In the iconic film, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” Mickey Rooney was cast as Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi. For his over the top performance, Rooney dons a prosthetic mouthpiece giving him buck teeth, thick round glasses, and lost of slurred “R’s.” The affect is an ugly stereotype so racist that it makes the film extremely uncomfortable. In fact, when Rooney is on the screen the film is unwatchable.
At the time, there was nothing particularly unusual about Rooney’s performance. White actors had been donning wigs and dark make-up to play ethnic characters since Hollywood began making films. Ethnic stereotypes are simply part of Hollywood DNA. Rooney’s performance was such a non-issue that the film received several Academy award nominations, won two of those awards, and has remained one of Audrey Hepburn’s most loved roles. To my knowledge, there wasn’t a peep of discomfort expressed over Rooney’s portrayal. When the film was released in 1961, the New York Times described Rooney’s performance as “broadly exotic.”
It wasn’t until, perhaps, the late 1980’s that both critics and audience members began to express outrage at Rooney’s racist portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi. Rooney’s performance was lambasted and the film was withdrawn from festivals, and, I think, removed from personal “favorites” lists all over the country. The director, Blake Edwards, expressed remorse at casting Rooney and Rooney himself finally (after years of stubbornly defending his performance) offered something of an apology to those he had offended.
Hollywood has always played the okey-doke when it comes to race, ethnicity (and sexism). That is to say that because racism and sexism is part of the cultural building blocks of Hollywood, Hollywood will do what Hollywood has always done, which is to reflect or to follow the larger societies attitudes on race and then behave as if they are at the progressive front of societal change.
Let’s put this another way: In as much as Rooney’s performance is now seen as an embarrassment, it hasn’t stopped Hollywood producers from casting white actors as ethnic characters.
The Hollywood okey-doke doesn’t just stop at ethnic stereotyping and whitewashing in films. The Hollywood okey-doke attempts to make us ( the consumer) believe that when Hollywood engages in stereotyping or whitewashing, they are actually at the progressive front of social change.
Witness all of the back-slapping over the soon to be released “GhostBusters” film. The new “Ghostbusters” is a reboot of the 1984 original film, which starred Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd. This new “Ghostbusters” film distinguishes itself in that it has cast women in all of the lead roles.
I am first of all amazed at the complete lack of creativity in Hollywood. All of these very important people (and there is nothing in Hollywood BUT very important people, just ask them.) can’t seem to come up with a new idea to save their lives. But I digress. Witness how the okey-doke works. Hollywood pushes back against an unwritten axiom that women aren’t funny. Who began this ugly myth? Why Hollywood, but that’s not the point! In order to dispel accepted rule, Hollywood takes a classic comedy and recasts all of the lead characters as women, thus proving that women are funny and that Hollywood is on the cutting edge of cultural change. In other words, the acute lack of originality is now what passes as feminist progress.
Of course, real progress would be making an original comedy about women and paranormal activity, but Hollywood can’t be what Hollywood isn’t.
the Okey-doke is working in full throttle in regards to all of the hub bub about making James Bond Black. Hollywood has engaged Black America in a ridiculous discussion about the efficacy of hiring Idris Elba to play the British secret agent, 007. Once they make the decision to hire Elba, or some other Black actor, they will give themselves awards and pat themselves on their collective back for being cultural leaders. Let us be clear: Making Bond black isn’t progressive! Making James bond black is rather like taking a Barbie doll, dipping it in brown paint, and saying, “Look! we’ve made a black barbie. See how racially progressive we are?”
Real progress would look something like this: A studio purchases the rights to one of the dozens of mysteries penned by a black author. The studio then hires Elba, puts real money and time into making and marketing that film, and that film and character becomes its own iconic franchise. Progress would actually add to the lexicon, as opposed to taking some old shit and painting it in black face.
Of course, Hollywood is not about progress, it’s about Hollywood. And that really is the essence of the okey-doke. We as consumers love Hollywood. Even those, like myself, who hate Hollywood, love Hollywood. We hate the roles like Mr. Yunioshi because we believe that there is power in Hollywood to change life and culture, that Hollywood can make a difference. In short, our love affair with Hollywood makes us fall for the okey-doke each and every time.