July 26th, 2018 – Without Breakfast at Tiffany’s, many a college dorm room would be left undecorated. We also wouldn’t have the controversial character of Mr. Yunioshi. The over-the-top character portrayed by Mickey Rooney has been scrutinized over the years, with reception growing more critical as each year passes.
I. Y. Yunioshi is a character originally crafted by Truman Capote in his 1958 novella. On page, Capote created a much different character than the one that was turned into a caricature years later on screen. In the 1961 film, Mr. Yunioshi is a bumbling, clumsy, heavy-accented Japanese man who is fascinated but equally frustrated by Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly.
With buckteeth, slanted eyes, and thick glasses, the very white Rooney took on the role of Holly’s landlord and exasperated upstairs neighbor. While Mr. Yunioshi is not one of the lead characters, he does appear in the opening scene and has opened the door to discussions about racism and whitewashing in Hollywood.
Initial reviews of the film praised the work of Hepburn and didn’t come out harshly against the stereotypical impersonation of Asians at that time. The Hollywood Reporter and Variety did highlight the problematic portrayal and predicted that some people would be offended in their write-ups, but it wasn’t until decades later that outlets would further analyze and criticize the role.
“Mickey Rooney gives his customary all to the part of a Japanese photographer, but the role is a caricature and will be offensive to many,” THR wrote in 1961.
“The role would have been an offensive stereotype even played by an Asian; the casting of Mickey Rooney added insult to injury,” the Los Angeles Daily News published in 1993.
Once into the 2000s, more tangible actions came from outcries about the portrayal in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. In 2008, the film was swapped out for Ratatouille at an outdoor screening event in Sacramento after protests loomed large.
In 2011, Brooklyn’s “Movies with a View” series faced similar protests but decided to take a different approach. The film was still shown, but before it began the organizers spoke to the crowd, acknowledging the protestor’s views. They also screened a documentary about Mr. Yunioshi and the portrayal of Asian Americans in other movies, which was taken from a DVD extra released for a special anniversary edition of the film.
Mickey Rooney, who passed away in 2014, has expressed both regret and confusion about the role. He told The Desert News that if he would have known people would have been offended that he wouldn’t have done it but also said that in 40 years he had never had one complaint from anyone.
“It breaks my heart. Blake Edwards, who directed the picture, wanted me to do it because he was a comedy director. They hired me to do this overboard, and we had fun doing it,” he said. “Those that didn’t like it, I forgive them and God bless America. God bless the universe, God bless Japanese, Chinese, Indians, all of them and let’s have peace.”
How do you view Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in 2018? Do you think we’ve really come that far from the casting choices that were made in 1961?