All I knew about Breakfast at Tiffany’s was that Audrey Hepburn starred in it and looked smashing. It ended up being…not nearly as pleasant a viewing experience as I’d expected.
For one thing, here’s Mickey Rooney:
A nice old man, right. White, of course. And here’s Mickey Rooney playing Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s:
Oh wait, here’s an even better one!
Here’s the thing: I can’t talk to you about how hurtful it is to me to watch this kind of racist caricature, because it’s not about me. I have the privilege to ignore it, and focus on the rest of the movie, which enrages me on a more immediate, personal level (i.e. with sexism.) But I don’t want to ignore it. It shouldn’t be ignored. But I can’t talk about how hurtful it is to me…
And so, this blog post just keeps stopping and starting. I absolutely cannot, cannot write about this movie without explicitly calling out such a terrible portrayal. But whatever I try to write ends up sounding self-centered and privileged. So, since this is NOT about me, I’ll give you some other people’s words on the topic:
I can’t separate Audrey Hepburn from “Mr. Yunioshi” by Gil Asakawa.
The character has magnifying-glass spectacles, squints and mumbles with pronounced buck teeth. It’s almost a WWII-era caricature of a “Jap” from a poster, comic book or cartoon, come to life. Only it’s not 1942, it’s 1961.
And, the character of Mr. Yunioshi was played by Mickey Rooney, the diminutive Caucasian movie star. Maybe it’s because no Asian would agree to play the part. I can only hope.
But this wasn’t just an example of letting a white actor play an Asian character. It was a broad and particularly nasty stereotype captured in a major motion picture featuring a cast of big name stars. It was a statement that said loudly, that this particular stereotype is (was) an acceptable way to portray Asians in America.
At least on the closing commentary on the Anniversary Edition of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” producer Richard Shepard admits, “If we could just change Mickey Rooney, I’d be thrilled with the movie!”
That’s good to know, but Rooney is there as part of the film’s legacy forever, and I still end up associating its brutal racist depiction of Japanese – of me – with it, and with Hepburn’s image. A lot of fans of the movie can dismiss or overlook the stereotyped character. Some even think it was a high point of the movie, that it added comedic elements. (Read the Amazon.com comments.)
When I was younger, I could squirm and chuckle along with it, but I can’t stand to watch the movie anymore. And the old saw about “that’s what it was like back then” doesn’t fly with me, either. Imagine an African-American character in 1961 being satirized that way. Like I’ve already mentioned, Rooney’s portrayal was a throwback to WWII depictions of Japanese – it was over the top, even for 1961.
Check out the whole thing.