The name Holly Golightly is synonymous with sex and sophistication, but viewers may not know as much about her as they think. Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of the character in the 1961 adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with her iconic little black dress, ushered in a new fashion era for women. But the movie also signaled a change in the average person’s attitude toward sexuality. As the 50s became the 60s, sexual mores strayed from the rigid monogamy of the past into the culture that produced key parties, beatniks, and the Free Love movement.
Hollywood’s standards lagged behind. The Motion Picture Production Code, which banned such on-screen events as excessive kissing — and please, don’t even talk about sex — came into effect in 1934. Since then, homosexuality had been nodded to in film, but in coded language (a pansy worn on the lapel) or in stereotypical and mocking portrayals, almost always of effeminate men. Lesbians, according to Hollywood, didn’t really exist. By the time screenwriter George Axelrod was adapting Tiffany’s for the screen in 1960, the production code’s grip on American filmmaking was already beginning to loosen, thanks to the competing racy material in foreign films and on television. Axelrod found himself with the challenge of satisfying audiences who wanted movies that reflected their changing attitudes, while still making a movie the tight rules of the Production Code would deem decent enough to release.
In the novella, the narrator, Paul, is very much a reflection of Capote himself, a young writer in New York City, surrounded by dazzling, stylish women at the beginning of a period of sexual liberation. Paul is enamored with Holly, but in a way that is decidedly platonic.
Of course, everyone who has read the book (or seen the movie) knows that Holly isn’t quite a prostitute. More of an escort, the kind of girl who asks for $50 for the powder room, Holly is also more than she appears. Capote meant for her to express the sentiment of all the big-dreaming small-town girls who ran away to make it in New York City. And though neither of the two main characters, Holly or the narrator Fred, are explicitly named as homosexual, the book makes a passing reference to homosexuality at least once every ten pages.
In the novella, Holly says explicitly that she doesn’t identify as a “dyke”: “Of course I like dykes themselves. They don’t scare me a bit. But stories about dykes bore the bejesus out of me. I can’t put myself in their shoes.”
Only a little bit later Holly describes a situation with an old roommate in Hollywood. “Of course people couldn’t help but think I must be a bit of a dyke myself. And of course I am. Everyone is: a bit. So what? That never discouraged a man yet, in fact it seems to goad them on.”
When talking about remarrying, Holly says, “I’d settle for [Greta] Garbo any day. Why not? A person ought to be able to marry men or women or—” and then she moves on with the conversation, the comment dropped lightly.
At least on the page, Holly’s sexuality is free-form, something more fluid and more difficult to categorize than most other art forms allowed for at the time.
In a 1968 interview with Playboy, the interviewer asked Capote, “Was Holly a Lesbian?”
“Of course, there’s a Lesbian component in every woman, but what intrigues me is the heterosexual male’s fascination with Lesbians,” Capote answered. In other words, Holly’s sexuality doesn’t matter quite as much as how the world perceives and polices it. For Holly, sexuality is part of the persona she has woven around herself. She is a Gatsby for a new era, one where women can only be themselves when they run away from men and society’s expectations.
Paul and Holly are bound to each other precisely because their intimacy is platonic, and therefore not transactional. Unlike the rest of the relationships in their lives, Paul and Holly don’t need each other for money or sex. Instead, when they are together, it is a choice, made for the pure pleasure of each other’s company.
“Challenging the sanctity of heterosexual dominion, Capote is suggesting that the gendered strictures of who makes the money (men) and who doesn’t (women) might not be as enriching as the romance between a gay man and straight woman,” Sam Wasson writes in Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman. Though I disagree with Wasson’s characterization of Holly as heterosexual, he hits on the key theme of Breakfast at Tiffany’s: sex and power. The power dynamic of a relationship changes when its impetus shifts from need to want. Through the contrast between Holly’s relationship with Paul and her former marriage to her much-older husband, Capote shows that relationships built on need will always create imbalances in power; but relationships based on desire, especially those that don’t involve sex, are not only egalitarian — they’re transformative. “This isn’t because he believed platonic relationships were somehow ideal, or because he considered straight people bores, but because in 1958, with wives across America financially dependent upon their husbands, being a married woman was a euphemism for being caught.”
And yet, Capote’s vision of sex and power didn’t translate to the screen. In adapting the book, George Axelrod had two main problems: Breakfast at Tiffany’s was too gay, and Holly was too sexual. Rather than fuss with these issues separately, Axelrod tackled them both at once: he made homosexual Paul into a heterosexual kept man, essentially Holly’s male societal equivalent. Thus, he created the movie’s new conflict. Deep down, Holly and Paul want to be together, but their need for money and stability brings them back to their respective benefactors, keeping them apart. At least in the want versus need paradigm of sex and power, Axelrod stuck to Capote’s thematic vision.
“It was a game of red-tape limbo, but by this time, Axelrod was something of a pro,” writes Wasson. “He preemptively booby-trapped the script, overemphasizing Paul’s sexual activity in a bait-and-switch effort to reroute Shurlock away from Holly.” Geoffrey Shurlock was the long arm of the Production Code Administration, who wielded the threat of barring their films’ releases if the PCA ultimately deemed them unacceptable.
Axelrod already had experience sneaking sex past the censors in 1955’s The Seven-Year Itch, starring Marilyn Monroe. But he still needed every bit of his cunning to trick the PCA into letting him run a romantic comedy about an escort. So he planted obvious tidbits for Shurlock to cut out, like having Holly come on screen in only a bra and half-slip. Paul’s scenes were even more egregious, including one that Shurlock cut because it detailed Paul’s paid sexual relationship with his benefactor, 2E. Essentially, Axelrod made Paul so heterosexual that Shurlock simply overlooked the movie’s other gay undertones, and — here’s the important part — Holly’s status as an escort made it past the PCA. Capote had originally hoped for Marilyn Monroe to play Holly. Axelrod had been hired in part so that he would tailor the role for her. But Monroe and her advisors worried that playing a “woman of the night” would tarnish her image. When Audrey Hepburn was cast instead, Capote was less than thrilled. “Paramount double-crossed me in every way and cast Audrey,” he later claimed.
Though it seemed that Breakfast at Tiffany’s homosexual thematic elements had been entirely erased in the film, and that, in general, the edges of the book had been sanded down to suit an early sixties moviegoing audience, Axelrod managed to sneak a few in under the radar. One particularly crafty bit of movie-making lets Holly express her same-sex desires with just her face. In the scene where she and Paul go to what appears to be a strip club, a woman dances on stage while removing her dress. As she watches, Holly lowers her sunglasses and looks up at the woman. Though she says nothing, her expression says, clearly, “Oh my, yes!”
Rebecca Renner is a writer from Daytona Beach, Florida. Her work has appeared in Tin House, the Washington Post and the Atlantic.