“I am always drawn back to places where I lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment.”
The opening paragraph of Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a vivid description of his apartment. It is only one among the myriad other physical spaces that Capote describes in his story, each in great detail: Joe Bell’s bar, the New York Public Library and the interiors of Woolworth’s. All of these spaces find due place, albeit in slightly altered forms, in Blake Edwards’ eponymous 1961 film. But there is one space – absolutely vital to the film – that is never described in Capote’s novella: Holly Golightly’s apartment.
In the film, we first see Holly’s apartment when Paul Varjack rings the buzzer below. Until now we have only seen a sophisticated Holly, strolling down Lexington Avenue in a black Givenchy sheath and oversized pearls. Our first peek into her apartment presents a shocking contrast: she wakes up among rumpled bed linen in an incredibly messy room, a cat nonchalantly strolling among the piles of stuff. Who is this woman, we ask ourselves, whose interior life is so different from her exterior life?
Holly’s pad is a place in transit, a place about escaping. Production designers Hal Pereira and Franz Planer took the spare white sets and scattered odd curios all over the place. The couch, made of a bathtub sawn in half, has become famous because the camera lingers over it lovingly; but there are many other little things that the camera catches only in passing. A weather vane stands near the door, large and unexplained. A half-painted canvas sits on an easel. Suitcases are piled up everywhere; one of them contains Holly’s telephone. Paul Varjack goes for the easy explanation and assumes that she has just moved in. But all the signifiers of travel reveal a more complex reality – Holly is waiting to move out.
Travel, or ‘drifting’, is the theme of Moon River – the song written especially for the film. Holly sings this song sitting in the window on her fire escape. In the novella the fire escape is a conduit between Holly’s and Fred’s apartment, but the film makes it distinctly theatrical. Here it is a liminal space, a space of truth and transparency. Paul uses it to look at Holly singing, and Holly uses it to look at Paul sleeping. The fire escape is the place of the gaze.
The gaze is an important visual leitmotif. Capote actually mentions only two mirrors in his novella, one in Joe’s bar, and the other being Holly’s compact. But the film’s production designers connive with cinematographer Martin Jurow to turn mirrors into a fetish! Scarcely ten minutes pass between each time Holly looks into a mirror. Any mirror will do: the one above her sink, the one on her dresser, the round mirror in Paul’s apartment, the little one in her mailbox, the ornate mirrors in Tiffany’s or even the glass vitrine of a showroom. Every time she looks into a mirror, Holly reveals a new fact about herself, allowing us to “see” her. How significant it is then, that when she hears of her brother’s death she breaks a mirror.
Screenwriter George Axelrod took outrageous liberties with Capote’s novella, losing a lot of the verbal nuances. The production designers more than make up for this, throwing in subtle visual hints that hark back to the original story. There is a horse piñata in Holly’s bedroom that vaguely fits into the general disarray, but is otherwise unexplained in the film. This mysterious object choice becomes startlingly clear upon reading the novella: Holly dreams of buying a ranch in Mexico where her brother Fred can raise horses.
When Holly is finally ready to escape New York, thanks to a liaison with a Brazilian Diplomat, her apartment undergoes a transformation. Gone are the sparse, quirky settings. The rooms are filled with bric-a-brac. A table appears, complete with table cloth and a stained glass lampshade. Holly knits a sweater seated in an armchair, because the bathtub-couch now holds flowering potted plants. In the novella, at the same point in the story, Capote only describes Holly’s mad shopping spree. The production designers go one step further. By populating her apartment with the purchases, they underline Holly’s uneasy relationship with a settled life. She is drawn to signifiers of permanence, they seem to be saying, but this too shall pass.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a film with a lasting design heritage, particularly through Givenchy’s dresses and the “Audrey Look”. But it is also a rare film adaptation that gives a beautifully designed gift back to Truman Capote’s novella: it supplies the missing apartment of Holly Golightly.