Mickey Rooney passed away earlier this week at the age of 93, and he's being remembered for many beloved roles; as a horse lover, two that come to mind instantly for me are the jaded jockey Mi Taylor in National Velvet, and the aging horse trainer Henry Dailey in The Black Stallion. But another role--which was omitted in many online retrospectives of Rooney's career--is memorable because of its awfulness, and that was when he portrayed a Japanese man in the film adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany's.
This is the Mickey Rooney role that most media sites didn't want to mention this week. I bring it up only because it's a good example of how racist Hollywood used to be towards people of Asian descent. It's so bad that it routinely makes lists of the most racially offensive movie characters, right up there with Long Duk Dong (cue the gong sound effect) of Sixteen Candles (who at least was played by an Asian actor, instead of a Caucasian actor wearing makeup.)
While some movie reviews at the time openly criticized the character, it wasn't until the 1990s that the role received a lot more attention than it had when the film was first released in 1961. In the 1993 biopic about Bruce Lee, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Lee and his date walk out of the movie theater where Breakfast at Tiffany's is playing because of the way the character is depicted and the audience's reaction:
I will admit that when I first saw Breakfast at Tiffany's, Mickey Rooney made me laugh--not because I thought the character was actually funny, but because I couldn't believe the absurdity of it all. That's Mickey Rooney? I kept asking myself. And then I felt embarrassed for him. In his defense, by the time Rooney made this film his star had been dwindling in Hollywood for a while. A former child star who had enlisted in the U.S. Army during WWII, Rooney found upon his return that the movie roles just weren't as plentiful. He starred in a television series and turned to directing for a while. Breakfast at Tiffany's was one of the few big-screen parts he was lucky enough to get during this career slump.
This was also a time when Hollywood just wasn't acknowledging Asian actors, instead preferring to hire well-known names to play the parts, such as Tony Randall in the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, and Peter Sellers playing an Indian doctor in The Millionaires. However, even those roles weren't as over-the-top as I.Y. Yunioshi.
In 2008, Breakfast at Tiffany's was on the outdoor summer film schedule in Sacramento, California until much protesting caused organizers to substitute Ratatouille instead. Change.org also took aim at the film's outdoor screening in Brooklyn in 2011.
Rooney himself remained blissfully unaware that the character was seen as offensive until a 2008 interview, where he claimed Asian fans had approached him over the years and told him he was funny. "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....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.'" Rooney also said that if he'd known people would be so offended he wouldn't have taken the role.
The fact that he mentioned Asians and "Chinese" is a whole other blog post.
Has Hollywood learned its lesson yet? Perhaps not--the 2007 comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry featured an uncredited role by Rob Schneider as an Asian minister. Speaking about the I.Y. Yunioshi role, New York Daily News columnist Jeff Yang said it best when protesters tried to ban the film during the 2011 Brooklyn airing: "Far from boycotting the movie or even begrudgingly accepting it, I think it should be mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to fully understand who we are as a culture, how far we've come and how far we still need to go."