‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and Mickey Rooney’s Yunioshi Yellow Face Deletion

In 2013, I wrote an essay about Audrey Hepburn, Andy Williams and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” At the time, Williams, who had used Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s tune “Moon River” as his signature song, had died recently (25 September 2012).

This week the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was in the news because in the UK, Channel 5 has decided to cut all the scenes featuring Mickey Rooney’s yellow face role, Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi. Channel 5 is a British free-to-air television network that was launched in 1997. The network is owned by Channel 5 Broadcasting Limited and is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the US Paramount Global (under Paramount Networks UK and Australia division). Paramount has three core brands: Paramount Pictures, CBS and Viacom.

When I first wrote about the film, I did not ready Truman Capote’s novella on which the film was based, but did note Capote’s preference for Marilyn Monroe and his disappointment with the film. This time, I read the slim fictional piece to consider the importance of one character, Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi. His name is brought up in conversation in an incident that is never mentioned in the film because the film is a romantic fantasy. The novella is a slight tragedy of tawdry characters.

The basic story has the narrator as a newcomer to a brownstone in Manhattan’s Upper East Side where Holly Golightly is already a tenant in the autumn of 1943. She is just barely 18 while the narrator is 28. She has no steady employment, but meets up with men on expense accounts and asks for money for the powder room and a taxi. That should come to $50 each time. Sometimes she gets expensive presents, but, she doesn’t have to have sex with them although some are more insistent. She hopes to marry a rich man. Her first target is playboy Rusty Trawler who has already been married three times. She later transfers her affections to Brazilian diplomat José Ybarra-Jaegar.

The narrator reminds her of her brother, Fred, who is in the army. She hopes to earn enough money to buy a place for her brother once he leaves the army.

Every Thursday, Golightly also takes a “weather report” to a gangster, Salvatore “Sally” Tomato, who is jailed in Sing Sing. She pretends to be his niece; his lawyer pays Golightly $100 per visit.

Golightly was actually married to a veterinarian in Texas, Doc Golightly, when she was 14. After she left him, she came under the guidance of O.J. Berman, a Hollywood agent, who helped her become sophisticated and got her French lessons, but Golightly fled Hollywood for New York.

Her life implodes after she gets news that her brother has died and then later she is arrested for her association with Sally. Her weather reports were coded messages for illegal activities.

The character I.Y. Yunioshi is a device that brings the narrator of the book back to his old neighborhood and opens up the story of the past.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s: The Novel

The character, I.Y. Yunioshi, is mentioned 11 times in the novel.

The bartender Joe Bell asked the unnamed narrator: “You recall a certain Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi? A gentleman from Japan?”

The narrator replies,

“From California,” I said, recalling Mr. Yunioshi perfectly. He’s a photographer on one of the picture magazines, and when I knew him he lived in the studio apartment on the top floor of the brownstone.

Joe Bell then says:

“Don’t go mixing me up. All I’m asking, you know who I mean? Okay. So last night who comes waltzing in here but this selfsame Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi. I haven’t seen him, I guess it’s over two years. And where do you think he’s been those two years?”

As it turns out, Yunioshi has been in Africa, a fact well-known for those who read Walter Winchell’s society/gossip columns. Six mentions of his name relate to this adventure in Africa where Yunioshi discovers evidence that Holly Golightly had preceded him there, but no one knows where she has gone.

In the past, where the narrator remembers his acquaintance with Holly Golightly (and the only time frame of the film), the first mention of Yunioshi was that the narrator was awakened by the sound of his voice. Yunioshi yelling to protest because Holly has lot her key and is ringing his bell to get back into the building long past midnight.

Yunioshi says: “Miss Golightly! I must protest!” and after a silly “self-amused” response from Golightly, he says, “You cannot go on ringing my bell. You must, please, please have yourself a key made.”  He continues, “I work, I have to sleep. But always you are ringing my bell.”

Golightly dismisses him, calling him a “dear little man” and then teases, “I might let you take those pictures we mentioned.” She promises not to ring him again. Instead, she begins to ring the narrator. The last time, he is mentioned is by Golightly’s frenemy, a very tall model Mag Wildwood who attends the wild party at Golightly’s apartment after a photo session with Yunioshi for Bazaar.

The novel doesn’t mention him again. He is not,  the landlord who in the end sells Golightly’s abandoned possessions: “the white-satin bed, the tapestry, her precious Gothic chair.” Golightly just doesn’t go to jail, she has a miscarriage while in police custody, ending up in the hospital and the narrator is sent with a letter from the supposed father of the child, the man from Brazil.

In the book, the cat named “Cat” was dumped in a Spanish Harlem. Holly Golightly does look for him, but doesn’t find him. The narrator promises to find him and take care of him for her as Golightly escapes to the airport and  to Brazil.

The last time the narrator hears from her is in a postcard:

Brazil was beastly but Buenos Aires the best. Not Tiffany’s, but almost. Am joined at the hip with dubvine $enor. Love? Think so. Anyhoo, am looking for somewhere to live ($enor has wife, 7 brats) and will let you know address when I know it myself. Mille tendresse.

If the novel was set in 1943, a Japanese person in New York, particularly one with a camera, might have been interned at Ellis Island Detention Station where from 1 December 1941 to June 1944, about 600 people of Japanese descent were held. According to another source, “in December 1941 Ellis Island held 279 Japanese, 248 Germans, and 81 Italians, all removed from the East Coast,” and “in February 1944 there were only three Japanese Americans still being held there and in June 1944 only one Japanese American.”

However, the prewar Japanese American community in New York had, according to Densho, full legal equality. There were no  property restrictions and no ban against intermarriage. The population was decentralized and usually younger and better educated the Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many businessmen and diplomats returned to Japan. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, community leaders and consular officials were arrested and interned at Ellis Island. Executive Order 9066 did not affect the Japanese American community in New York. Some West Coast Japanese Americans resettled in New York from the camps (1943-1944) and after. According to Densho, “the Japanese “Americans who resettle in New York during 1943-1944 were almost entirely Nisei (at least 70 percent), while anecdotal evidence from the WRA’s New York office indicates that a large number of the perhaps 1,500 inmates who moved to New York in 1945-46 were families and individual Issei.”

It should be noted that Golightly isn’t politically correct. She uses the N-word twice.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s: The Movie

The film is a romantic comedy directed by Tulsa-born Blake Edwards. At the Academy Awards, it won Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for Henry Mancini and Best Original Song for Mancini and Johnny Mercer (“Moon River”). “Moon River would also win Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Arrangement, Best Performance by an Orchestra for other than Dancing and Best Sound Track album at the Grammy Awards.

The narrator becomes Paul Varjak (George Peppard), a writer who is now a kept man who pretends to write. His “decorator” is Emily Eustace Failenson (Patricial Neal) who has installed him at the brownstone where Golightly lives. Golightly is a café society girl, dependent on rich men to give her tips and gifts for her company and they always hope for more. She had been groomed for Hollywood but abruptly left to be in New York. While she does end up being disappointed by both Trawler (Stanley Adams) and a Brazilian diplomat (Jose Luis de Vilallonga), she is bailed out of jail by Berman (Martin Balsam) and Paul ends up in the rain, embracing both Cat and Golightly.

The 179-page novel was published by Random House on 28 October 1958.  In an interview that was published in the March 1968 volumes of “Playboy,” Truman said,

Holly Golightly was not precisely a call girl. She had not job, but accompanied expense-account men to the best restaurants and night clubs, with the understanding that her escort was obliged to give her some sort of gift, perhaps jewelry or a check…if she felt like it, she might take her escort home for the night. So these girls are the authentic American geishas, and they’re much more prevalent now than in 1943 or 1944, which was Holly’s era.

The film was released on 5 October 1961 and is set in that time period. This was a year short of a decade after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1952 which ended Asian exclusion in US immigration policy and allowed Japanese nationals to become naturalized US citizens. Then President Truman vetoed the act but Congress overrode the veto. The film was also more than two decades after Luise Rainer won an Oscar for Best Actress portraying O-lan, a Chinese woman (to Paul Muni’s Wang Lung), in the 1937 “The Good Earth.”

In the same year that “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was released, “Flower Drum Song” would become the first major film with a predominately Asian American cast, but Christopher Lee would portray a Chinese person in two films (“The Devil’s Daffodil” and “The Terror of the Tongs”). Eventually, David Carradine would be the White face behind a supposedly biracial character in “Kung Fu” (1972-1975) and yellow face would continue to be acceptable, even in movies where blackface would not and the topic seems to be racism (“Cloud Atlas,” 2012).

I think it is notable that the narrator in the book states that Yunioshi comes from California and not Japan and that makes the film seem more offensive. My 2013 essay goes into detail why I thought it was offensive before, but having now read the novel, the text gives no evidence that Yunioshi was a comic figure who badly mangled the English language with his accent. He could have been an American-born person of Japanese descent.

As the film changes the ending of the novel, Yunioshi is not really an essential character and the kind of creepiness that Mickey Rooney gives the character seems to be in line old stereotypes of East Asian men lusting after White women, but who are also woefully unattractive. Notably, women of East Asian descent are attractive enough to be among the beautiful café society people at the party (which does not include Rooney’s Yunioshi). In the wake of #MeToo, there’s an additional layer of sexual harassment in Hollywood and in the modeling industry to consider. That would suggest that Golightly possibly fled the rampant casting couch of Hollywood and that Berman could have been grooming her as a party girl. Further, Yunioshi wasn’t creepy as an East Asian male, but as any other male photographer. Taking away the accent, buck-teeth and other caricatures of the ugly emasculated East Asian male might have shown that.

Yellowface versus Blackface

If you watch film classic on the standard television networks in the US (ABC, CBS and NBC), you often get an abbreviated form, cut for time and to make the content suitable for general audiences or at least audiences for the time period that the broadcast is scheduled. This might differ in another country. I saw full frontal male nudity on late night TV during the academic year of 1989-1990 while in the UK. I don’t think that would happen in the US, but now with streaming, that is a different matter.

Streaming classic films online, I’ve been able to see many classic films in their full theatrical version, including  the 1936 “Swing Time” (available on Prime Video) and the 1942 “Holiday Inn.” I was stunned to see Fred Astaire (“Swing Time”) and Bing Crosby (“Holiday Inn”) in blackface.

Blackface has fallen out of fashion, but has not totally been discontinued. Robert Downey Jr. played a White actor who uses blackface in the 2008 “Tropic Thunder.” His blackface is parody. That’s different from the yellow face in “Cloud Atlas” where there was no blackface. Controversy has been raised about Blackface used in costumes, particularly in light of high profile politicians who dressed up in blackface when they were younger.  In February of 2019, the Pew Research Center investigated and found that not everyone agrees that blackface is totally unacceptable.

About a third of Americans say blackface in a Halloween costume is acceptable at least sometimes

The blackface scenes have been edited out of advertiser-supported network airings of “Holiday Inn” since the 1980s. The treatment of “Swing Time” is different. Roger Ebert noted that Astaire’s blackface was different, quoting a Cinebooks essay that calls it “perhaps the only blackface number on film which doesn’t make one squirm today. His skin made up as an African American rather than a minstrel-show caricature of one, Astaire dances an obvious tribute to the great Bill Robinson.” You might feel differently.

Since blackface has already been cut from movies for decades (at least in the US) and the full film is available (e.g. Turner Classic Movies and streaming services), if networks were to cut Yunioshi out of their broadcasting of the film, it wouldn’t be a new practice. Instead it would be extending an old practice that has already been in place for blackface. It’s extending a concept that makeup doesn’t change one’s race beyond a binary of Black and White.

The main voice raised against the decision to cut Mickey Rooney’s role from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”  seems to be Monty Python star and film director Terry Gilliam. According to the DailyMail.com, Gilliam said:

Censorship seems to be a growth industry in Britain these days, but to remove scenes of characters from films that had already survived the critical eye of past official censors seems absurd and dangerous. Who are the new censors? Who has given them the right to bowdlerise?

Yet Gilliam has been lamenting the trials of being a White man for a few years. In 2018, while promoting his new film, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” he said, “I no longer want to be a White male. I don’t want to be blamed for everything wrong in the world: I tell the world now I’m a Black lesbian.” This was a tactic that Gilliam was still employing in 2020.

In reporting on Channel Five’s censorship for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the Daily Express got a quote from Sir Richard Eyre while the Daily Mail used quotes from Eyre, Rooney prior to his death in 2014, Blake Edwards prior to his 2010 death and Hepburn’s son, Sean Hepburn. Why didn’t the Daily Mail or the Daily Express query someone of East Asian descent? There are high profile people like the Nagasaki-born writer Sir Kazuo Ishiguro or writer/director William Sharpe whose mother is Japanese.

Further, no one seems to have asked Gilliam about blackface and films like “Holiday Inn.” Things are different in Great Britain so I’m not clear if the Lincoln number has been cut from UK network television screenings.  According to the New York Times article “Blackface on British TV Finally Faces a Reckoning,” British TV has been facing criticism about blackface. According to the article, Blackface on British TV is associated with a popular variety show called “The Black and White Minstrel Show.” Contemporary shows that were pulled because of Blackface included “The League of Gentlemen” (1999-2002, three series), “Little Britain” (2003-2007, three series) and “The Mighty Boosh” (2004-2007, three series). The John Cleese comedy “Fawlty Towers” (1975 and 1979, two series) episode was taken off a streaming service (UKTV).

The issue in the UK seems slightly different than in the US because because in the UK, Netflix, the BBC iPlayer and Britbox streaming services completely removed a series, “Little Britain.” Stand-up comedian and writer Dane Baptiste said of “Little Britain” and mockumentary “Come Fly with Me” (2011), “It’s the fact that two white men have been able to depict Black people in two shows and the BBC won’t even give one Black person a show.”  His BBC Three sitcom “Sunny D” in 2016 was “the first BBC sitcom with a Black majority cast in 20 years” according to NME.com.

The depiction of various races and ethnicities in shows like Little Britain and Come Fly With Me isn’t the main issue, although they are fucking terrible in how they parodied people. There is an abundance of Black and Asian actors who could have been supporting artists in these shows and given them some level of credence, at least aesthetically. The BBC frequently overlooks these people or doesn’t actually utilise them when it is, I must stress, also funded by Black and Asian people. It refuses to provide any kind of counter-narrative from Black and brown faces.

Yet British-Zimbabwean comedian Munya Chawawa argues that by removing such content, it’s easier to gaslight complaints from minorities.  “Rather than obscure these examples of racial inequality, Chawawa argues they’re necessary societal waypoints” according to NME.com. While we know what two Black British feel about Black representation and blackface, we do not know what any Japanese British feel about yellow face.

The UK has different demographics than the US with 87.2 percent White, Black/African/Caribbean/Black British at 3 percent, Asian Indian 2.3 percent and 1.9 percent Pakistani/British. The Black/African/Caribbean/Black British represent an even lower percentage of the population than Asian Americans in the US.

Perhaps the better question is who was given permission to bowdlerize history and literature to omit minorities and people of color? In the US as well as in the UK, there’s often an alarming absence of Asians, East and West. That’s certainly true for the recent TV series “Around the World in 80 Days” shown on BBC One and currently on PBS. I’ve watched numerous World War I dramas out of the UK and the US and even France, but I don’t remember one that addressed the sacrifice and prejudice faced by the Chinese Labour Corps (Corps de Travailleurs Chinois or 中國勞工旅 Zhōngguó láogōng lǚ). The CLC were about 140,000 Chinese workers recruited for support work and manual labor by both the British and French military forces. 

Many were transported from China, to British Columbia and then rode the Canadian Pacific Railway trains to Halifax to get on steamships to the United Kingdom. The Chinese immigration was restricted in both Canada (Chinese Immigration Act of 1885) and the US (Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882).  Not all of them made it out of Canada. Some were, after the war, used for the treacherous job of mine clearance. There were also labor corps from Egypt, India and South Africa serving in the Middle East.

Coming out of the UK, the reaction against taking out the Yunioshi yellow face from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” may be the result of a greater culture shock precipitated by the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020. Even in the US, where the voices against blackface have been naturally stronger (with a national demographic of 13 percent of Black/African American and with some cities that may even have a majority Black demographic like Jackson or Detroit or Atlanta), I think there is a culture shock as well. And even in the US, the sensitive handling of Asian and Asian American imagery is problematic. The realization needs to be made that with 60 percent of the world population, Asia has often been omitted from much of Western interpretation of history in television and cinematic productions and with Chinese as 20 percent of the world population, people of East Asian descent have been omitted from this visual history or only used as a background, and they are too often absent in even programming depicting the future. Why complain about the absence of one highly questionable portrayal of a person of East Asian descent played by a White person (Mickey Rooney) under the direction of a White person (Blake Edwards) as written by someone of Russian Jewish and English/Scottish descent (George Axelrod) based on the writings of a White man, Truman Capote, and not complain about the continued absence of people of Asian and, in light of the rise of anti-Asian hate,  especially people of East Asian descent from films and television?



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