The Weird Racism of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is considered a classic of both film and literature. The novella, written by Truman Capote, helped solidify his literary genius and was the last major work he completed before diving headlong into In Cold Blood. For its part, the movie provided Audrey Hepburn with one of her signature roles – maybe the signature role – and helped launch George Peppard on a trajectory that culminated in his portrayal of the inimitable Hannibal Smith in The A-Team.


Despite the fact that both are now considered classics, they are not without controversy. After the novella was published Capote was sued for libel and invasion of privacy by a woman named Bonnie Golightly, who believed the character of Holly Golightly was based upon herself. The film, while admired (though not by Capote), has come under much criticism in recent years for Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Holly’s Japanese neighbor, Yunioshi, in and with buck-teeth. The criticism has reached at least been fervent enough that even today producer Richard Shepherd and director Blake Edwards wish they could do something about it – watching the clip below, one can’t help but understand how they feel.  Alas, they cannot.

Despite the charges of racism leveled at the film, in many ways this criticism is unfounded. After all, had the producer or director cast an Asian actor to play the part of Yunioshi – instead of an anglo in yellow-face – it’s likely they would have chosen someone who would have portrayed the character much as Rooney had. Further, the charges of racism leveled at the film ignore the fact that the film otherwise scrubbed other, more obviously racist, or intolerant, portions from the book on its way to the screen.

For instance, at the party that covers a large portion over the beginning of the novella, when Holly wants somebody to light a cigarette for her she specifically excludes O.J. Berman from this task – this is the Martin Balsam character in the movie – because he’s “such a slob…[and] always nigger-lip[s].” (p. 34). In another instance she derides a story written by the narrator as being pointless, about ‘brats and niggers’, asking “Who cares?” (p. 61-62). Despite these offhand-racist remarks, Holly still looks forward to marrying a Brazilian and having his children because “what could be prettier than a quite coony baby with bright green beautiful eyes?” (p. 81).

Holly is not just a bit backward about race, because she also has similar feelings about homosexuals, specifically lesbians and other ‘bull-dykes’, who she believes would make very good roommates because they’re so neat and tidy. (pp. 22, 52). Still, that she wants to take a lesbian as roommate sort-of eliminates her from suspicion of homophobia, though it doesn’t save her from stereotyping lesbians.

However, in spite of being rather backwards, Holly is also very forward thinking. She genuinely has none of the knee-jerk homophobia that some people have and even seems to advocate gay marriage. (pp. 21, 83).

Given all this, the criticism heaped on the film is pretty much unfair, especially given how much of these underlying issues were scrubbed from it. If anything, the film should be criticized for shoehorning in the Patricia Neal character into it, a character left out of the novella, seemingly to add a heavy-handed parallel between the lives that Holly and the narrator lead, which wasn’t in the book. However, one can’t be too angry about her presence, as it gives us a chance to see a young Hannibal Smith emasculated with ease by a middle-aged woman.

As an aside, there is something odd about the novella being more than a little backwards about race and sex issues, especially given that the writer was a well-known homosexual. However, as one who writes I understand that sometimes a character is just a character and characters do what they’re going to do. Still, one can’t help but think of what damage a character like Holly Golightly – who seems universally adored and admired – does to the causes that Mr. Capote would advocate, simply by her offhand ignorance.

By the way, all references quoted are taken from the volume pictured above, published by Vintage, and may not conform with your edition.

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