chance anybody’s got at real happiness.” While it’s not the goal, the film suggests that settling down is human nature.

It’s especially conservative compared to its novella counterpart by Truman Capote. In the book, Paul Varjak is a homosexual and Golightly has a fling with a woman. These would have never made it through censors and – considering the time period – rightly so.

A movie critic writes in a 1961 edition of The New York Times that he supports George Axelrod’s decision to modify Golightly’s path because “it seems downright ungentlemanly to short-change as resolutely cheerful a sprite as [Golightly,] who deserves a handsome husband after being cheated out of the Brazilian millionaire for whom she has set her cap.” (Weiler) This discourse is clearly conservative and maintains hegemony; the film does not challenge the status quo. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is the unchallenging romantic comedy at its best.

But the conservative generation that created “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was unyielding; some reviewers found even the cleaned up screenplay to be offensive. “The ‘Tiffany’s’ film is the worst of the year from a morality standpoint,” wrote one angry critic. “Not only does it show a prostitute throwing herself at a ‘kept man’, but it treats life as a joke.” (Mandell)

The only “freeing” aspect of Capote’s novel that slid past conservative censors is a small but notable one. Both Varjak and Golightly are kept or controlled by someone. In two different ways, they are able to free themselves from that control. Varjak is inhibited by his so-called decorator – insinuated lover –  Emily Eustace Failenson (Patricia Neal). Failenson dictates Varjak’s every move until he breaks off the relationship because of his love for Golightly. The mobster in jail inhibits Golightly. He secretly uses her for mob communication until the authorities realize what is happening. Still, the romantic ending overwhelmingly rips the majority of this freedom and individuality away.

Yet the character of Holly Golightly permeates today as a symbol of feminism. In 2010, Sam Wasson published “Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the Dawn of the Modern Woman.” In the book, Wasson claims that “back then, while the sexual revolution was still underground, it had to remain a covert insurgence, like a love letter passed around a classroom. And if you were caught in those days, the teacher would have had you expelled.” (Wasson, 7) The surreptitious sexuality revolved around the provocative Golightly, with her little black dress. It took several years, but her accompanying fashion would forever affect women’s clothing. According to the Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, “fashion designer Givenchy made the little black dress – a standard cocktail dress since the twenties – and essential component of stylish women’s wardrobes.” (Pendergast, 346) Her “elegant cigarette holder provides an unforgettable image that hasn’t faded over time.” (Schneider, 396)

But historically, the film refrains from pushing buttons. Although Audrey Hepburn has a primary role in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the film itself is pre-feministic. The film only skirted on the Sexual Revolution; it was not a part of the Sexual Revolution. When the film was being made in 1960, President Kennedy had yet to employ women to his administration as a part of his New Frontier plan. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 had yet to establish equal payment among women and men. Betty Friedan’s controversial “The Feminine Mystique” had yet to be published. The list continues. If “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” had been made in the seventies, the film’s Golightly could’ve been more like Capote’s Golightly. Instead of being a watered-down bohemian and a free spirit, she might’ve been Capote’s blatantly sexually-active call girl. (Schneider, 396)

The film also narrowly dodges the social message films that would frequent the latter part of the 20th century. Just as the film was released, the counterculture of the sixties was arising. Edwards’ version of New York City is unrealistic and was too simple to appear alongside the “anything goes” sixties attitude. Films in the fifties remained conservative as the Korean War and the Cold War kept pop culture restrictive and confining. Accordingly, Edwards’ New York City was beautiful and idealistic. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a product of this era. Nobody was aiming to attack anyone; it was all fun, games and entertainment.

But the fun, games and entertainment might have gone too far. The character of I. Y. Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney) has been the subject of debate and review since the film’s release. (Gristwood, 165) Mickey Rooney wore make-up and buckteeth to portray the Asian photographer that lives upstairs in Golightly’s apartment complex. Reactions of the yellow-faced character were mixed. In “Dragon” (d. Rob Cohen, 1983) – a film about Chinese martial arts superstar Bruce Lee – Lee is shown leaving the theatre during “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” because he was offended. It’s used to foreshadow the immense amounts of racism Lee would encounter in Hollywood. (Ito) In October of 1961, a reporter for Limelight was pre-occupied that the same audience who accepted the sexual morality of the movie’s protagonists were “apparently inoculated with the U.N. serum of love-thy-tinted brother.” Along with other critics, he was resentful of “Mickey Rooney’s far-out burlesque.” (“Tiffany’s Stereotype”)

Today, the reaction would have been explosive and the film would not have survived the overtly racial attack. The character of Yunioshi was clumsy and painted a negative picture of the Asian people. In 1993, a critic said in retrospect, “the role would have been an offensive stereotype if played by an Asian; the casting of Mickey Rooney added insult to injury.” (“Breaking Barriers”) Thus, the question remains: why was this permissible in the sixties?

Phil Lee, president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), suggests that only 20 years after World War II scarred that generation of Asian Americans, “they would not have protested. [The war] was just too fresh in their minds for them to want to make waves.” Still, Lee does not think Mr. Yunioshi’s character ruins the film. He believes it is possible “to watch in an intelligent way. Just imagine if you were showing it to someone younger. You’d explain the painful historical context, and how stereotypes prevent people from seeing reality. [It’s] a learning opportunity.” (Edwards, Special Features of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”)

A less disputable aspect of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is the score. Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” – which Golightly sings on the staircase outside of Varjak’s room – won two Academy Awards; one for Best Original Song. The simple yet strong track bolstered Mancini into a successful future in the film industry. (Monaco, 110) The feel of the song suggests the genre “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” sets out to create. Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics of the song. In the end, Mercer wrote a “sophisticated country song,” which is akin to the “sophisticated comedy” Edwards wanted to produce. (Wasson, 5) That is what the song and film are all about. Glamorous Golightly was a sophisticated bohemian.

“Those eyes of her could carry it, I knew that,” Mercer said. “The song was written for her. No one else ever understood it so completely.” (Gristwood, 145)

The musical moment on the staircase might prove best the reason for casting Hepburn over Monroe. Unlike Monroe, Hepburn had the slightest Southern twang and the smallest amount of sadness that supported the “sing-song cadence that develops into the flat drawl ending in a childlike query, it has the quality of heartbreak.” (Gristwood, 145) This idea of a childlike query with the quality of heartbreak lives within the very depth of Holly Golightly.


“Breaking Barriers.” Daily News of Los Angeles. 7 Sept. 1993. Print.

“Tiffany’s Stereotype.” Limelight [St. Louis] 26 Oct. 1961. Print.

Edwards, Blake. Breakfast at Tiffany’s: Centennial Collection. Dir. Blake Edwards. Perf. Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard. Paramount, 2009. DVD.

Gristwood, Sarah. The Breakfast at Tiffany’s Companion. Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2010. Print.

Ito, Robert B. (March 1997) “A Certain Slant: A Brief History of Hollywood

Yellowface.” Bright Lights Film Journal. Bright Lights Film Journal. 2010. Online.

Loring, John. Tiffany’s 150 Years. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1987. Print.

Mandell, Irving A. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s Review Letter.” Hollywood Citizen-News [Los Angeles] 1961. Print.

Monaco, Paul. The Sixties, 1960-1969. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001. Print.

Pendergast, Tom and Duncan, Lisa. St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Detroit: St. James, 2000. Print.

Schneider, Steven Jay. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, 2008. 396. Print.

Wasson, Sam. Fifth Avenue, 5:00 AM — Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman. New York City: Harperstudio, 2010. Print.

Weiler, H. I. “Movie Review: Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The New York Times 6 Oct. 1961. Print.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s