It is pouring rain on an unusually empty New York City street. Holly Golightly and Paul Varjack are pouting in a taxi, reeling over their reluctant agreement to go their separate ways. “People don’t belong to people,” Holly cries in an extreme close-up of her agony. “I’m not going to let anybody put me in a cage.” In this culminating final scene from Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), the female protagonist laments her objection to being trapped, caged, and owned. This sentiment exemplifies the feminist movement of the 1960’s within the context of the female melodrama genre. Cut to Aunt Ida, locked in a cage within the blood-red walls of Dawn Davenport’s house in Baltimore. “Let me out of this cage, little Taffy, and I’ll give you a cookie!” she screeches. In this particular scene from John Waters’ Female Trouble (1974), Ida, a side character, is darkly but hilariously trying to bribe her way out of a physical and proverbial cage. Female Trouble explores the theme of freedom to be queer instead of trapped in the symbolic cage of socially accepted gender roles. During this cultural shift in American history, films grappled with social issues pertaining to the rights of marginalized communities that reflected the time and place they were created in. This self-consciousness is a significant, defining feature of the melodrama genre. Both Female Trouble and Breakfast at Tiffany’s hold on to the basic conventions of the melodrama genre: intense appeal to emotions, a strong connection to a playful and thematic soundtrack, exaggerated visual design, amplified definitions of right and wrong, as well as dynamic protagonists. However, Waters uses the traditional female melodrama, exemplified in the light and romantic Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in his darkly comedic, camp Female Trouble to amplify the shocking elements of his film.
Like all film genre, female melodrama has changed with the culture it resides in. Both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Female Trouble are examples of cinematic melodrama adjusting to the culture they are reflecting, which is a notable feature that they share. Breakfast at Tiffany’s contributed to the rising culture of feminism and the growing conversation surrounding women empowerment. The 1960’s in the United States was a monumental period for the women’s liberation movement in which women’s timely political, social, economic and cultural stereotypes were challenged, and there was a massive push to change sexist, traditional roles. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, released at the very beginning of the socially turbulent decade in American history, incorporates this theme of feminism by portraying the female protagonist’s choice of the single-life, big-city lifestyle and discarding the possibility of becoming a role defined farm wife. Having fled a permanent trap, Holly insists that her current life is temporary. She feels caged when she begins to feel any sort of emotional closeness developing with someone else. This idea of a young woman living on her own in the world, refusing to be tied down and taking what she desires from men both sexually and financially, was a large part of why the film enchanted the American audience. These themes are so obvious that a kind of caricature gives way to melodrama. Female Trouble contributed to the continuing battle for the rights of the LGBT communities in the 1970’s, with Waters giving significant recognition to transgender actors, such as Divine, and placing them in prominent film roles that defied traditional identities. During this decade, the first bill is introduced to the federal government to address discrimination based on sexual orientation but the bill is never even brought for consideration (Rosen). Nonetheless, there is growing political and societal recognition of the need to elect and support government officials who are openly gay (Rosen). Female Trouble is released while there is still tremendous turmoil and a blatant lack of civil rights for the LGBT community and, therefore, a perfect time to portray the themes of challenging accepted heteronormative behavior and transgender freedom to express outrageous hilarity. The main character, Dawn, transitions from being down-and-out to wanting to be famous and beautiful. The push against societal beauty standards by the two salon owners in the film, throw Dawn into vicious extremes to make her ‘beautiful,’ which only leads to her looking increasingly grotesque. This social commentary on what society considers beautiful women to be at the time – incredibly skinny, polite, heterosexual – is obviously a direct mockery of traditional female melodramas earlier in the century that depicted women in those terms.
Another crucial convention utilized in both films is the music. The soundtrack of a melodrama keeps the plot moving forward from event to event, which appeals to the pathos of the audience and steers them away from questioning its logic (Vorachek, 110). Laura Vorachek quotes a notable author in her text, Female Performances: Melodramatic Music Conventions and ‘The Woman in White,’: “According to David Mayer, ‘music is an affecting and effecting device to underline and emphasize the emotional content of a play’s action, to further concentration, very probably masking the improbabilities that we so often recognize in melodrama, and maintaining momentum of the play’s headlong rush from sensation to sensation, from crisis to emotional crisis’.” Mayer’s analysis of melodrama focuses on the use of music to convey emotion, alongside the action. Music keeps the plot moving from event to event, not giving the audience time to question its logic. This tactic is utilized in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Female Trouble as a way to create a larger-than-life effect. Both films use music to extend the melodrama genre further. Breakfast at Tiffany’s uses the sweet, sorrowful song “Moon River,” sung by Audrey Hepburn herself, as a backdrop for the film. Holly sits by the window playing a small mandolin, looking lost and lonely. The simple lyrics relate to herself as one of “two drifters off to see the world,” and the tune swells to orchestral fullness when Paul and Holly go shopping in New York City and (ironically) shoplifting, as the lyrics coo romantically: “there’s such a lot of world to see.” At various points, the music gets quieter, and comically resumes in high tones reflecting the qualities of the use of music in melodrama. The soft but emotional tune is designed down to the note to tug at the audience’s heartstrings and become swept up by the romantic quality of the film. This happens so much so that the audience is unlikely to notice that it is a deliberate tactic that the song is played in highly emotional points in the film. In contrast, Female Trouble’s self-mocking, outrageous lyrics remind the viewers that this is no ordinary damsel-in-distress ‘trouble.’ Dawn doesn’t care what anybody thinks of her when she sings “spare me your morals.” The song, in effect, summarizes the campiness quality of the film and the freedom to express outrageous and grotesques murderous behavior in the lyrics. The lyrics bullies the “normal” world by singing, “Go ahead put me in the electric chair,” and Dawn proclaims that she is content with her fat body and cruel attitude by singing, “Oink, Oink, Oink, Oink – I’m a jerk, I like it fine.” She infers that the crimes that she commits are fine “as long as I’m making headlines.” The music in Female Trouble maintains the wild melodrama and grossness of what a camp film intends, which is to shock the audience, a contrast to the more “socially acceptable” Breakfast at Tiffany’s. These conventions of a camp film as genre are what defines a John Waters’ film.
When looking deeply into how Female Trouble appears to both mock yet conform to the genre of a female melodrama, it is crucial to explore how conventions of camp are utilized in Waters’ film. Camp is meant to stir controversy and break down the walls of the hetero world. Barbara Klinger writes: “Camp represents a gleeful alternative to repressive cultural canons circumscribed by respectability, a way in which certain individuals can ‘drop out’ of society and flex their aesthetic muscles in unconventional ways” (134). Breakfast at Tiffany’s is gold for satirizing this idea – glorifying the wealthy and attractive elite whose only problems are having too many admirers and perhaps a drinking problem. Female Trouble pounces on these thematic features that are ubiquitous through the traditional female melodrama genre to exploit and mock them through the camp genre.
Additionally, the visual design of both films adhere to the melodrama genre by exaggerated emotional appeal on completely different ends of a spectrum. John Gibbs states, “Melodrama demonstrates the ability to to express visually what it cannot express verbally” (67), exemplifying the convention of emotional intensity. Gibbs further quotes Laura Mulvey, who calls melodrama “the genre of mise-en-scene” (67). The visual design of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Female Trouble prove the assertions of these authors in their exaggerated forms. The costumes, sets, lighting, camera angles, body types, and acting, while completely opposite in their visual design, follow this formula of expressing visually what it cannot express verbally. Breakfast at Tiffany’s sets the stage for the traditional, classy female melodrama in the wide-angle camera depiction of New York City’s 5th Avenue where Tiffany’s, the high-end Bettendorf 6 jewelry store and symbol of desiring the unattainable, is located. The skyscrapers are modern and sparkling, with clean, right angles. The picturesque New York sidewalks are immaculate without a speck of waste. Holly is high-fashion and objectively attractive in every scene. In the opening scene, she is walking along the front of Tiffany’s eating a danish pastry (literally breakfast at Tiffany’s), dressed in a long black draped gown and wearing a tiara. Her makeup is perfectly applied, and her dress falls perfectly on her petite body. Throughout the film, Holly looks gorgeous even when she wakes up in the morning, wearing sparkly, dangling ear plugs or visiting the prison wearing her “little black dress” with a wide brimmed hat. She constantly flutters her long, dark eyelashes with neatly-applied mascara. The audience is captivated by this stunning, modern damsel-in-distress who is innocently trying to make it in the big city as an independent and glamorous escort. On the other end, Female Trouble sets the stage for a camp melodrama as the audience is presented with trashy, grotesque visuals. Dawn, the protagonist, is obese, wears low-cut, cleavage-accentuating tops and extremely short, suggestive skirts. The decor has lower-class, ranch-style houses to set the scene in cold, dry, ad un-glamorous Baltimore. Dawn’s makeup is unattractively caked-on with smeared lipstick and mascara. Her hair is wildly teased, and her performance is boisterous with big movements emphasizing her size and dangerous aggression. She longs to be a star to the point of annoying the audience, and the emotional wreckage of the plot stems from the simultaneous pity and disgust of Dawn’s attempts to be beautiful.
Viewing Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Female Trouble side-by-side is to discover how these starkly different films can be examined in their unique genre definitions, as well as the similar characteristics of melodrama genre. While Breakfast at Tiffany’s is depicted as a light romantic comedy melodrama and Female Trouble is depicted as a camp dark comedy melodrama, both films contain historical and cultural references of how the topics of feminism in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and transgender choices in Female Trouble play out. Both films depict prostitution, aiding and abetting criminal activity, and self-imposed definitions of beauty. Using melodrama genre to illustrate exaggerations in visual effects, the two films accomplish their goal in the way mise-en-scene sets the stage for the the exaggerated stories that unfold before the film audiences.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Dir. Blake Edwards. Perf. Audrey Hepburn. Paramount Pictures, 1961.
Gibbs, John Edward. Mise-en-scene: Film Style and Interpretation. London: Wallflower, 2002. 67. Print.
“John Waters.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 02 Apr. 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2017.
Klinger, Barbara. “Conclusion.” Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture, and the Films of Douglas Sirk. N.p.: Indiana UP, 1994. 157-60. Print.
Rosen, Rebecca J. “A Glimpse Into 1970s Gay Activism.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 26 Feb. 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2017.
Vorachek, Laura, “Female Performances: Melodramatic Music Conventions and ‘The Woman in White'” (2004). English Faculty Publications. 7.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Genre, Gender, and Excess.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 5th ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 701–714.
Natalie Bettendorf is a current sophomore at the University of Southern California majoring in Journalism and minoring in Cinematic Arts. She is a writer for the Daily Trojan and produces the DT General Education podcast. She has worked at Youth Radio, NPR’s youth desk, for the past five years producing stories featured on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” Her dream job would be to host her own news or investigative podcast.