Ethics Alarms has almost 15,000 tags, which means that a lot of diverse topics hard been discussed here in connection with ethics issues. Saddened as I was to learn of the passing of the great Mickey Rooney, truly one of the most talented and versatile individuals in entertainment history and the last of MGM musical stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, I can’t justify honoring his ethics; by all accounts, Mickey was not as admirable a human being as he was a performer. Still, Ethics Alarms has a Mickey Rooney post, from 2011, and when I read it over just now, I still liked it. Thus I will honor Mickey by reposting my defense of perhaps his most criticized performance. For one of his best, watch this. Yes, Judy’s in it too. (TCM has made everyone take down their Mickey clips, but so far, this Russian pirate site still has it. I know, I know—but Mickey would approve. This ethical breach is for you, Mick…)
A Bronx woman, Ursula Liang, has started a petition against Brooklyn Bridge Park’s “Movies With A View” series showing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the 1961 Audrey Hepburn classic that gave us “Moon River” and one of actress Hepburn’s most endearing performances. Why? Well, the movie, which has long been popular for summer screenings in New York City and elsewhere, also contains a pre-political correctness performance by Mickey Rooney as Holly Golightly’s comic Japanese neighbor, “Mr. Yunioshi.”
Rooney’s performance, in my opinion, was cringe-worthy even in 1961, one of director Blake Edwards’ not uncommon excesses in vaudeville humor, placed in a context where it didn’t belong. It is a scar on an otherwise marvelous film, but there is nothing inherently wrong with comic stereotypes. Stereotypes are a staple of comedy, and have been forever; the question is whether a particular stereotype is cruel, gratuitous, harmful, or funny. Some stereotypes are cruel and funny.
Objections like Liang’s are impossible to justify logically or ethically, but they persist among political correctness bullies unabated. I have asked some of these to explain to me, for example, why the Asian character in Edwards’ film is more offensive than the stereotypical nerds in the hit TV show “Big Bang Theory,” the stereotypical Jewish and WASP characters in Woody Allen movies, or the stereotypical black buffoons in Tyler Perry movies. Who has decreed that “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” intends Rooney’s cartoonish portrayal as a critical commentary on anyone but Truman Capote’s fictional Japanese character? Why, in “Gone Witth the Wind,” is Butterfly McQueen’s idiotic “Prissy” sufficient to have that film labeled racist, despite Hattie McDaniel’s “Mammie” in the same movie, arguably the most admirable character in the story? Would Rooney’s portrayal be acceptable if the actor was Japanese? “Long Duck Dong,” the comic Chinese exchange student in “Sixteen Candles” played by an Asian actor, is easily as stereotypical a comic portrayal as Rooney’s Mr.Yunioshi, but it is still funny, and so far, nobody has called for boycotts of that John Hughes classic. Marilyn Monroe is a stereotype in “The Seven Year Itch”; in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” Cate Blanchett plays a Russian Communist right out of “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” Mel Brooks’ Western spoof “Blazing Saddles” ends with a sound stage full of flaming queens, slap-fighting cowboys while they do synchronized swimming routines.
The usual argument against stereotype comedy is that it is a form of cultural bullying, using unattractive portrayals to keep minorities in a subservient and oppressed status, ridiculed by the power-wielding majority. Somehow, I don’t think the Chinese who hold America’s financial obligations and the Asians who are dominating our colleges are threatened any by Mickey Rooney wearing false teeth and goofy glasses. The most egregious comic stereotypes in popular culture right now are white, middle class males. The fat, moronic fathers in “The Simpsons” and “The Family Guy” make Mr.Yunioshi seem like Cary Grant.
There is no end to the kind of cultural censorship Ursula Liang is advocating. The problem, if there is one, is always self-correcting: once the culture decides that a stereotype is no longer funny, it has no value and disappears. Indeed, the Japanese stereotype in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” in 1961 a remnant of the “no tickee, no shirtee” vaudeville sketches and anti-Japanese propaganda during World War II, has been dead for decades. Now it only serves as an interesting reminder of how American attitudes have changed, and an oddity, as well as fodder for debates over the use of stereotypes in drama. This is a plenty of justification for leaving Mr.Yunioshi,and the film, alone.
As always, there’s an elegant and effective remedy for Laing and anyone else who find Rooney’s portrayal objectionable. They can go see another movie. For everyone else, throwing out Holly Golightly, “Moon River,” George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn to avoid five minutes of out-dated burlesque from Mickey Rooney is just plain silly.