I’m just going to come right out and say it: Mickey Rooney as I. Y. Yunioshi saves Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I didn’t like the TCM presents aspect of this film, not because Tiffany Vasquez is bad, particularly. (She’s new and a little stiff but that’s understandable.) But she looks like they hired her based on some arbitrary checkboxes (non-white, non-male, non-old), and it doesn’t help that she makes the tired, predictable trek through running down Rooney and director Blake Edward’s stereotypical Japanese character, but papering over it with “Well, they felt bad about it.”
Maybe. I think Rooney would’ve said anything at various points in his career, and you can check out his Wikipedia entry (just for this role!) where he talks about people, especially Asians, loving it. Which, frankly, makes sense, since it’s an Asian stereotype, i.e., not one invented by The White Man, but one you can see in Japanese and Chinese films (and manga, come to think of it) going back decades. It’s a particularly egregious kind of White Man’s Burden to say that only White Stereotypes Are Acceptable. (As a full-blooded Indian I knew once pointed out to his radical mother fuming over Warner Bros. caricatured Indian characters, “Look at Elmer Fudd”.)
Anyway, that aside, there are a couple of points in this movie where it is in danger of bogging down under its own hipness, its own ironic tragedy, its own cleverness that Yunioshi’s appearance brings it back down to earth. Without that, it would’ve gone straight into melodrama, iconic performances from Audrey Hepburn and that guy from “The A-Team” notwithstanding.
The acting is perfection, however. One can certainly see why writer Truman Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the movie, and his own novella’s more ambiguous ending, and while that certainly would’ve been different and interesting in its own way, there’s about zero chance of it having become the iconic film that this one is. Note that, whatever the source material’s merits are, it doesn’t stand out in the annals of literature like this film does in the annals of cinema.
And that’s largely due to Audrey Hepburn, who manages to play a much younger character—Marilyn would’ve only been three years older but less believable—and who manages to make the sort of hip superficiality of the character more endearing than tragic. The tragic element is still there, of course, just not as overwhelming as it would’ve been with Marilyn, who always brought a note of sadness to even straight comedic roles.
Another element she brings that few actresses (most especially the wonderful Monroe) could, is a sort of pre-sexual innocence. Shortly after meeting Paul—whom she insists on calling “Fred”, which is something few people can do without being irritating—she crawls into bed with him and spends a platonic night sleeping on his naked chest. One doesn’t have to believe that Golightly is virginal—she is married, after a fashion, as it turns out—but one has to feel like she might be. It’s not really an acting thing so much as a persona thing.
George Peppard is solid, of course, and a believable-if-too-stock-for-Capote Paul, who has his own drama going on with sugar momma Patricia Neal (pre-stroke), who is also great in this. Peppard’s character is very stock, versus the more sensitive, wounded artist portrayal that some (including Neal, apparently) would’ve preferred. But once again, I gotta go Hollywood: Holly is close to insufferable, and in her chaotic, helpless state, the last thing she needs is a whiny pajama boy.
Buddy Ebsen’s career got a two decade boost from his little bit here, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s rustic, sure, but there’s an element of both menace and vulnerability that’s remarkably endearing. John McGiver, a warhorse of TV and movies for three decades, absolutely steals his little scene from the ridiculously cute Paul and Holly, as the understanding Tiffany’s clerk. Allan Reed is—holy crap! It’s Fred Flintstone! (I say that every time I see this picture.)
It all works, in glorious Technicolor. But you can see how fragile it all is, too: A little tweak here and there would utterly wreck its structure, its character, its charm. It’s so edgy (for the time), it really needs that anchor to the past, that Hollywood magic, which was sputtering to its death by this time. The Boy liked it a lot. The Flower loved it. We all loved Mr. Yunioshi.