The best parties are terrifying.
There is a sense of endless anarchic possibility, that things can end with pleasure and joy or pain and regret. There are endless alcohol fueled narratives mixing and colliding against a soundtrack of rhythmic music. The tone shifts from the comic to the tragic based on time and location. There are the friends who are catching up after a long time apart, the people trying to cheer themselves up with liquor and uptempo music, the schemers, and of course, the folk of all genders looking for companionship. You can find the teetotalers high on life and people who are on different parts of the intoxication spectrum – the comic, the tragic, the stoic. There are suggestions of romantic interludes and flashes of harassment.
Blake Edwards and Miriam Nelson (who choreographed the scene) capture the feel and emotion of a party perfectly. The camera moves between stories (that complement and comment on the relationship at the center of the story. They range from a handful of people engaged in some personal or intimate activity to a shifting mass of people trying to dance, move to another location, chat, get their drink on and hook up. As with all good parties, the cops make a surprise guest appearance towards the end. I wasn’t surprised to read that Edwards cast actors in this scene – each one seemed fully invested in playing characters who were fully realized and had complete lives, even though we would never see them.
I think this was the first movie that made me appreciate Audrey Hepburn as an actress. I loved her in Roman Holiday, but I wasn’t sure if she could play someone who was a bit more of a morally complicated character. Audrey’s not playing the Holly Golightly we see in Truman Capote’s novel, but she was still a complex character who retained some traces of the original. She was not a sex worker (or at least she wasn’t a traditional one), but she was a far cry from the kinds of sexually inexperienced characters that Doris Day made famous. In the scene above, Hepburn shows us different facets of the Hepburn character – shifting from coquettish to vulnerable to plotting. We see the undercurrent of cynical cunning underneath her naive facade. Her rough edges are hidden to public view, but they are very real.
We’re supposed to believe that Paul (the male lead portrayed by George Peppard) is the one who gets her, but I’m skeptical. There’s a bland emptiness behind his eyes that betrays his essential ordinariness. All he sees is a kook that needs to be rescued and domesticated. The audience sees more. They see that she doesn’t need to be saved.
Edwards also uses the scene to show us the absurdity beneath the superficial glamor of Holly and her circle. They all seem hip, urbane and worldly when we first meet them, but the party scene shows us that these are performances. In Fifth Avenue, 5A.M., Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the the Dawn of the Modern Woman, Sam Wesson argues that the scene illustrates the obliviousness of the partygoers, a joke at the expense of “nuts who may be glamorous but don’t have a clue”. He suggests that this mirrors Holly’s own cluelessness about the “empty frivolity of the life she leads”. I’m sure that he’s correct about Edwards’ intentions, but I read the scene in a slightly different way.
I see the same hip dinner party scene told through slapstick, but where Wesson (and possibly Edwards) see clueless socialites (or frauds), I see intentional performances from people who know that they are playing roles. We don’t see any discomfort or awkwardness when the illusions are disrupted. The woman talking to the man with the eye patch doesn’t blink an eye when he moves it to cover his other eye. The nuttiness is strategic – used as part of a courting ritual or for fun or to hustle someone. There’s not a naive person in this room. Everyone knows that they’re part of The Game. As my wife likes to say, Holly’s frivolity was her hustle.
There’s nothing empty about something that helps you put food on the table.