Breakfast at Tiffany’s | Diamond’s Flaw

Movie poster for Blake Edwards’ film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), adapted from Truman Capote’s novel.

By David D. Robbins Jr. | The Fade Out
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” directed by Blake Edwards
Paramount’s 50th Anniversary Ed. Blu-Ray (2011)

Most viewers remember “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with the golden glow of nostalgia. It’s a film about a girl, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), hiding desperation as she tries to find herself in New York. But it’s hard to watch this film, without being taken away from its beauty because of the stereotyped Asian role of Mr. Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney), one of Golightly’s fellow upstairs tenants. The film is largely remembered as a vehicle of taste, class, and its quaint love story ending with a romantic chase and a momentarily wet and unhappy no-name cat. As easy as it is to fall into the charm of Golightly’s inevitable love story with Paul Varjak (George Peppard), there’s a serious flaw in this minor diamond. It keeps rearing its ugly head with each faux-Asian cackle.

Actor Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.

Ironically perhaps, the Yunioshi character finds Golightly’s gold-digging late-night trysts to be an intrusion on his otherwise pleasant and quiet existence. She buzzes his door because she’s always misplacing her apartment key. In the end, the Yunioshi character is what intrudes upon the audience’s unabashed enjoyment of what could have been a better film. I’ve never been one to take things without historical perspective, but I simply can’t buy the argument that these scenes with Yunioshi should be taken lightly. Simply put, it’s racist. If it’s racist in 2011, then it was also racist in 1961. There’s nothing cute or silly about it. This isn’t even the black-face of a film like Buster Keaton’s “Seven Chances”, where the semi-offensive character is one minor part of the comedy, and more or less doesn’t seem to be acting in a foolish stereotype. He stumbles around, in some of the same ways Keaton’s character does. As far as offense goes, I’m not so bothered by it. But Yunioshi is presented as pure caricature, bucktoothed, idiotic, bumbling, a person of derision — who stands in contrast to the sophistication of a socialite and writer-gigolo Varjak. It’s difficult to imagine director Blake Edwards ever thinking Yunioshi’s character was funny, whether played by a real Japanese actor or by a white actor. It’s lowbrow comedy at its worst. The horrible truth of stereotypes is that they perpetuate a lie at the expense of one party to benefit another. It allows white Americans to rest easy thinking that only an Asian would be a moronic, annoying neighbor. Stereotypes always diminish to distinguish.

Rooney said that if he’d had to do it again, he wouldn’t. But he also stated back in 2008, when the film was pulled for “Ratatouille” from the Sacramento free film festival: “Those that didn’t like it, I forgive them and God bless America.” So much for sensitivity. This isn’t meant as a post to discourage viewing or buying the film. Quite the contrary. Nor is it a condemnation of Rooney’s career of work for one part. But “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is worth seeing now for more than getting style tips from Hepburn’s Hubert de Givenchy wardrobe. It’s about just how far we have come in America since the days of films like D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) and George Melford “The Sheik” (1921), among countless others. Since then cinema has seen Oscar Micheaux blaze a trail for African-Americans, Sidney “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs” Poitier slapping back with a fury in “Heat of the Night”, and Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine” as the first Chinese film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1992. Yes, it’s a long way. And to its credit, Paramount includes a supplement on the disc, “Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective”, which features actors and critics talking about Asian characters in films, the controversy of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, and ultimately how character’s like Star Trek’s Hikaru Sulu (George Takei) came to represent something wholly new for their self-perception on TV as well as seeing themselves as ethnics contributing to what makes up the great melting pot.

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