Best Actress 1961: Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"
It’s New York City, apparently very early in the morning. Hardly any people are on the streets. A small, delicate woman leaves a cab, carrying a plastic cup, wearing an elegant and yet also simple black dress. Big sunglasses cover her eyes while she looks at the jewellery in the display windows of Tiffany’s.
Of all her famous appearances, this is undoubtedly the decisive movie moment in Audrey Hepburn’s career. The black dress, her hairstyle, her almost fragile figure have become one of the most iconic images in movie history, copied on countless posters and covers. But what is behind this perfectly executed scene?
Audrey Hepburn is an actress who was much too often cast for her charming and winning personality but she never let the viewers and the critics forget that, underneath the cute smile and the doll-like face, was the soul and the ambition of a true artist. So, Audrey Hepburn very often found herself cast in two types of roles – those which depended on her movie-star qualities and those which depended on her talent as an actress. In the first case, Audrey Hepburn always gloriously displayed everything that was so unique and loveable about her, a wonderful combination of charm and instincts that was able to turn every role of hers into a much more memorable and enjoyable experience but she seldom was able to improve the material beyond her own personality. Roman Holiday was a wonderful display of perfect combination of actress and part and even though she did a lot more ‘acting’ than would have been expected or even necessary, the results would have been forgettable if it hadn’t been for her unique and captivating appearance.
But thankfully, there were also the other kind of parts Audrey Hepburn played – those which actually didn’t care about her charm or her smile but were only interested in exploring Audrey Hepburn, the actress and not Audrey Hepburn, the star. In Wait until Dark, she was cast in the showy part of a blind woman terrorized by a brutal gang of murderers but the structure of the movie, the average quality of the screenplay and the, to some extent, difficulty of the part didn’t do her any favours and it proved that Audrey Hepburn was the kind of actresses who needed everything going for her, the right kind of script, the right kind of character, to really shine. Wait until Dark showed that she had enough talent to give a good performance simply based on her acting – but it wasn’t truly outstanding in any way. But thankfully, there was also her splendid turn in The Nun’s Story where she showed that, if she felt comfortable in a demanding part, she possessed a unique talent, a deep understanding to portray a woman who quietly suffers and mourns underneath that smile which brought joy so easily.
But what does all this ultimately mean? Where does her turn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s fit into this? Well, among her Oscar-nominated performances, it holds the distinction of being the only that one that doesn’t mostly focus on either her charm or her talent, but finds a striking balance between these two. The part demands of her to be her usual charming self, a little bird that flies too high for most of her life, but at the same time, it asks her to create a complex and intriguing character that could very easily be overly annoying or lack any credibility. Here, Audrey Hepburn found a perfect vehicle to use both her gifts – her talent and her personality. The Nun’s Story was her greatest display of acting and Roman Holiday was her greatest display of charm – Breakfast at Tiffany’s is her greatest display of both.
From the first moment she appears on-screen, there is something strangely youthful and non-caring about her, a woman, or maybe a girl who doesn’t give too much thought to anything. Even though Audrey Hepburn was over 30 when she did this movie, she had the wonderful ability to preserve an inner child that could also dominate her whole exterior. Does Audrey Hepburn look like 16, 17 or 18? No, but is it believable? Yes. It seems like a cliché to say that she is ‘ageless’ or ‘timeless’ and even though this refers to a completely different understanding of the word, it is strangely accurate in directing it at her physical appearance. But her grandest achievement is not only to look like the part but actually bringing it to life in a manner that is very natural considering the eccentric and stylized nature of the character. Marilyn Monroe, the actress Truman Capote had actually in mind while writing his short story, could also have done wonders in this role since she also possessed a magnificent talent for both comedy and drama and the childlike naivety of Holly Golightly would have fitted her personality just right but Audrey Hepburn was able to insert a strong intelligence into this naivety which turned Holly into a much more unique and complex character.
She constantly shows Holly as a woman who is a dreamer and who is longing for a different life but just as much as she pushes reality aside, she also never lets her dreams come too close to her. When she watches the windows of Tiffany’s at the beginning, Audrey Hepburn doesn’t do it with a body language that speaks of envy, of desire or lost dreams, but rather in a very common way that shows that this is simply a ritual for her, a nice way to start the day but she doesn’t let it get too close to her. It’s fear of change, fear of life, fear of reality that dominates Holly’s life. The same way she flees from a man into the apartment of Paul, a writer who lives above her, she flees from the consequences of her own doings. It’s a non-caring attitude inside her that helps her to never let anything or anyone come to close to her. Holly wants to be high-spirited and free but is not made for this kind of life. The way she acts at the police station, as if she couldn’t care less shows a woman who would like to be a true diva but ends up a scared, lost soul. Her aggressive “So what?” when Paul confesses his love to her is the main motto of her life – with the same “So what?” she reacts to everything else that happens to her. She constructed a golden cage for herself that keeps everyone out but also keeps herself inside. Despite all her parties and her apparent popularity there is obviously a grave loneliness that dominates her life because she seems unable to get too close to any other living creature. Even the prospect of having a cat is something that’s too final for her and so she decided not to name it – even a name might create too much intimacy and closeness. In the end, it’s the thought of a jewellery store that is giving her apparently the most hope in life, a combination of wealth, security and stability.
Marilyn Monroe’s more ‘obvious’ beauty might have made the relationship with Paul rather simple but Audrey Hepburn’s delicacy, that could also be surprisingly sharp, and approach to the relationship with Paul turns Holly into his buddy instead of a love-interest and that way she created some wonderful and believable moments. Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard share a magnificent chemistry that goes from friendship to love in small, beautifully portrayed steps. The fact that she prefers to call him ‘Fred’, the name of her beloved brother, shows how uncomfortable Holly is inside, that she needs something familiar around herself. Even in her most charming roles, there was always something down-to-earth about Audrey Hepburn. Even her Princess Ann seemed surprisingly real. In Holly, Audrey is both down to earth but also high above the ground. There is something very practical about Holly in her own way of thinking but also impossibly naïve and inexperienced.
Audrey Hepburn portrays this character with an acting style that combines her usual openness and relaxedness in front of the camera with a distinct closeness that seems to come from a sadness and maybe even a depression inside. Her Holly is a very impulsive woman who doesn’t plan ahead, probably doesn’t want to plan ahead even though she has decisive goals about her own life. She is a woman with a serious cause, a hope to be able to take care of her brother but even though she is a woman who gets paid for going to the bathroom (the movie doesn’t make it clear if that’s a polite way to say that she sells herself), money just as easily slips through her fingers again. She is a young girl who doesn’t know how to handle life so she chose a way of life where she doesn’t have to. Just as much as she pretends her naivety and non-caring to everyone else, she also pretends it to herself. Holly seems like a perfectly chaotic but at the same time irresistible young girl but the longer one knows here, the clearer it becomes that the phone in her suitcase or her confused look in the morning before she realises that she is still wearing her earplugs are mostly a façade that has taken over Holly’s life in such a strong way that she herself has begun to believe it. Audrey Hepburn does all this in a performance that combines humour with pathos and drama and that is allowing her to constantly parody her own image. Scenes of Holly trying to charm everyone with a noticeable artificiality turn her own image upside down. While Audrey Hepburn has mostly used her own personality in her career to create characters that immediately captivate the viewer and never let them go again, she used her charm this time to both captivate and repel the audience. Her Holly is the kind of woman who fascinates everyone she meets at first sight. Her chirpy voice, her unusual personality, the way she walks through live without ever really noticing it combined with her winning smile, her charming naivety and her lovely looks result in a woman who naturally receives the utmost attention of everyone she meets. She’s the kind of woman everyone wants to be close to, she has the ability to make a person feel special if she notices him or her, she is a ray of light that can shine on everybody around her. Audrey Hepburn wonderfully displays this effect on Paul, the way she is interested in his writing, goes with him to a library or simply spends some time with him show how much she is able to capture another person. But this time, Audrey Hepburn showed the limits of these attributes if they come connected to a woman who refuses to let anybody come too close and rejects and truth. Because as quickly as Holly can fascinate someone, she also loses this fascination. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn miraculously takes all her strengths and turns them into weaknesses. Holly is the kind of girl who becomes annoying very easily, who isn’t able to really hold anyone close to her. When her Brazilian millionaire leaves her at the end, it may be because of her behaviour but it could just as easily be because Holly simply loses that ray of light after a while. Even Paul, whose thoughts might be blinded by his love for her, sees beyond the light and discovers the shadows that actually define Holly’s character, her unpleasantness, her (as Addison DeWitt would say) inability to love or be loved. Holly fascinates with superficiality but she disappoints with reality. All the characters in Breakfast at Tiffany’s are fake in one way or the other (no, this is not referring to Mickey Rooney…) and Holly is a woman who has so adjusted herself to her live in an aura of self-chosen naivety and denial that she only seems real when she is fake and seems fake when she is real. Whenever Holly tries to show a bigger truth behind her masque, she becomes much more artificial than usual. Only in some small, unnoticed moments does she really let herself go. It’s a magical moment when Audrey Hepburn sits alone in her window and sings ‘Moon River’. Her unrefined, simple singing voice may not be very special but seldom has so much feeling been put into one song. Audrey Hepburn uses various different nuances in her voice and certain mannerisms to bring all the shades in Holly to live and it is thanks to her magnificent acting in the final scenes that the ‘Hollywood-ending’ of Breakfast at Tiffany’s works. The sudden change of Holly’s character could have been too rushed to be believable but Audrey Hepburn’s silent stares, her hurt pride which slowly turns into a wonderful act of self-realization is a wonder in wordless acting and it’s in this moment Audrey Hepburn suddenly lets Holly drop everything that defined her so far and shows that, for now, there is nothing fake about her anymore. Holly was an impossible character so far and it should be highly doubtful that she will stay with Paul but at this moment, Audrey Hepburn again creates this image of an elfin-like, charming and, most of all, honest character that the whole ending is just incredibly uplifting and heart-warming despite feeling so rushed and manipulative. Who is Holly Golightly? The question receives no answer but there is a feeling that Paul will find out someday – and Holly herself.
It’s a true movie star performance that Audrey Hepburn beautifully turned into a character study and for this she gets