This is an essay I wrote for an English class last semester on the iconic film Breakfast at Tiffany’s and how it relates to the women’s independence movement of the 1960s. I’m going to be posting a few of my essays on varied topics every now and again. I hope you enjoy them!
4 December 2014
Women’s Independence and Breakfast at Tiffany’s
The 1960s were full of movements regarding rights, wars, and students. This decade was a turbulent time as opinions exploded and tales of injustice and freedom were preached to the masses. A very prevalent movement in the ’60s was the women’s movement. Restlessness sprung to life in the hearts of housewives and young women alike, calling other women to claim and show their right to equality with men. Although this movement did not reach its peak until the late ’60s and early ’70s, that did not stop the influence of the early ’60s on the movement. Blake Edwards’ 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s was ahead of its time as far as the issue of women’s rights. Because the first books on those issues did not appear until a few years after the film’s release, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the cultural and cinematic precursor for the feminist movement, illustrated by the constant struggle of Audrey Hepburn’s character to not be contained or caged.
Before Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a film, it was a novella written in 1958 by Truman Capote, a screenwriter and playwright. Capote originally wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the role of Holly Golightly, thinking her highly-sexualized image would be perfect for his heroine. After she refused, the filmmakers sought out Audrey Hepburn. As the epitome of innocence and charm onscreen, she was not the obvious choice to play a New York City call girl. Hepburn herself was initially scared of the role and what it might do to her image. Eventually she was convinced to play the iconic protagonist, looking much more like Capote’s description of his leading lady than Monroe. Holly’s “mouth was large, her nose upturned […] It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman” (Capote 12).
Director Blake Edwards was brought to the film because of Hepburn’s refusal to work with John Frankenheimer, a television and film director. Edwards is most well-known for his Pink Panther films, but Breakfast at Tiffany’s became one of the most recognizable titles in his filmography. His portrayal of Holly Golightly, though similar to Capote’s, brought forth Hepburn’s vulnerability and mingled it with her character’s independence. By doing this, Edwards succeeded in creating a beloved icon. Edwards also brought in friend and composer Henry Mancini to score the movie. Mancini’s original song “Moon River,” which was almost cut from the film, won him an Oscar for Best Song. Breakfast at Tiffany’s also won an Oscar for Best Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.
The film was culturally significant because its lead was a woman, an independent single woman at that. Through Holly, Hepburn showed that independence was fun and freeing, though interestingly, Hepburn herself was adamant that her personal life would never be anything similar to Holly’s. Feminist journalist Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who worked alongside Gloria Steinem, described Holly as her “formative prefeminist model” (Wasson, Fifth Avenue 201). The women’s movement was just beginning at this point in time, spurred largely by books and essays written in the early ’60s, including Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown and The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. As the novella and film Breakfast at Tiffany’s were precursors to these books, Holly Golightly’s independence remained a jumping-off point for these growing ideas.
The themes of freedom and independence are shown in many places throughout the film. Holly has many different suitors, which she brags of to neighbor Paul Varjak (George Peppard). Her main goal in life is to marry for money; only the richest man will do. Playing a happy housewife is not something she wants to even consider, though she was one for a time with Doc Golightly (Buddy Ebsen) and his family. Leaving them for New York shows that she found that life unfulfilling and lacking freedom. Doc is portrayed as a kindly older man, an almost father-figure to Holly, the complete opposite of an oppressive figure who might drive his wife away. Rather than coming to New York to track Holly down and bring her home, he comes to beg her to return to Tulip, Texas with him because he and his family miss her. Breakfast at Tiffany’s pioneered the image of the independent woman, creating a new icon, both stylistically and culturally, for women to imitate. As Friedan writes in an excerpt of her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, women could “no longer ignore that voice within […] that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home'” (Friedan 398) Holly leaving Doc is a prime example of that statement, echoing growing sentiments around the nation and bringing them into the light.
Another place freedom is shown is the scene where Holly introduces her cat, called Cat, to Paul. “Poor slob without a name!” she says. “The way I see it I haven’t got the right to give him one. We don’t belong to each other” (Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Holly so fiercely wants to be an independent that she cannot bear to take away what she sees as the freedom of the cat. Interestingly, the script’s original ending is a scene where Holly and Paul find Cat and then Holly names it Sam. While this ending would have provided more closure, it would have taken away from the ambiguity of Holly’s beliefs toward independence. Throughout the film, Cat symbolizes Holly’s freedom and her struggle to maintain it. In the original ending, naming the cat shows that Holly has begun to believe that people can belong to each other. The actual ending of Breakfast at Tiffany’s remains unclear; does Holly still go to Brazil? Does she stay with Paul? Even though she chased after Cat in a panic, is Holly changed or still the same? Giving the cat a name changes the whole movie, bringing the mystery and confusion of Hepburn’s character to an close. By taking that scene away, Edwards left the ending to the imaginations of his audience, choosing to leave the film’s ending ambiguous and unfulfilling.
At the end of the movie, Paul tries to get Holly to see that falling in love does not cause her to lose her independence, but she cannot separate the idea of a cage from belonging to someone, as shown in this dialogue from the taxi cab scene:
Paul: I love you.
Holly: So what.
Paul: So what? So plenty! I love you, you belong to me!
Holly: [tearfully] No. People don’t belong to people.
Paul: Of course they do!
Holly: I’ll never let ANYBODY put me in a cage.
Paul: I don’t want to put you in a cage, I want to love you!
By equating love or belonging to someone with a cage, Holly shows how truly scared she is of losing her independence. Paul then calls her out on this subject, on her fear of never being free. “You call yourself a free spirit, a ‘wild thing,’ and you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage,” he says. “Well baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. […] It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.” When he leaves her alone in the taxi, Holly struggles with Paul’s accusation. She is willing to get married, but will only do so for money; even if she enters into marriage, she would still practice her independence and resent anyone’s attempt to tie her down. Paul’s fiery words show Holly her superficiality. Holly’s internal struggle is a key part of the film. Instead of realizing that Paul is right and that she has let her fear of not being free keep her from finding herself, the Holly at the end of the film is still the Holly who does not know what she wants. Though Breakfast at Tiffany’s ends with a kiss shared by Paul and Holly, the ending is ambiguous, and Holly has no definite change of heart.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, though a film of the early 1960s, set the stage for the women’s movement. It showcases a former housewife living life to its fullest in the City That Never Sleeps. Though Hepburn’s character revels in her freedom throughout the film, her struggle to connect independence and falling in love is never truly resolved. The rollercoaster of her emotions veers from total rejection of attachment to wanting it to somewhere in between. Holly left Doc and her family to find total independence, but as seen through the symbolism of Cat and even Paul, she cannot decide what she wants and remains this way through most of the film. The women’s movement was about more than just leaving husbands because family life was unfulfilling; it was about women finding their true place in society, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s provided the backdrop.