Why Turner Classic Movies is Reframing Problematic Hollywood Favorites

TCM hosts Alicia Malone and Dave Karger get candid about the need to examine our past, including Hollywood movies that can be both classic and problematic, a la Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's and John Wayne Searchers
Photo: Universal Pictures / Getty / Warner Bros.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a movie Alicia Malone fell head over heels in love with during childhood. Seeing it more times than she can remember in her native Australia, the future author and Turner Classic Movies host still recalls failed attempts to launch a high school film club with Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly as the star attraction.

“I thought for sure people were going to get excited about classic movies if they watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s because it has so much life to it!” Malone says today. How could they not fall for Hepburn’s iconic performance, which Malone still describes as luminous? “Holly Golightly is a complex female character, and for the times it was quite sexually progressive.”  Yet there was always another element, even in those halcyon days, which Malone recognized as uncomfortable—that discomfort has only grown to modern eyes.

Beyond the movie’s bittersweet romance between a pseudo-call girl and the kept man living in the apartment upstairs, there’s a grossly racist caricature of Japanese Americans in the movie’s margins, and it’s portrayed no less than by Mickey Rooney in yellowface makeup. It’s technically a small part of the movie, only appearing briefly and sporadically, but each time the character arrives, it’s like a sledgehammer swung across the screen. For decades the performance has been rightly criticized by Asian American advocacy groups, and even Rooney acknowledged late in life that if he knew people would become offended, he “wouldn’t have done it.” Nevertheless, the shadow that character casts over the movie has only loomed larger with time.

“I just kind of hold my breath and half shut my eyes every time Mickey Rooney shows up,” fellow TCM host Dave Karger says during a Zoom conversation with Malone and myself. “Mercifully, he’s gone pretty soon, and I’ve chosen actively not to let that performance ruin the movie for me, because ‘Moon River’ and the party scene, and George Peppard looking so great—there’s just so much to love and appreciate, so I actively choose to focus on that.”

Ad – content continues below

Despite those personal struggles with the movie, Karger and Malone are both unafraid to examine the full implications of Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi head-on. It’s why they hosted, alongside Ben Mankiewicz, a lengthy discussion of the character’s legacy last week during a special Turner Classic Movies presentation. That conversation was part of TCM’s Reframed series, a new season of content from the network which looks at some of the most beloved Hollywood classics of the 20th century—the crème de la crème, as Karger describes them—and studies why they can also be problematic and, in some cases, stunningly offensive. In the case of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, that can even lead to larger discussions about prevailing anti-Japanese attitudes and stereotypes in American society that persisted in the immediate decades after World War II… and can still be found as echoes in the anti-Asian stereotypes of today.

For Karger and Malone, these are the types of discussions TCM hosts have been having off-screen for years. So bringing those dimensions to the forefront for new generations of viewers felt only natural with Reframed.

Says Malone, “We often talk to each other about how we approach certain films when it comes to writing our scripts for our intros and outros for each individual film. We also talk with the producers about what we should bring up, what we shouldn’t bring up; if we should talk about an actor or director’s problematic past during that particular film, or if it doesn’t go with the content of the movie.”

So the five main hosts of TCM–who also include University of Chicago Professor Jacqueline Stewart and author Eddie Muller–were eager to have these frank discussions on screen while offering historical context from a modern perspective.

“All of us at TCM are watching the world change and watching the culture change,” Karger says, “and even though we show movies by and large from the period of the ‘30s to the ‘60s, we all realized that it doesn’t mean we can’t be part of today’s cultural conversation. It’s not a stretch at all to talk about classic movies from a point-of-view of the 21st century; that’s very possible to do, and I think a lot of our fans are looking for that kind of context when they watch the channel.”

The Reframed series, which was spearheaded in part by Charlie Tabesh, the TCM head of programming, and organized by producer Courtney O’Brien, looks to balance what Karger describes as the push and pull between nostalgia and criticism. Both Malone and Karger are acutely aware of the hesitance some classic movie fans might have about evaluating works from nearly a century ago through a 21st century prism, however the new program is intended to renew engagement with these movies—particularly in an era when there are just as many loud voices that attempt to dismiss or wipe away the legacies of these film’s from the cultural canon.

Ad – content continues below

“That’s really important to remind everyone that this series is not here to shame these movies or to tell anyone that they can’t love these movies,” Karger says. “And if there’s a frustration that I’ve had in this last month, it’s to see some of the reaction to this series be along the lines of ‘you’re part of cancel culture with this series.’ It could not be more the opposite of that. We’re not cancelling anything; we’re showing the films a hundred percent in their entirety, we’re just talking about them.”

Malone further emphasizes this is what can keep so many of these movies vital in an era when sequences like the aforementioned Rooney scenes in Breakfast at Tiffany’s are being deleted from a Sacramento film festival—effectively erased from the collective memory.

“I think everyone at TCM sees this as the way forward,” Malone says, “the way that we can continue to make sure these movies stay alive for younger generations. We can continue talking about them, discussing them, they can change over the years, our feelings can change about them; you can love a film and not be able to justify parts of it at the same time. What’s so important though is just to have the discussion, to talk about these problematic areas and face up to them rather than hiding them. To me, if you take out a film from existence or you just delete parts of a film, you’re in a way saying these problems never existed.”

Indeed, even the opinions of folks as steeped in this history as the hosts of Turner Classic Movies can evolve as the culture does. Ben Mankiewicz, for example, is TCM’s unofficial statesman but he surprised some viewers two weeks ago when he revealed during a Reframed discussion that he can no longer comfortably watch Gunga Din (1939), a rollicking adventure movie set in British India. Based on a Rudyard Kipling poem, that classic film’s influences can still be felt in more modern blockbusters like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). However, Gunga Din is also a movie that glorifies the British Empire at the expense of then-contemporary Indian independence movement, with the villain being a character who Mankiewicz noted is physically modeled after Mahatma Gandhi, who would’ve been seen as subversive by some white audiences in the ‘30s.

“I’ve never been a huge fan of that movie, even though Cary Grant is my favorite actor,” Karger says. “And I was even a little surprised when Ben and Brad Bird included it on [the TCM program] The Essentials last year. Not because it’s not a revered classic movie, but because it’s more than a little offensive. And it was fascinating to be part of that conversation with Ben, talking about the evolution of his feelings for Gunga Din, because he’s been with the network 15 years. I can’t imagine how many times he’s talked about that movie, and it’s just showing you that culture and history are living, breathing things.”

Opinions change. Malone had a similar experience when she joined Mankiewicz and Muller to discuss John Ford’s seminal Western, The Searchers (1956), a movie where the director began reckoning with his depiction of Native Americans on screen. The film is a touchstone to this day for filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas. Mankiewicz and Muller note that Ford is grappling with the racism of his earlier films via John Wayne’s lead character, an unrepentant bigot who becomes both the movie’s protagonist and antagonist. However, the film still bathes Wayne’s character in heroic imagery, and still relies on Native American stereotypes.

Ad – content continues below

“Watching The Searchers again with the lens of talking about it during Reframed, I just saw so much,” Malone says. “I know John Ford was trying to have a conversation about racism involving Native Americans, but there’s just no doubt that many of his films contributed to the very dangerous and horrific stereotypes based around Native American people. And I think Native American people have suffered greatly because of the way they’ve been stereotyped in Hollywood films.”

That subject of intent comes up quite a bit during the Reframed series; Karger describes the movies they discuss as running the gamut from mildly problematic to extremely offensive, yet that ambiguity should invite education about the times they were made in, as opposed to preventing audiences from knowing about those eras.

Says Malone, “I think [Reframed] does show an attempted evolution on the parts of the filmmakers, and that’s interesting. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Searchers, and My Fair Lady are trying to comment on a particular issue. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers comments on the sexism of the brothers in the film; My Fair Lady comments on the misogyny of Henry Higgins; and The Searchers comments on racism. But at the same time, they are also sexist, misogynistic, and racist.” She ultimately concludes movies can be both progressive and not progressive because of the times they’re made in.

My Fair Lady (1964) will be the centerpiece of TCM’s final night of Reframed programming this Thursday. A lavish big screen adaptation of Lerner and Loewe’s Broadway musical, which itself was an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play, Pygmalion, it deals with the story of cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) being remade into Professor Henry Higgins’ (Rex Harrison) ideal woman through diction lessons. And the fact the musical, written in the 1950s, changed the more transgressive ending of the original play where Eliza leaves Higgins behind, will invariably come up on Reframed.

“Some people would look at that and say, ‘My Fair Lady? What could be the problem with that? It’s a very strong female character who stands up for herself and has so much agency and power in the movie,’” Karger admits. “But then when you really look at specific scenes, particularly the end of the movie, which is what I think we talked about a lot, there are certain things that just kind of make the movie, for me at least, have the tiniest bit of a sour note.”

The question of whether My Fair Lady is a sexist movie or rather a movie about sexism became the heart of its Reframed discussion.

Ad – content continues below

Adds Malone, “We also talk about the fact that that ending has been changed by some stage productions. That is happening now, and we also talk about the idea of the makeover movie. I think the Pygmalion myth is something that’s fairly sexist and outdated when you look at it, but there’s also so much to love about My Fair Lady.”

The opportunity of having these discussions has been a gift for Karger and Malone. They both stress they don’t have the answers to all the questions they raise, and that even with added time for the outros on Reframed, there is no way to cover everything that needs to be said about a film in a handful of minutes.

“I thought about multiple things I wish I said or I forgot to say, or just didn’t have time to say,” Malone says. However, she hopes the series gives viewers the tools to begin engaging more seriously with these films and embrace a greater curiosity about the past. On tonight’s line-up alone, Malone and Karger will both get to engage in discussions of films they lobbied to have included in the Reframed series.

“I had just a brief conversation with Charlie [Tabesh] about including something around the idea of gender identity, or the transgender community, because I wanted to delve into that,” Malone says. “And of course from there, it becomes what do we have the rights to? What’s in license, what can we show? So there are certain limitations on the types of films we can show in the series.” The film they ended up agreeing on is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

“I love the fact that it is one of the classic movies that everyone should watch, a horror classic,” Malone adds.

Karger by contrast will be discussing another Audrey Hepburn movie, this one dealing with Hollywood’s history of depicting LGBTQ characters on screen.

Ad – content continues below

Says Karger, “I will never forget watching the documentary The Celluloid Closet in the mid-1990s when it was released, and that was one of the seminal moments for me, as far as looking at film critically. This was a history of LGBT characters in film history over the years, and one thing you learn when you watch a documentary like that, there was this trope in films where if there was a character who was gay, that character would not live to survive at the end of the movie. That character would either be murdered, have some kind of horrible accident, or end his or her own life.”

He continues, “So you think of The Children’s Hour in the early 1960s and at first you think, ‘Oh this is something to applaud. Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn playing two women who may or may not be lesbians. Wow! This is a great thing to bring attention to.’ And then you realize they couldn’t even use the word lesbian in the movie… then the character who ends up being gay also ends up being dead by the end of the movie, and I just think it’s this unfortunate trope that tells people, consciously or not, that you can’t be gay and you can’t be alive in society… It’s a shame, because it came so close to getting it right but you realize it didn’t have the opportunity to get it right in 1961. It couldn’t with all the restrictions in the film industry and society in general.”

It will be the last night that TCM dives so directly into the murkier waters of some of Hollywood’s legacy, although both hosts hope for a second season of Reframed. Karger, who admits he shouldn’t spend so much time on social media, has seen the predictable social media reactions of “you’re ruining these movies” by talking about these elements. But he’s also been heartened by responses from fans who wished TCM provided Reframed discussions on movies that aired later in the evening, like Stagecoach (1939) or Tarzan, The Ape Man (1932). Karger says if he has it his way, they’ll include all those movies in a second season of Reframed.

Meanwhile Malone would really like to continue a thread begun with the screening of the Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy classic, Woman of the Year (1942), from several weeks ago.

“I love having discussions for films where we talk about the representation of female characters,” Malone says. “That’s something I’ve done a lot of work on, so that’s something I’d like to continue—to talk about the way women have been portrayed in films throughout Hollywood history, and we could talk about that in terms of their beauty and how that was seen to be the most valuable quality a woman could have, or the way they could search for love. I love all the women’s pictures that forces the woman at the end to give up everything for love, but for most of the movie she is a fantastically independent woman.”

Other examples of this trope she cites are His Girl Friday (1940), and nearly every movie Katharine Hepburn made after The Philadelphia Story (1940).

Ad – content continues below

Karger conversely would be interested in revisiting movies with extreme age differences between couples.

“I’d love to look at films like Gigi or Love in the Afternoon,” the host says, “because I think there are some people who have issues with the much older man and much younger woman pairing. And I think I’d love to hear what my fellow TCM hosts have to say about that, because you never see it in the opposite direction.” In fact, based on just this one comment, Malone began thinking aloud about all the ageist movies spawned by Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), a camp horror classic that kicked off what Malone describes as “hagsploitation.”

When it comes to revisiting (and reframing) Hollywood classics, the options for learning more are limitless. Not that the lessons should be intimidating.

“I think it’s quite exciting the way things change,” Malone says. “Society changes so quickly, and you learn more and have different opinions, [including] on films. I love being more educated and finding out more of my own blind spots and trying to fix them.”

Reframed continues that search on Thursday March, 25, beginning with My Fair Lady at 8pm EST.