Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Breakfast at Tiffany's Hard to Swallow

Mickey Rooney in 'yellow face' with buck teeth and black glassesLast night I watched the film Breakfast at Tiffany's. I confess I knew just about nothing of it... other than that it starred Audrey Hepburn, was based on a story by Truman Capote, and had something to do with the Tiffany's store in New York City.

So I was completely taken aback by the extremely racist portrayal of a Japanese character named Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney). This was the the archetypally racist Asian stereotype, played for humor -- a bumbler with buck teeth, highly inflected English and a lecherous heart for the pretty white girl downstairs (Ms. Hepburn).

A quick Google search turned up thousands of pages describing how racist the film is, and various protests that have occurred about it. But I had no idea. It's one of those films that never quite reached me -- maybe because it came out just after I was born. I was too young for it, and then later I thought of it as part of a fuddy-duddy era (what time period can ever be so antediluvian as the one when you came into the world?).

I couldn't help wondering if the stereotype came from the original story or not, and so I dug up an online copy of the Capote's published text.

Yunioshi is in the story, but his part is much smaller, and only at the beginning. Some of his dialog in the film is lifted right from the text, but the painful comedic spin and all the ugly mannerisms are missing. And the person who repeatedly calls the police is not Yunioshi at all, but a woman who lives downstairs, and who has evaporated completely from the film version.

The story does have its share of casually racist elements about a range of different types of peoples, but Mr. Yunioshi isn't really one of them (he is referred to as a "Jap" twice, but given the story's setting during World War II that doesn't seem too surprising).

A few other key things that are entirely different between the film and story versions:

  • The narrator (George Peppard in the film) is not a "kept man" -- in fact, the rich woman played by Patricia Neal was created out of whole cloth for the film.
  • There's no romance between Holly Golightly and the narrator. Assuming the original narrator has more in common with Truman Capote than George Peppard, it's not hard to imagine why.
  • Given the lack of a romantic angle, it wasn't much of a surprise that the ending was completely different -- Holly leaves, and the narrator is the one who rescues the cat.
Another example of Hollywood making a story more "commercial." Sigh.

1 comment:

Ms Sparrow said...

I have never seen the film and never plan to. I've often been annoyed by the changes made to perfectly good stories by over-zealous Hollywood writers. It seems like Capote must have approved the changes, however. So,it seems some of the racism was his, as well.