By J.K. Yamamoto
Rafu Staff Writer
Director/writer Blake Edwards, who died Wednesday in Santa Monica at the age of 88, will be remembered for many films, including “The Pink Panther,” “10” and “Victor/Victoria.”
One of his biggest hits was “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), which was based on a novella by Truman Capote and starred Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, a New York socialite who becomes interested in a young man (George Peppard) who has moved into her apartment building. It features the song “Moon River” and is widely regarded as a classic romantic comedy.
The movie is also infamous in the Asian American community because of Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, Holly’s obnoxious and buffoonish Japanese landlord. In a classic example of “yellowface,” the practice of Caucasian actors playing Asian characters, Rooney wore thick glasses and buck teeth, and spoke broken English with a heavy accent. He called Hepburn’s character “Miss Gorightry.”
The mainstream press thought nothing of it at the time. The New York Times’ reviewer described Rooney’s performance as “broadly exotic.”
A clip of Mr. Yunioshi was used in the 1993 movie “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” to illustrate the racial stereotypes that Lee wanted to break when he went to Hollywood.
An October 2009 article in The Times of London by Sathnam Sanghera offers an analysis of “Tiffany’s,” including the Yunioshi character. “Apparently, director Blake Edwards subsequently expressed regret … but this doesn’t change the fact that one of the most acclaimed films of our times, which gets shown more than some new releases, and has become a byword for romance viewing, is racist,” Sanghera wrote.
In 2008, a free outdoor screening of “Tiffany’s” in Sacramento was canceled after protests from individuals and organizations in the Asian American community. Another movie, “Ratatouille,” was substituted. In 2005, an attempt to stop the City of San Jose from showing “Tiffany’s” was unsuccessful. Although the movie is readily available to anyone who wants to see it, it was argued that local governments shouldn’t endorse it by sponsoring a public screening.
In 2007, Asian Week in San Francisco listed Rooney’s character as No. 2 on the list of “The 25 Most Infamous Yellowface Film Performances.” No. 3 was the Charlie Chan series and No. 1 was the Fu Manchu series. The list included films from the silent era to the present, with such actors as Marlon Brando in “Teahouse of the August Moon,” Ricardo Montalban in “Sayonara,” and John Wayne (as Genghis Khan) in “The Conqueror.”
Christina Fa, founder of YellowVisions, was an organizer of the Sacramento and San Jose protests against “Tiffany’s.” She commented, “Although Mr. Edwards unfortunately marred his distinguished career by directing one of America’s most well-known anti-Asian films, he should be given credit for seeing the light afterwards and – although stopping short of apologizing – expressing regret regarding the racist yellowface casting and his directing of Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi as obscenely offensive, rather than the more modest, eccentric artist he was portrayed as in the novella.”
The 45th anniversary edition DVD of “Tiffany’s,” released in 2006, included a documentary, “The Making of a Classic,” in which Edwards said, “Looking back, I wish I had never done it … and I would give anything to be able to recast it, but it’s there.”
“Perhaps, as a comedy director, Mr. Edwards couldn’t resist adding an over-the-top twist to Yunioshi, but there’s no excuse for his framing Yunioshi in such a blatantly racist manner. Comedy is not an excuse for racism,” Fa said.
“What’s sad is that the film has become such a part of Americana that Mr. Edwards, perhaps unwittingly, has validated anti-Asian racism already deeply rooted in America. Generations after the film debuted, it’s clear that Americans, in love with Audrey Hepburn, ironically overlook the fact that her Holly Golightly character was originally little more than a kind of stylized escort-dilettante (some say prostitute). Yet they consider the film so iconic, they’re willing to condone its racism: a sad reflection of Americans’ tendency to minimize racism within society. If Americans can’t reject the film for being racist, how can they practice racial tolerance?
“The American public has canonized ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ as a reminder of a more genteel, ‘golden’ era. But, as the late community activist Karen Tomine observed in 2008, the film ‘is not gold standard but rather, tarnished gold.’ ”
Guy Aoki, founding president of Los Angeles-based Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), said of Edwards’ remark, “I assume that meant he would’ve cast a real Asian actor. At least he learned as time went on and didn’t try to defend yellowfacing. Some would say using an Asian American actor would only take away the yellowface problem but still leave us with a stereotype. An apology would’ve been better, of course, but at least he ‘got it.’ ”
Aoki added that the documentary included a separate interview with producer Richard Shepherd, who “claimed he never liked the idea in the first place but Blake wanted to use (Rooney) because he was a friend or something. Shepherd kept apologizing and saying he’d cast an Asian American in it today.”
A remastered Centennial Collection DVD released in 2009 includes a documentary specifically about the controversy, “Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective.” The interviewees are Aoki, MANAA President Phil Lee, MANAA Vice President Jeffery Mio, and actress Marilyn Tokuda.
In a 2008 interview with the Sacramento Bee, Rooney denied that his portrayal was racist, saying, “I wouldn’t offend any person, be they black, Asian or whatever … It breaks my heart. 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.”
Rooney added, “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.’ “
There was no such controversy over the “Pink Panther” films, in which Edwards cast an Asian actor, English-born Burt Kwouk, as Cato, the man-servant of Inspector Clousseau (Peter Sellers). In a running joke throughout the series, Cato’s job was to attack Clousseau when he least expected it, in order to keep him on his toes. Kwouk played Cato in seven films from 1964’s “A Shot in the Dark” to 1993’s “Son of the Pink Panther.”
At the time of his death, Edwards was working on two Broadway musicals, one based on the “Pink Panther” series.