FILM: Breakfast at Tiffany’s
DIRECTOR: Blake Edwards
PLOT LOGLINE: A young writer moves into a New York apartment building and falls for his eccentric and beautiful downstairs neighbor.
With the possible exception of Charlie Chan or Fu Manchu, no other Asian character in American cinema is arguably as derided as Mr. Yunioshi–played by a very yellowfaced Mickey Rooney in the otherwise classic romantic dramedy Breakfast at Tiffany’s. As I’ve already blogged here, the inclusion of Rooney’s stereotypical performance mars an otherwise wonderful film.
It’s been over ten years since I last saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s in its entirety so thought it’d be a good time to revisit and see how the Yunioshi character holds up today.
As we hear the strains of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s beautiful song “Moon River,” the film opens in the pre-dawn New York hours as Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly exits a cab at Tiffany’s jewelry store to do some window-shopping. The streets are empty—the city that never sleeps is indeed asleep—and she’s still in her evening dress making it clear she’s been up all night. Although the press notes of the time referred to Holly as a “socialite,” all indications are that she is a prostitute (her dates give her money whenever she goes to the powder room).
This is one of the most famous openings in cinema—one that perfectly captures the romanticism and loneliness at the heart of both New York City and Holly herself. It’s hard not to fall in love with Hepburn and the movie in these opening minutes:
But that will quickly change as we follow Holly to her apartment building where she is ambushed by a former date/customer she clearly wants nothing to do with. Having forgotten her keys, she has to buzz her Japanese landlord to get in. And here is where we meet Rooney’s Yunioshi for the first time:
If there were any further way to make this character a one-dimensional stereotype, I don’t know what it would have been (maybe Yunioshi also knows karate?). Rooney appears in the most over-the-top yellowface make-up—slanted eyes, buckteeth, Coke-rimmed glasses with the thickest of accents (“Ms. Gorightly”). He is little more than a buffoon—clumsy and clueless—sleeping on the floor when there’s a perfectly good bed in his apartment because, well, that’s what Orientals do. And if that weren’t enough to make him a walking caricature, he makes a living as…wait for it—a photographer. Because the Japanese apparently take a lot of pictures with their omnipresent cameras. Plus, he’s a pervert to boot as we learn when the only way Holly can calm the angry Oriental is by suggesting she’ll let him take some dirty pictures of her.
Yunioshi next appears at around the 14-minute mark and this scene is almost an exact repeat of the first. Yunioshi is once again asleep when he is awoken by the noise from a party that is taking place in Holly’s apartment. And once again his sole dramatic function is to get angry and threaten to call the police before walking smack dab into his door because, well, remember that he’s clumsy and clueless? (Sidebar: There’s an interesting-looking Asian woman at Holly’s party—though she’s basically an extra with no lines)
Our Japanese friend next appears around the 34-minute mark. This is a very quick appearance and for once he isn’t sleeping, but instead appears to be conducting some sort of solo tea ceremony. But staying true to form, he is interrupted by more ruckus from his neighbors and drops his tea and breaks his cup. Heeeeeelarious!
Sense a pattern emerging?
Director Edwards knows when he has a good thing going so Yunioshi returns during the film’s halfway mark to again complain about Holly’s shenanigans, but this time to add some variety, not only does he threaten to call the police, but also “the fire department, New York Housing Commission and, if necessary, the board of health.” There’s clearly some character development happening.
Yunioshi makes two more quick appearances before the movie’s end: taking a bath when he’s interrupted by…oh, I’m sure you know what, and finally making good on his threat, he leads the police to Holly’s apartment where she is arrested for her involvement with an aging gangster whom she is paid to visit at Sing Sing Prison.
Now, during all of this, the rest of the far superior movie is taking place: Holly and her new writer/gigolo neighbor Paul are falling in love leading to some of the most romantic moments committed to celluloid including this gem:
That’s what makes the Yunioshi scenes so frustrating. Yes, they’re stereotypical and hugely offensive—but I knew that going into this rewatch and didn’t expect my opinion to change about that. But what was especially problematic was how wildly out of place the Yunioshi scenes are. They belong in a completely different movie (a bad ‘80s teen sex comedy perhaps?) and the tone of those sequences consistently pulled me out of the film and every time that happened, it took some effort to re-engage with the rest of the movie. And every time I managed to re-engage, we were treated to yet another Yunioshi scene, which took me out of the picture again.
Needless to say, it was a disheartening experience. I don’t know how any contemporary audience, Asian or not, can completely enjoy this work without the Yunioshi scenes ruining the overall experience. I know there are occasional public screenings of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and not without its share of controversy) and I’d actually be curious to watch this again with a real audience to see what the reaction is.
Now, I’ve heard folks, including some Asian Americans, say it’s unfair to judge this picture through our 21st Century lens. They argue it is a product of its time and we must understand that. To that I say—bullshit.
Even by 1961 standards, this was pretty bad. The film’s producer, Richard Shepherd, has said he wanted to recast the part of Yunioshi because he could see how offensive it was becoming, but was vetoed by Edwards. So even the filmmakers weren’t blind to the potential issues.
And let’s not forget that 1961 was also the year that saw the big screen version of the musical Flower Drum Song. By no means a perfect movie, but it featured an all-Asian cast played mostly by real Asians and at least tried to present Asian Americans as three-dimensional Americans. So to say Breakfast at Tiffany’s was reflective of the portrayal of Asians at that time is also erroneous.
After the film’s release and subsequent criticism about the Yunioshi character, Edwards admitted it was a mistake and vowed never to do anything like that again. Well…at least until a few years later when he cast Peter Sellers to play an Indian in brownface in the 1968 comedy, The Party.
Finally, if you think that no one in this day and age can look at Yunioshi and think of him as anything more than an offensive stereotype, keep in mind that it was just a few years ago when star Mickey Rooney offered this thought on his infamous role:
“Blake Edwards…wanted me to do it because he was a comedy director. They hired me to do this overboard, and we had fun doing it….Never in all the more than 40 years after we made it – not one complaint. Every place I’ve gone in the world people say, ‘God, you were so funny.’ Asians and Chinese come up to me and say, ‘Mickey you were out of this world.’”
And if you’re one of those Asians who thinks Mickey was out of this world in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, you deserve an ass kicking.
Read the previous YOMYOMF Rewatch of 1927’s Mr. Wu here.