Some thoughts on the Mickey Rooney role it’s best not to mention

Breakfast at Tiffanys Mickey Rooney 4

This post is my contribution to the month-long getTV Mickey Rooney blogathon, hosted by a fabulous trio of bloggers: Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. See the full list of entries here, and don’t forget to visit the getTV schedule for details on Rooney screenings throughout the month.

When Mickey Rooney died in April this year, one film was notably absent from the obituaries that charted his colourful and varied life. Its omission wasn’t due to a lack of visibility – in fact, it’s quite the opposite – but the role in question remains one of Rooney’s most contentious. Despite all the highlights in the actor’s rich and varied career, one role cast (and continues to cast) a long shadow: his turn as Mr. Yunioshi in the Blake Edwards-directed, 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It might be the film that inspired a thousand Pinterest boards, seasonal fashion editorials and set a benchmark for a certain kind of romance, but there’s a darker side to the movie that is less regularly referenced.

Since the film’s release Rooney’s politically incorrect performance – complete with taped back eyelids, distinctive buckteeth and overly stereotypical accent – is often cited as one of the worst examples of Hollywood racism. The classic symbol of so-called ‘yellowface’ was no doubt inspired by the actor’s early vaudeville days but, thanks to the permanence of film, it’s a stereotype that is still talked about today. Cartoonish and borderline pervy, Mr. Yunioshi has seemingly no redeeming traits, and it’s impossible to ignore performance, so out of step is it with an otherwise commendable romantic comedy. Indeed, so deep does the opposition run that the role continues to generate protest and upset. In 2011, a Bronx resident launched a petition against Brooklyn Bridge Park’s decision to screen the movie – just one in a string of outcries surrounding Rooney’s role. Paramount, the studio behind Breakfast at Tiffany’s, acknowledged the depth of feeling and included a short documentary entitled Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective in the 50th anniversary DVD release.

Breakfast at Tiffanys Mickey Rooney

Perhaps the actor just played as he was asked – Edwards was looking for a comic element, and Mr. Yunioshi provided it. On the one hand, the role can be seen as some lightweight slapstick, some easy humour, but in viewed through the lens of social progression, it’s undeniably racist. After spending more than forty years defending the role, Rooney finally admitted that he had some regrets, stating in a 2008 interview with the Sacramento Bee that: “I wouldn’t offend any person, be they black, Asian or whatever… It breaks my heart. 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.” Previously, in a 45th anniversary edition of Tiffany’s, Edwards had also expressed remorse: “Looking back, I wish I had never done it… and I would give anything to be able to recast it, but it’s there”.

Breakfast at Tiffanys Mickey Rooney

Rooney and Edwards probably didn’t set out to create contention, and a 1960s audience would surely have had a different reading – in fact, the New York Times review labelled Rooney’s role as ‘broadly exotic’. The movie is a product of its time, and the ‘Mr. Yunioshi’ character was probably already familiar to moviegoers as it harks back to WWII-era anti-Japanese propaganda cartoons. At least those characters were stereotyped with an aim, but 1960s (peacetime) Hollywood can claim no excuse other than ingrained racism. Tiffany’s isn’t the only example of ‘yellowface’ practice, but the film’s iconic status ensures that it’s one of the most discussed. It’s so much more than a ‘bit of fun’ because it’s roles such as this that perpetuated, validated and reinforced stereotypes that would take generations to dissipate. For a 1960s audience, conditioned to view Asians as villains, an enemy to be distrusted and overcome, the role might not have seemed a stretch, but it continued to foster an unrealistic characterisations of an entire race. It’s one thing to be under-represented or stereotyped, but to be deliberately misrepresented? That’s another question entirely and it’s the misrepresentation that makes the role particularly problematic. One suspects that an Asian actor playing the same slapstick role would’ve met with less criticism.

Breakfast at Tiffanys Mickey Rooney

To Rooney and Edwards’ credit, they didn’t know they were making a film that would take a major role in classic Hollywood. If they had, they would undoubtedly have thought beyond the lazy characterisation and perhaps opted for a role that was closer to Truman Capote’s original, a creative artist with an eccentric edge. But of course, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was adopted into American culture and is a much-beloved global export, creating an entire global audience that’s meant to overlook (or at least put up with) ‘yellowface’. But is the act of watching condoning racism? Or is it about accepting that the film comes from another era and was made with an entirely set of ethical codes? In the short term, Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi probably was a damaging stereotype that perpetuated WWII mythology, but in the long term it’s a reminder of how far Hollywood has come and how much still needs to be changed. Indeed, almost three decades later, Rooney’s character was used as an example of blatant anti-Asian racism in the 1991 film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, used to foreshadow the racism Lee himself would face in Hollywood. By no means is Rooney’s role one to be celebrated, but it should be remembered and learnt from and, perhaps for that reason alone, it remains one his most important.

Further reading: ‘A Certain Slant': A brief history of Yellowface in Hollywood by Bright Lights Film Journal / The Mickey Rooney role nobody wants to talk too much about by WSJ / Asian images in film introduction by TCM

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Citizen Kane – the argument against

Citizen Kane_Orson Welles

This post is my contribution to the Great Movie Debate blogathon, hosted by The Cinematic Packrat and Citizen Screenings. Check out all the great entries here, especially Movie Movie Blog Blog who’s taken the FOR argument for Citizen Kane.

When it comes to Citizen Kane, the ‘against’ corner is a pretty lonely place to be. The movie, voted ‘the best of all time’ by Sight and Sound readers for more than 50 years, is an undisputed cinematic great, but its greatness is thrust upon it and comes most from it’s lasting influence rather than from the movie’s intrinsic value. It’s a movie you feel compelled to like – any other response signifies a lack of cultural understanding or an inability to ‘get’ greatness. But surely that’s not what movie watching is about – the thrill is in the immersion, in the experience, in the act of being swept up into another life or place – and on those counts, Orson Welles’ so-called masterpiece fails.

So with no further ado, I present the prosecution’s case…

Citizen Kane_Orson Welles

The plot. Or lack therof.
Five writers (three uncredited) could surely have constructed a more compelling narrative. The autobiographical framework – told post-humously through a journalist who’s attempting to uncover the meaning of Kane’s last words – results in uneasy neutrality that makes it difficult to emphasise with any character. Much of the blame should be attributed to Welles and Mankiewicz, who were the lead writers. Although it was Welles’ first full screenplay, by the 1940s, Mankiewicz had been writing and adapting for more than 10 years (credits included Dinner at Eight, Ladies’ Man and Dancers in the Dark). Surely he could have constructed a more compelling narrative and richer dialogue – compare the just-about-average exchanges with The Maltese Falcon and The Lady Eve – both released in the same year as Citizen Kane. Quotable lines from both abound – the most memorable line of dialogue comes from Leland (Joseph Cotten) ‘ I can remember everything. That’s my curse, young man. It’s the greatest curse that’s ever been inflicted on the human race: memory.’ How the film won an Academy Award for Best Writing will forever remain one of life’s mysteries.

The blame does not rest entirely with Mankiewicz: Welles should have demanded repetitious scenes be cut and replaced with supplementary ones. The flashback technique is only unsuccessful because it’s too languid and indulgent. The lack of plot development is also problematic. The conclusion – which remains the audience’s secret – is presented as meaningful and profound but in reality falls flat. It’s not enough of a ‘reveal’ to build up to and, as Dan Geddes observes, although it makes the point that the meaning of a man’s life cannot be discerned from his dying words, the point could have been made earlier and the film could have been resolved more satisfactorily.

Citizen Kane_Orson Welles 3

Citizen Kane_Orson Welles

Kane is one-dimensional.
At his heart, Kane is overly ambitious man with political aspirations. Although apparently a pastiche of real-life characters, including publisher William Randolph Hearst, tycoon Howard Hughes and Depression-hit entrepreneur Samuel Insull who built an opera house for his wife, Kane doesn’t feel particularly individual. In fact he’s not actually likeable – that in itself isn’t a deal breaker, but it’s impossible to care for a character that doesn’t seem real, for whom nothing really feels at stake. The audience isn’t emotionally invested enough to care what happens – Kane is distanced by his money and by the other characters, who all help to create a myth that is never shattered. The ‘Rosebud’ realisation comes to late to humanise his actions, to redeem his selfish, ruthless and selfish actions, and his ability to destroy the lives of those he claims to love. Everyone has faults – Kane’s aren’t sufficiently unique enough to make him interesting – and his character is painted in broad, ‘big-picture’ brushstrokes that overlook the small details and, in doing so, render him almost inhuman. In fact, the more the audience learns about Kane, the more he recedes from view.

One of the most dramatic (and therefore engaging) scenes is when the Governor of New York Jim Gettys (Ray Collins) corners Kane, his wife Mary (Ruth Warrick) and his mistress Susan (Dorothy Comingore) in the same room. Gettys threatens to expose the ambitious Kane unless he halts his corrupt political campaign. Kane chooses his mistress over ‘family’, but that relatability is undercut by the fact that no mention is ever made of Mary again – despite the fact that the opening news sequence reveals that his wife and son were killed in a car crash soon after the confrontation. A reference to Kane’s grief (or lack of) would immediately explain or justify further actions – ignoring it only makes him more unrelatable – whilst also making the screenplay that little bit more annoying.

Citizen Kane_Orson Welles

Citizen Kane_Orson Welles

The techniques are distracting.
They’re not distracting when you’re watching it, but they’re distracting on reflection – the pleasure of a post-watch consideration is considerably lessened by the realisation that not a lot actually happens and much of the film is carried by Welles’ (undeniably brilliant) camerawork and ideas. Stylistically Citizen Kane is an early example of film noir, but these darkly atmospheric shots create an illusion of mystery that plot and characterisation fail to live up to. Of course, it’s not exactly a noir: Kane’s fate is bleak but is firmly in his hands – he is the master of his own destiny.

There are many stylistic elements that make Kane great – the unexpected camera angles and the use of deep focus (notably in the scene where a young Kane is playing in the snow-covered garden in the background whilst his mother signs over the legal rights to her son). Roger Ebert even claimed that there are more special effects in Citizen Kane than there are in the original Star Wars film, and he’s probably not wrong. But a film is the sum of its parts, and these areas of excellence are not enough to make up for the shortcomings that have already been mentioned.

Citizen Kane_Orson Welles

Citizen Kane_Orson Welles

Oversell – the false promises of universal acclaim.
For current audiences, Citizen Kane has been oversold. It’s a textbook example of a myth that’s grown too big to be sustained, and is a touted must-see for all the wrong reasons. There’s no question that, with Kane, the young Welles (just 25 years old!) made an undeniably influential film that changed cinema and ticks almost all the ‘film as art’ boxes (inventive, auteur vision, an enduring moral) – but textbook examples don’t make a classic. That status comes from the experience, the pleasure and the joy – all of which Citizen Kane lacks in spades.

Citizen Kane_Orson Welles

Further reading: Citizen Kane by Erich von Stroheim / Citizen Kane: Not the greatest movie ever by Dan Geddes / Praising ‘Kane’ in The New Yorker / Raising Kane by Pauline Kael / Citizen Kane by A Movie A Week

Hell’s Angels: the perils of plot vs. action

Hells Angels Howard Hughes 8

This post is my contribution to the World War One is Classic Film blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Silent-ology and Movies Silently.

The story behind Hell’s Angels (1930), Howard Hughes’ long-in-the-making WWI epic, is almost more interesting than the film itself. It cost more than $4,000,000 to produce (making it the most expensive film of its time) and was almost entirely reshot – the original silent version was shelved because, just as it was ready for release, sound took over Hollywood. Every aspect of the film is epic – from the number of extras (reportedly more than 20,000) to the air battle scenes. Hughes, all-consumed by notions of authenticity and realism, purchased more than forty warplanes to use, in the process becoming the proprietor of the largest privately-owned military aircraft fleet in the world. He used his flying experience to choreograph the fight scenes and even piloted the plane during one particularly dangerous manoeuvre, after Paul Mantz (the film’s principal stunt pilot) refused to participate. Hughes was rewarded with a skull fracture (and facial surgery) for his efforts but must’ve considered himself lucky: four airmen lost their lives in connection with the film.

Hells Angels Howard Hughes 1

In contemporary cinema, the ‘epic’ moniker is overused and misplaced, thrown at summer blockbusters and star director-led movies. But Hughes understood the potential power and meaning of cinematic ‘epics’, and was determined to produce a war film that showed off his filmmaking credentials but also left moviegoing audiences in awe. In some instances he succeeded. Even to the modern eye, the war scenes are spectacular – especially those in the German-controlled Zeppelin and the dog fighting scenes. But in many others ways, he failed. Hughes was too close to the project to recognise its flaws; a labour of love, the movie was so much a part of him that any criticism was likely taken as a personal affront. Many of the early scenes are short, awkward and superfluous, and much of the acting is stilted and wooden.

The plot is almost secondary and tangential, and certainly doesn’t win any prizes for originality. Following the outbreak of WWI, two brothers (played James Hall and Ben Lyon) with very different temperaments abandon their studies at Oxford and enlist in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Sensible brother Ray (Hall) is besotted with the promiscuous socialite Helen (Jean Harlow) who enjoys a fling with his sibling Monte (Lyon) and several other officers. Before the two leave for a dangerous ‘suicide mission’ over Germany, Ray discovers Helen in the arms of another man, only for her to reveal she never loved him. During the mission, the brothers plane is shot down, and the duo are captured by a German commander (Lucien Prival) who’d previously been cuckolded by Monte. He offers them freedom – if they’ll reveal the details of the next British air attack.

Hells Angels Howard Hughes

Hells Angels Howard Hughes

Hell’s Angels was Jean Harlow’s breakout role, and is the only colour footage that exists of the star. Harlow replaced Greta Nissen, the original female lead, whom Hughes felt wasn’t fit for a ‘talkie’ version; reportedly Hughes decided on Harlow after being introduced to her by leading man Ben Lyon, who picked the actress out of a group of dancers who were performing at a nearby sound stage. Although Harlow had previously had a handful of uncredited roles she was by no means an experienced actress, and co-director James Whale struggled to get a polished performance – in many of the shots Harlow gazes at the camera and, for a film set in England, her accent is remarkably American (although she’s not the only character guilty of this). In some ways Harlow’s inexperience allowed her to deliver some lines guilelessly, including the famous ‘would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?’. She was clearly comfortable portraying an openly promiscuous character (remember, Hell’s Angels is Pre-Code) who returns the male gaze with a bold and direct stare yet brings an joyous energy to some of the films quieter scenes. In terms of characterisation, Harlow’s Helen is ahead of her time: she’s willing to use the war to get ahead, and is quick to take advantage of the situation to behave like a man in peace-time. Her predatory and vampish traits are undercut by her angelic face and halo of blonde hair – surely someone so beautiful could never sin?

Hells Angels Howard Hughes

Hells Angels Howard Hughes

Harlow contributes to the eccentric energy that pervades much of the movie. Hughes was essentially an independent, self-financed filmmaker who was working in a fledgling industry; templates for talkies were yet to be established, allowing Hughes to follow his own creative vision – maybe not always successfully, but it was this early experimentation that shaped future tropes and ideas. Aged just 22 when production began in 1927, Hughes was young, confident and determined to do filmmaking his way. There’s a sense that Hughes is trying to prove something to himself and to Hollywood – Hell’s Angels is a lavish, no-expense-spared production that was the best it could be. And whilst it’s easy to dismiss the human elements – mostly because they’re the worst part – props to Hughes for attempting to create a film that blends action and bravado with quieter reflection. But this decision was almost the film’s downfall: by focusing on both the individual and the overreaching social experience of war, Hughes took on too much and, as a result, the film is a complex muddle of the personal and the universal. The small and intimate vignettes that punctuate the ‘action’ (Germans drinking and eating, students enjoying ‘high jinks’ at Oxford) add depth and contrast, but seem out of place and interrupt the pace of the film.

Hells Angels Howard Hughes

Hells Angels Howard Hughes 6

Hell’s Angels premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, May 24 1930

Hell’s Angels wasn’t an immediate box office success, and critical reaction was lukewarm. Enthused by the aerial scenes, film critics were less impressed by the plot and the acting. Morduant Hall at the New York Times was particularly dismissive: ‘In every instance so soon as the producer forgets Helen, the flaxen-haired creature, and takes to the war, his film is absorbing and exciting.’ Despite this, the film went on to earn more than double its production cost. Whilst that must’ve been vindication for Hughes, it’s likely that box office receipts and revenue were of little consequence. He was wealthy enough to make films to the sake of it, and the creative process (along with the chance to invest in and be at the forefront of) technological innovation was his motivation.

Horst: Photographer of Style at the V&A

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Muriel Maxwell, American Vogue / 1939 / © Condé Nast / Horst Estate

Charting the life of Horst P. Horst, one the 20th century’s most prolific fashion and portrait photographers, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s new exhibition Horst: Photographer of Style is a master class in style. Although the photographer spent most of his life shooting for fashion magazines, this isn’t an exhibition about fashion; it’s an ode to style and elegance, perfectly rendered in delicate tones of black and white. Over 250 photographs – taken from an archive that spans more than 60 years – capture the golden age of Paris couture – beautiful clothes modelled by beautiful people, captured by a man who understood the power of an image.

Photographer Horst directing lights and cameras be

Horst directing fashion shoot with Lisa Fonssagrives / 1949 / Photo by Roy Stevens /Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Many of the designers featured are familiar: Chanel, Lanvin, Patou, Schiaparelli. Horst is often credited with ‘inventing’ the supermodel – and indeed many of the sitter’s names are almost as legendary – from Lee Miller to Carmen Dell’Orefice and Comtesse de la Falaise, it reads like a who’s who of Parisian fashion. It all seems like a very natural fit for a young German-born boy who originally moved to the city of light to study architecture under Le Corbusier. It was there that he meant Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, a star photographer at French Vogue who introduced the aspiring architect to photography, forever changing the course of his life.

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Marlene Dietrich, New York / 1942 / © Condé Nast / Horst Estate

Horst’s images show off the clothes, but never overtly. He worked in an era before fast fashion and high street competition – before editorials were controlled by advertisers’ budgets – leaving him free to create images that emphasise beauty and craftsmanship. As a result, pleats and drapes are perfectly lit, models are framed by arches and pillars; this is beauty and style for its own sake. Perhaps that early training informed his sculptural compositions, or maybe Horst was able to create images that were so different because he had grown up with other interests. The first room concludes with a selection of dresses taken from the V&A’s archive, the highlight of which is a floor-sweeping black satin Mainbocher gown, hand embellished with gold sequins

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Installation image of Horst – Photographer of Style / (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Of course, Horst wasn’t immune to the artistic developments of his peers. During the 1930s he dabbled in Surrealist-inspired fashion imagery, creating mysterious and whimsical trompe l’oeil still lifes that wouldn’t look out of place in a contemporary magazine. In one, a woven straw bag filled with twigs and chrysanthemums sits alongside a tea caddy and tray. Not very couture, but somehow Horst makes it work.

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Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher / Date: 1939 / © Condé Nast / Horst Estate

In this room is one of Horst’s most celebrated photographs – Mainbocher Corset (1939). The image depicts a model wearing a back-laced corset. Still and contoured, she’s as proportioned as a classical statue – but this wasn’t all down to Horst’s talent. Nearby hangs a non-retouched images (apparently the photographer’s preferred version) and an open sketchbook filled with composition ideas. A reminder that photographic manipulation was practiced long before Photoshop and – in an exhibition dedicated to perfection – a refreshing reminder of the illusion of style.

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The undoubted highlight is the penultimate room, which is filled with large, full-colour shots of Vogue covers. It’s a welcome visual contrast with the small-scale, black and white images previously on display, but also an example of a master at work – a photographer who had found his creative vision and was given the freedom to execute it. Those stylised shots – women putting on lipstick, balancing perfectly red beach balls on their toes, or lounging in front of painted backdrops – have come to represent, and indeed helped to create, a golden age of fashion that seems far removed from today’s so-called fast fashion. And that, to paraphrase Coco Chanel, is the core of Horst’s legacy: fashion changes, but style endures.

Horst: Photographer of Style is showing at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London until 4 January 2015.

This post first appeared on Running In Heels