Irresistible, enviable, and a bit naïve. Holly Golightly is an ageless character that portrays the spontaneity and carelessness of early adulthood, which American culture loves and abhors. Originally a 1958 novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was adapted to film in 1961. Playing the titular character, Audrey Hepburn’s previous roles and personality were different from the character of Holly Golightly, an extroverted and eccentric young woman who tries to survive in New York City. Confident and optimistic on the outside, Holly struggles to define her identity and constantly tries to rebel against people who attempt to understand her ambitious spirit. Holly is dedicated to whatever she chooses to do, from fabulous parties to forgetting her previous life as a hillbilly child bride by taking the form of mature femininity. Her inherent purpose is unclear other than her love of novel experiences. The setting of Holly’s life in New York City depicts the passage of girlhood to womanhood, transitioning from the scarcely decorated apartment to the final scene of the film in an alleyway. Breakfast at Tiffany’s documents the dream sixties girl, in body and spirit. She wants desperately not to be defined by anyone yet becomes defined and owned by a man.
Holly has relationships with several men throughout the film, some platonic but most romantic. The most focused relationship in the film is with her new neighbor, Paul Varjack. Her friendship with author Paul begins with Holly in the dominant position and Paul seemingly vulnerable. The first time they meet, Paul sees Holly's apartment and is completely disoriented by how bare it is even though she’s lived in New York for almost a year. Later that night, Holly creeps up the fire escape to Paul’s apartment and slips into his room through the window, asking if she can stay. Despite being originally portrayed as vulnerable early on in the film, Holly immediately takes control of the space. Paul lies in the bed as Holly walks beside it, looking down on him in a vulnerable position as he is naked under the covers. She pours herself a glass of liquor and finds a cigarette to smoke. Holly dominates the bedroom—a space usually dominated by men—through her confidence and curiosity. She takes on male characteristics such as drinking liquor, smoking a cigarette, and asking if she can stay in his bed. Though traditionally associated with males, Holly’s actions allow her to stay comfortably feminine.
Unlike Paul’s heavily decorated apartment, Holly’s is consciously sparse. The mise-en-scène of Holly’s apartment is a perfect reflection of her character, which is delineated through the disarray of the few possessions she has. It could be reflective of the wild life she leads, from the parties to the sexual encounters with wealthy men.i Or, it could be an introspective reflection of her internal disorganization and fragility. The unconventional objects she uses for furniture also emulate the non-traditional space of a single woman living in an apartment alone. The bathtub is altered to fit a new purpose in a living room. Sliced in half and cushioned with pillows, it functions as a sofa in a spacious room. The lack of furniture also reflects Holly’s internal conflict of trying to create a new identity in a new space like New York. However, despite living there for a year, the room is still empty, and Holly is still trying to establish her identity.
Holly’s confidence in herself prevails throughout the film, both in the way she dresses and acts. Contrary to the two female stereotypes of the last decade of either being a “lady” like Marilyn Monroe or a “housewife” like June Cleaver, Holly Golightly entered a genre more modern and unfamiliar than the 1960s. “Here was a young woman on her own, flouting all sorts of old-biddy conventions of how single women should conduct themselves, having a ball. But it was the fact that Audrey Hepburn played this character that made so many of us fantasize about becoming Hollys ourselves when we grew up."ii Hepburn was still decidedly young, girlish, and sexy because she was educated, classy, and elegant. First Lady Jackie Kennedy had a similar air about her. Playing Holly put an extroverted spin on this new type of woman that Hepburn was leading. Holly Golightly “showed that glamour was available to anyone, no matter their age, sex life, or social standing.”iii
Construction of appearance is crucial to Holly’s survival. The film allows viewers to see her getting ready by putting on makeup, styling her hair, dressing, and learning a new language in preparation of her move to Brazil. Holly has very little personal space in the film, encouraging characters and viewers to see her and experience her. However, the audience never gains a full understanding of Holly’s daily drive other than her search for wealthy men to marry and to seek new experiences. Her friend Paul also reflects this, who has a similar experience as the audience. He sees her change clothes in the cab, watches her put on makeup, and participates in her outward appearance by giving her a Cracker-Jack ring, all invoking a husband and wife relationship.
Holly and Paul’s relationship starts as platonic with Holly acting as the dominant character. However, the more Paul experiences Holly’s life and her routines, the more he encourages her to end her escapades. After a day of walking around New York City in masks they shoplifted from a children’s store, the two grow romantic. When they finally lift off their two animal masks, they make eye contact and kiss. The removal of the masks depicts the removal of the wildness and spontaneity that began their friendship and that masked Holly from Paul. He attempts to tame her similar to her first husband, Doc Golightly. Both loved her for her wildness and confidence, but Doc Golightly tried to tame her from his experience with animals through marriage and step-motherhood, so Holly left. Holly is constantly trying to stay away from being defined and tamed by other people. She renames herself, evolving from her Texan roots of Lulamae to sophisticated New Yorker Holly. Interestingly, she defines men through their levels of wealth and their admiration for her. She tells Paul when she first meets him that it is unfortunate he is not rich, because she would otherwise marry him.
Holly’s cat is a wonderful reflection of her strive for independence. Holly says she has no right to name the cat simply because “they don’t belong to each other.” The cat is what Holly strives to be: owned and defined by no one. But the cat is not as independent as Holly imagines it to be. On Holly’s way to catch a flight to Brazil, Paul argues that the cat needs her. In one instance of complete frustration with Paul, Holly contradicts him and throws the cat out of the cab and onto the street in the rain. She confidently believes the cat can look after itself. However, the cat must be thrown out of the cab as it is unwilling to go. After realizing that the cat cannot survive on its own, Holly jumps out of the cab and goes searching for it in the rain. She leaves the cab to find the cat but finds Paul instead. The cat’s presence suggests Holly is not as independent as she would like to imagine herself to be, such as being dependent upon the relationships of other people, mostly men. Holly goes looking for the wild and independent version of herself and on her way she finds Paul.
However, Holly repeatedly rejects men throughout the film. She leaves Doc Golightly when he tries to tame her wildness and travels to New York after her agent O.J. in California tries to mold her into an actress. Holly seeks to be valued but unoppressed, like the jewelry at Tiffany’s that is on display for its value but owned by no one. She understands her commodity in attractive appearance, discussing the importance of what earrings a man gives her shows how much he values her. “By acquiring Tiffany’s jewelry, an individual moves one step closer to becoming valuable – to being placed in a glass case, proudly on display for society.”iv Tiffany’s is Holly’s domestic space. It is where she goes when she has the “mean reds,” a feeling of fear of the unknown. Through the reflective windows, she views her desired identity and appearance of wealth and belonging. She shops for her new self, desiring true class and financial freedom.
Since the release of the film, the final scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s has elicited mixed reactions from viewers over the last half-century. While many view Holly’s acceptance of Paul’s love as romantic and a concise ending to the film, others view it as another female character who gives in to male patriarchy and the commodity of femininity. Throughout the film, Holly feels most at home on the wealthy streets of Manhattan, especially in front of Tiffany’s. Yet the last scene takes place in a dirtier and cheaper part of town, searching for her rashly discarded, nameless cat among trash. “‘PRICES ARE DOWN,’ ‘BARGAIN CENTER,’ ‘DOLLAR SAVINGS,’ and ‘RESTAURANT FOR RENT.’ Holly has been purchased via a male-centered filmic discourse of Hollywood romance, crystallized by a rain-soaked kiss under a ‘PAWN BROKERS’ sign.”iv Holly no longer gazes through the window of Tiffany’s with the men in suits and the chandeliers, instead accepting her place among the privileged trash.iv The film attempts to convince the viewer that this is what Holly has wanted and desired since the beginning, but settling for Paul seems unlikely for her.
Holly keeps escaping those who try to define her, who put her in a box she does not know whether she belongs in. She keeps running from those who purport to “know” her because she, herself, does not even know who she is or how to define herself. “I’m not Holly. I’m not Lulamae, either. I don’t know who I am.”V Her determination to find out who she “truly is” keeps catching up with her even when she escapes her last identity. Holly’s desire to move to South America with José is the next phase of her identity, accompanied with another name change, yet she is not confident in her own ability to become herself there.
The profoundly tragic nature of Holly’s character leaves the tone of the film oddly unsatisfying at the end. After portraying Holly as free-spirited, wild, spontaneous, and determined to make a successful life for herself, she gives in to the common social construct of romance and relationships. She is constantly surrounded by male characters but repeatedly states how she refuses to “belong” to anyone. Once her option to marry José disappears, Holly realizes that her final option for lasting emotional security is with Paul, discarding financial wellbeing altogether. The final actualization of Holly’s identity is a realistic depiction of expectations of women in society and their set pathways for success and “happiness.”
i Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Directed by Blake Edwards. United States: Paramount Pictures, 1961.
ii Douglas, Susan J. Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media. New York: Times, 1995.
iii Fisher et al. Performance, Fashion, and the Modern Interior: from the Victorians to Today. English ed. London: Berg, 2011.
iv Wasson, Sam. Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman. New York: HarperStudio, 2010.
v Wunrow, Zachary B. “Holly Golightly and the Endless Pursuit of Self-Actualization in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Student Pulse, Vol. 6 No. 9, 2014.