By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Fifty years after its release, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” continues to reach new audiences —and continues to be a source of controversy.
But after talks with Asian American media advocates, organizers of three major screenings in Southern California and New York agreed to include a disclaimer about scenes that many Asian Americans find offensive.
The Oscar-winning film is known for Audrey Hepburn’s role as New York socialite Holly Golightly. At issue is Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of a Japanese character, Holly’s buffoonish, obnoxious landlord. “Mr. Yunioshi” mixes his R’s and L’s, and has thick glasses and buck teeth. Although there have been negative portrayals of Asians throughout Hollywood’s history, this film has drawn protests because it is regarded as an American classic and is shown frequently. (This week the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto is showing it as part of a Hepburn retrospective.)
Asian Americans are not alone in condemning the character. In his book “10 Sure Signs a Movie Character Is Doomed and Other Surprising Movie Lists,” film critic Richard Roeper called Rooney’s role “most egregious of all” on the “Worst Ethnic Casting” list. Others who made the list include Paul Muni as a Chinese in “The Good Earth,” Katherine Hepburn as a Chinese in “Dragon Seed,” John Wayne as Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror,” and Marlon Brando as an Okinawan in “The Teahouse of the August Moon.”
San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle, who is a fan of “Tiffany’s,” was asked by reader Wes Nihei what he thought of Mr. Yunioshi. LaSalle wrote on Aug. 7, “Rooney’s performance is a horror, and his treatment within the film is almost enough to make you look at the other characters differently. He is barely human in their eyes. This goes beyond the casual racism you sometimes encounter in older movies. This is … grotesque, not to mention bizarre, badly performed and completely out of left field. This is why they invented fast forward.”
To celebrate the golden anniversary, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened a new digital restoration of the film on July 29 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills and on Aug. 8 at the Academy Theater in New York City. Both events were sold out.
AMPAS’ synopsis reads, “With her giant sunglasses, Givenchy dresses, pearls and cigarette holder, Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly set the stage for the glamour of the 1960s and ushered in a new notion of femininity … This popular and acclaimed film adaptation of Truman Capote’s bestselling novel provoked discussion, laughter and controversy, and established the archetype of the independent single girl in the city.”
Stamp of Approval
Guy Aoki of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) dealt with the Beverly Hills screening on short notice. “A reporter informed me Wednesday night (July 27) that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was going to show a screening of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ that Friday night (July 29),” he said. “That was strange because I’d been working all week on trying to negotiate something with an activist in New York who was upset that Brooklyn was showing that same film in two weeks.”
The next day, Aoki contacted AMPAS’ communications department to explain the significance of showing the film without any disclaimer. “While we understand it’s a classic film, we fear that putting your stamp of approval on a movie which includes a white actor using prosthetic make-up to look Asian (yellowface) sends the wrong message to the industry and public in general — that this is OK and even funny,” he wrote. “Mickey Rooney’s portrayal … has been a thorn in our side since it came out. If blackface has long been considered offensive, why shouldn’t the industry regard yellowface the same way?
“I’m not sure if the Academy has ever screened ‘Birth of a Nation,’ but it’s a similar situation: It was a well-made film, but it stereotyped a minority group (African Americans), and in this case, made the Ku Klux Klan look like heroes.”
In recent years, Aoki noted, the cities of San Jose and Sacramento were criticized for co-sponsoring public showings of “Tiffany’s.” “The Academy screening it without any educational component would be irresponsible and more harmful because of the prestige of its organization,” he said.
Aoki suggested that AMPAS show part of “Mr. Yunoishi: An Asian Perspective,” a mini-documentary included with the Centennial Collection DVD of “Tiffany’s.” It features Aoki, actress Marilyn Tokuda of East West Players, and other activists.
The Academy did not agree to that proposal, but promised to make an announcement before the July 29 and Aug. 8 screenings. According to the communications department, Ellen Harrington, AMPAS’ director of special events, told the audience in Beverly Hills that Rooney’s performance was an “unfortunate” part of the film and might be “shocking” to those who had never seen it. She compared it to seeing a respected entertainer like Bing Crosby or Fred Astaire performing in blackface. While the film still has many “wonderful” aspects, she said, Mr. Yunioshi is “a real issue” when presenting it.
Aoki, who did not attend the screening, commented, “From what we understand of what was said, it was a good statement. MANAA wants to thank the Academy for being sensitive enough to handle the situation quickly and for informing its audience that while ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ is a classic film, it’s also a classic example of how NOT to portray Asian people.”
Battle in Brooklyn
An outdoor screening was held Aug. 11 by the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy as part of its “Syfy Movies with a View” series. The local press ran a number of articles about documentary filmmaker Ursula Liang’s petition against the film, with numerous commentators voicing their opinions.
Initially, BBPC Executive Director Nancy Webster told the Brooklyn Paper that she wanted to address those concerns but hadn’t decided how. “We appreciate hearing people’s views about our programming, whether they are critical or supportive,” she said. “We trust our audience to use their own judgment about what is appropriate for their families.”
Unlike AMPAS’ online synopsis, the BBPC ultimately addressed the issue head-on: “In addition to its well-loved and acclaimed performances by Patricia Neal, George Peppard, and Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ contains one performance that none of us can love. Mickey Rooney’s grossly stereotypical portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, while a product of an era in Hollywood that is for the most part behind us, nonetheless remains indefensible and offensive. We hope you will join us to watch ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ with new eyes – it is a classic New York story that contains some of the best moments of American movie-making and some of the worst.”
The screening, which was attended by about 8,000 people, was preceded by a shortened version of the “Mr. Yunioshi” documentary. Aoki worked with Syfy on the editing.
Tahira Bhatti-McClure of NBC Universal, which owns Syfy, said that a statement about the issue was also made at the top of the film.
BBPC was not so cooperative in the beginning, Liang recalled. “A friend had already initiated a conversation with the BBPC about the screening. They weren’t willing to engage in a dialogue and at a point didn’t respond to him at all. I asked him for an update weeks later and there was none, so I thought it was time to take some sort of action to make them consider our point of view …
“I was particularly put off by the BBPC’s lack of willingness to dialogue on an issue that I thought was very black-and-white to communities that think about diversity and cultural sensitivity. To us, this is a textbook example of old Hollywood racism.”
Liang has found there is no public consensus on Mr. Yunioshi. “In response to the petition … Gothamist (a daily weblog) ran a poll asking whether the caricature was racist and more than 50 percent of respondents said no. That number shocked me. And made me feel even more justified in the protest. It proves we are so far from the kind of cultural sensitivity that would enable us to show this film without context and still have people understand our point of view.”
When Liang worked at a fashion magazine, she saw the film for the first time. “When Mr. Yunioshi came on screen, I was completely caught off guard. And horribly offended. And hurt. So many of my co-workers had watched and loved this film without blinking at the racism within it. It upset me to know that I was surrounded by people who were numb to things that were so hurtful to me.”
Regarding “Tiffany’s” status as a classic, she commented, “Art is subjective … But Asian Americans were not part of the dialogue that anointed ‘classics’ then. If you asked a Japanese American in 1961 if he loved this film, do you think he’d say yes? What about today? The arbiters of ‘classic’ are people who have cultural and political power. I just don’t think a series of stunning sheath dresses and diamond necklaces equal a must-watch film.”
Even some Asian Americans have said that the community has bigger issues to deal with. Liang’s response: “If I fight this fight, maybe someone else will have the energy to fight a different one. You can’t underestimate the power of pop culture to affect the masses. And you can’t underestimate the power of the masses to affect an individual. If I can change one mind or protect one person, then I think it’s worth the effort. If we speak up too often do we risk becoming annoying? Perhaps. But I think the greater risk is being silent and allowing people to ignore us.”
In order to be proactive and not just reactive, Liang organized a counter-event — a screening of “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” (1993), starring Jason Scott Lee as the martial arts legend. The movie includes a scene in which Lee sees “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and walks out of the theater when Mr. Yunioshi appears on the screen.
The “Dragon” screening at The Fifth Estate in Brooklyn was part of the Filmwax Film Series. The organization said on its website that the event was a response to the “insensitive and racist” depiction in “Tiffany’s.”
“This is a very fun, subversive, lighthearted and poignant way to express our distaste for ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and show support for a great indie festival that has shown a commitment to our community,” Liang said. “Filmwax Film Series … programs a lot of positive and nuanced films about diverse communities … We’re encouraging people to support programming that supports them.”