Blake Edwards Will Be Remembered for ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ Character

2

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.”

Blake Edwards

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.”

Activists’ Analysis

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.

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

“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.

Share.

2 Comments

  1. This article is moronic. Halfway through it I was wondering if it wasn’t really the work of Guy Aoki. But then there Aoki was as the main source that the article hangs on. No wonder. Edwards will be remembered for the Rooney character? That’s your eulogy? We should reject the entire Breakfast At Tyffany’s film and remove it from the classic cinemas section? That’s your conclusion? Maybe we should burn all the prints. How about at a temperature of Farenheit 451? When you look at old movies you have to consider the context, the world that they came out off. The Marx Brothers, early Bond films, blaxploitation flicks from the 70s and tons of other pieces of classic Americana are racist (not to mention sexist, ageist, biased against sexual orientation, and all kind of other baddies) If we judge them by today’s standards. We should look at classic films as a part of history and appreciate how far we’ve come. We should not try to rewrite history retroactively by blotting out movies because they don’t jibe with more evolved values. Picketing showings of Breakfast At Tyffany’s is dumb but making your whole piece after he’s passed away about that one Rooney character is ten times dumber. By the way, in another 50 years maybe we will have evolved enough to see that the way Peter Selllars played Inspector Clousaeu constituted a cruel mockery of the French and future generations will know better. But I’d hate to think that no one will lame enough to try and prevent people from seeing them.

  2. His last sentence could have used a re-reading, but I agree with Kevin’s sentiments. I once got pulled into a mini-protest over Breakfast at Tiffany’s…and I wish some of the people at that event had been able to take a step back and look at the absurity of what they were doing. It was a bunch of people gathering to protest a film that was older than they were. It was made in a different time, when World War II was still a recent memory, as Kevin notes above. But more importantly I just kept wondering what the point was of condemning it so many years later. You get asked to come to these things and you don’t want to be anti-JA so you go. But looking back, you feel like the Aoki types that worked everyone up were really just fighting their own personal wars with the past and you were just a pawn in a meaningless bunch of noise making.

Leave A Reply