hollywood flashbacks: audrey hepburn
I’ve been thinking lately about that Audrey Hepburn poster.
You know the one. The sleeveless black dress, the pearls, the hair swept up into an effortless bun, the long cigarette holder and the gaze which is halfway between sultry and innocent; she is a little bit pleased with herself, but not too much.
Audrey Hepburn’s eternal appeal has centred around several key things, which can all be discerned from this one image of her as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That film ensured she would forever be a star, if Roman Holiday hadn’t already done this for her. The opening strains of Moon River playing over the credits as she meanders along Fifth Avenue in the early morning alone make the film worth watching. (The awful racist caricature of a Japanese landlord played by Mickey Rooney almost makes it unwatchable; YMMV.) But instead of looking at the film itself, I’m interested in what it is about this image of Hepburn that has given it such cultural significance. This can be divided into three parts, as follows:
Audrey Hepburn, Hollywood Icon
As mentioned above, Breakfast at Tiffany’s wasn’t Hepburn’s first starring role. That was in Roman Holiday, the 1953 romantic comedy in which she plays a princess from an unspecified European country who escapes her duties and spends a day with the commoners (notably, Gregory Peck) in Rome. She won an Oscar for that role, mostly for the scene in which she gets a stylish pixie haircut and goes around joyfully eating ice cream and breaking people’s hearts with her smile.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s came eight years later, but it’s Hepburn’s most memorable role, and this is at least partly due to the iconic poster and the cult of the ‘little black dress’ that it inspired. Here she plays Holly Golightly, a slightly lost young woman living alone in New York with a cat called Cat, some stylish outfits, and links to a bunch of shifty men. The story is told from the point of view of Paul Varjak, a young writer about as boring as his name suggests, who moves into Holly’s apartment building and falls in love with her.
In the scene referenced in the poster, Holly and Varjak have just met. He goes to her apartment to use the phone, finding her dishevelled (as dishevelled as Audrey Hepburn can really be) and barely awake. She proceeds to transform in the space of about a minute into a gorgeous and captivating screen icon, putting on the famous little black dress, some earrings, mascara, and pinning up her hair. I wonder now if this is what the poster is referencing – some desire on the part of ordinary mortals to be able to transform like this after waking up in the afternoon in a shirt and with only champagne in the fridge? Regardless, it’s memorable, and Varjak is impressed. But the moment isn’t so much about character development as it is about the introduction of:
Audrey Hepburn, Manic Pixie Dream Girl
In case you aren’t familiar with the term, it was coined by Nathan Rabin at the AV Club in a review of Elizabethtown. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is a female character who exists in a film solely to reinvigorate a male protagonist. She might seem like a well-rounded character but actually she’s just there to make the lead guy feel better about his personal struggles or his disillusionment with the mundane or whatever the issue at hand is.
This certainly applies to Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Varjak is the disillusioned male protagonist par excellence, a writer who has published one promising volume of stories but is now in an unhealthy relationship with an older woman who pays his way. He needs inspiration for another story and to help him find his purpose in life, and Holly Golightly provides him with that inspiration. He, in turn, provides her with true love, which as we all know is (cue soundtrack) the greatest gift of all.
Audrey Hepburn, Aesthetic Object
You might say this is a cynical reading of a sweet film about two people who make a connection in a big city which can swallow people whole. You could argue that Holly needs to find her purpose in life (…true love?) just as much as Varjak does. But played by Hepburn she is a charming enigma; not much more than an object of desire.
We don’t know her, but we watch her, like Varjak and the camera hold her in their gaze. The iconic poster is so compelling because Audrey Hepburn seems to be looking at the herself in the mirror, but it gives the illusion that she’s looking directly at us. It’s hard not to be enthralled, but like her character, the meaning is lost in a play of surfaces.