Refined, charming, and always exquisitely dressed, Audrey Hepburn was the impossible standard. Nearly every woman I have ever encountered has expressed admiration for Ms. Hepburn, sometimes for her work with UNICEF, occasionally for her acting, but more often than not for her large sunglasses and her quintessential little black dress. Hepburn is an icon, and her image has seeped into my mind lately, as it is reflected in films such as Bridget Jones’s Diary or the HBO series Sex and the City and their depiction of “the single girl.” Although Hepburn herself is an inspiration for these women (and their creative writers) in any role, their primary source of single girl-ness stems from Hepburn’s most famous role as Holly Golightly. The urban misfit created by Truman Capote in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly has become a reference point for numerous single women in the city.
What is intriguing about the longevity of the Hepburn Golightly image is its falseness, at least in comparison to Capote’s original creation. For those unfamiliar with the character, Holly Golightly is a self-made socialite in Manhattan with a shady, Middle America past that she has denounced, utilizing her new image and availability to attract wealthy men. Capote set his novella in the last years of WWII, in an unhappy and still struggling Manhattan while the film took advantage of carefree (and relatively safe) 1960’s New York. In the novella Holly does not wear Givenchy, nor have her reunion with her cat in the pouring rain. Capote’s Holly is genuinely interested in selling herself as commodity, a notion only lightly touched upon in the film version (and at best, softened with romantic idealism). Aside from appearing physically harsh, with multi — colored hair, Holly is far more vulgar and unsophisticated in the novel, continuously passing herself off as a lesbian, and frequently having sex with various older men (this important aspect of Holly’s income is entirely toned down in the film, where she instead appears as a harmless flirt). The narrator in the novel, unemployed writer Paul Varjack, is romantically attracted to Holly in the novella (although he swears in retrospect “it wasn’t that I wanted to touch her”) but denied the union provided in the film’s fairy tale conclusion.
Hepburn was obviously not Capote’s choice for the role (he repeatedly requested Marilyn Monroe), as she opposes the literary Holly with her delicate features and genuine blue blood. However, it is Hepburn’s image that is responsible for Breakfast at Tiffany’s popularity, along with its far more PG-rated examination of single urban life. Hepburn’s portrayal of Holly is far more in the vein of the wide-eyed innocent who merely believes she is a hardened city girl; the cinematic Holly wanders through the empty Manhattan streets at dawn in her little black dress, honestly believes the inmate she visits at the Sing Sing gives her odd weather reports to repeat to his “lawyer” (certainly not coded information), and repeatedly defends her single-hood with the metaphor of a bird in a cage, mainly that she will not be put behind the bars of a committed relationship.
There are at least a dozen episodes of Sex and the City that draw upon this recent urban myth. Single city girl doesn’t want a relationship with a stable and sturdy man, she wants to wander the streets free, in couture outfits, only to realize she really does want him. It’s this hyper split that infiltrates so many films about women and relationships, and the notion that these women will not be themselves once they commit to a relationship. The majority of these films offer this warning to women; once they commit they will lose their identity and any opportunities for growth beyond an appointed role in the relationship. Yet a contradiction remains the in denouement (including Tiffany’s) as a tacked on “happy” ending appears where she commits, rebuking the entire argument.
As the epitome of this myth, Hepburn (and in a sense, her alter ego Holly Golightly) is responsible for the serious misconceptions of hundreds of female filmgoers who continue to believe they can too, live the Golightly lifestyle. Yet it is a difficult film to debunk; while entire plot points are dated, most notably the racist portrayal of Holly’s Japanese landlord and the befuddling sequence (for those who have not read the novella) involving the reappearance of Holly’s first husband, there are indeed genuine moments of charm, mainly surrounding the antics of Paul and Holly, whether they are roaming Manhattan’s streets or visiting Tiffany’s. It is also important to admit that once you have been under the Golightly spell, it is rather difficult to shed it entirely. As a Hepburn vehicle, this film captures a star persona that is still as fresh and delightful as it must have been forty years ago. Even the original trailer touts the film as “Audrey Hepburn — as you’ve never seen her before!” obviously understanding the box office potential of its star.
There remains the conclusion of the film, in which Paul finally wins Holly over. It is the happy ending oft imitated in the chick flick, as one or both parties (more often the female half) realize their mistakes and put their stubbornness aside for “true love”. In a cab headed to the airport, Paul confronts Holly, taking her to task for her insecurities and fear of commitment, accusations that Holly attempts to rebuff by throwing her unnamed cat out of the cab into the rain, proclaiming that neither of them ever belonged to one another. There is instant regret, and Holly leaves the cab to search for the cat. Upon finding her kitty, she turns and finds Paul waiting for her on the sidewalk, where they embrace in a downpour. This scene is both endearingly and repugnantly effective, as nine times out of ten, I’ve found myself (a vehement non-crier) shedding more than a few tears. Not finding the union between Paul and Holly especially romantic, I blame it on Holly finding her cat. The film remains in my DVD library, as my affection remains for Ms. Golightly, even as time has ceased my admiration and led me to other, sharper Hepburns in the film canon.
It is beyond a doubt that these films will not only continue to be made, but assuredly do well at the box office, a problem that not only exists within the chick flick realm but with any mediocre offering intended for a Hollywood demographic. With Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it is still possible to take both its nostalgic and humorous aspects and construct films far more original than what has recently been marketed to a female audience, as it is still feasible to appreciate the spell of Holly Golightly without convincing oneself that she is in any way realistic (as women appear to have done lately with the likes of Bridget Jones, Carrie Bradshaw, and Vivian Ward) or legitimately portrays the trials of single hood successfully. As all things appear to come back in fashion, perhaps we can hope that the shirtdress and biting verbal wit might make its way back into cinematic style, infusing the chick flick with some much needed inspiration and intelligence.