Six Damn Fine Degrees #19: Mr Yunioshi

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

Watching classic cinema for the first time on the big screen can be a fabulous experience. Firstly, you’re getting to see how the makers intended you to see it. Secondly, the audience in the type of cinemas that play old movies tend to be incredibly well-behaved. No loud phone calls mid-movie or bored kids kicking the back of your chair.

And then there’s sharing the experience with an audience. Of course, classic film being classic film, many people will have seen the films being watched before. Countless times. But they still get immersed, laughing along with punchlines they knew full well were coming. In fact, the thrill of the crowd probably means this is the first time they’ve laughed out loud at the film for a while.

But sometimes you can tell when there’s a big chunk of the audience in a cinema who are watching the film for the first time just as you are. And never has that been more obvious than when I first saw Breakfast At Tiffany’s on a big screen.

Of course, I’d been immersed in the imagery of the film, the iconic movie poster, countless striking stills of Audrey Hepburn take direct from the film. I even knew the tune Moon River fantastically well since having it on a compilation cassette of classic movie tunes. Even before seeing the film, I thought I knew the story. I knew how it would look and how it would sound. I was prepared, as likely many others were, to escape into a beautiful technicolour fantasy with Audrey Hepburn and “Hannibal” Smith from the A-team.

Then three minutes in – it happened. A good chunk of the cinema audience, myself included, gasped. This was not what we were expecting. Suddenly you could sense people getting very uncomfortable. Because three minutes in, Mickey Rooney appears on screen. In yellow make-up, false teeth and face prosthetics. As the comedy neighbour “Mr. Yunioshi”.

We squirmed in our seats as the scene continued – Rooney clumsily playing it for laughs, the silly little man banging into the furniture, seemingly incapable of walking across a room without clumsily hitting or pressing something. There was a quiet thud thud thud of jaws hitting the floor when he finally spoke, a terrible comedy Japanese accent, what exactly was it that we were watching here?

We finally got through the scene, and George Peppard appeared. We relaxed again as the film seemed to morph into the experience we were expecting. The two meet, Mancini’s score playing in the background as we watch manic pixie dream Golightly charm wooden fifties throwback Paul Varjak. A sense of relief seemed to fill the room.

But fifteen minutes in, Rooney was back to share more of his comedy gold with us. When the same “hilarious” accent got another line in the script, a voice the row behind me audibly declared “oh for fuck’s sake!” in weary despair.

“oh for fuck’s sake”

After that things never improved. However much we might try and relax and enjoy the carefree elegance of the main story, the threat of Rooney’s return hung over everything. It seems fitting that for a Blake Edwards film that he seemed to lurk Kato-style around any corner. The moment our lazy liberal classic film guard might be down, he would leap out and remind me just how casually racists the whole industry of classic Hollywood depressingly was. After the film finished, we left the screening in mild shock. Amazed that such an iconic film hid a dark secret that the posters, images, Moon River and Deep Blue Something didn’t warn us about. We tried to work out if you could cut the film, removing the character completely and still have it make sense. In the years since, the fact this hasn’t been done by boffins more tech-savvy than me suggests it isn’t.

Since that first experience I’ve never been able to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s without the experience being derailed by this terrible misjudgment. Nowadays the film appears with various disclaimers, the DVD release even including a documentary on the offensive history of Hollywood yellowface, but even that doesn’t ease the viewing experience. But the worst of it is – I’m thankful that the film isn’t quite good enough. It undeniably looks fabulous and the score has gorgeous moments but there are too many other faults. Peppard is a pretty charmless leading man, Blake Edward’s attempt to capture a swinging sixties New York experience exudes a clunky embarrassing Dad energy. Even Audrey Hepburn struggles when called to move out of her comfort zone of looking sophisticated and try to convince that she’s hungover or truly heartbroken.

Thankful because its hard to know what I would think if I thought the rest of the film was genius. Whether I would casually ignore the racism to get to the cinematic experience I adore. And that’s a question that fans of classic films, myself included, are not always comfortable to ask of themselves.

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