by Sennah Yee
I had never seen a Hepburn film—lots of Katharine, but no Audrey. It was something I just hadn’t gotten around to—like rock-climbing, or deep-fried Mars bars, or The Wire.
You mentioned in passing that your ex looks like her. I remember you showing me your first short film, black and white, 8mm, all hushed and crackling. It was about Audrey Hepburn’s ghost haunting a shy guy. You had cast your ex as Audrey. An ex is an ex, but can you leave behind a muse? Don’t you believe in ghosts?
I somewhat consciously/unconsciously/very consciously didn’t forget about Audrey. I didn’t grow jealous; I grew rapt. I stayed up late, studying her hair, her eyebrows, her doe eyes appearing from behind feline frames. I watched GIFs of her smile swell, vanish, then swell again; a looped micro-narrative. Self-hypnosis. These sessions would never last long; just enough to fall asleep intrigued and unsure. I decided to never to watch an entire film of hers. It wasn’t a grudge; it was self-defense.
But now I’m with my best friend Jess and it’s her birthday party and it’s her favourite film and everyone else wants to watch it too, and she’s my best friend and it's her birthday party, so I watch it. I make a list in my head of all I know prior to viewing:
famous black dress (chanel?), black ray-bans, black cigarette holder
aquamarine sleep mask
basic white guy, looks like warner from Legally Blonde
“Moon River” at some point
While watching, we all coo over the dress, which turns out to be Givenchy. The traces of gold in her hair and her cheekbones entrance me more than anything on her male co-star. She is poised, but expectant, always about to hear news. Her voice is calculated but with an edge; scratched silverware, chipped China. "How do I look?" she asks rhetorically. I scour for similarities between us; anything. I only come up with one:
our clavicles jut out the same way
But I am not proud of this.
Everyone laughs uneasily at Mickey Rooney squawking in yellowface as Mr. Yunioshi. I stay silent. Self-hypnosis. He confirms my insecurities of how the world must see me:
Not only am I always opposite Audrey, I am a costume, a punchline. Yellow peril incarnate. "How do I look?"
Audrey sings Moon River and triggers me back to third grade. I had played a watered down version on the piano and fucked up the final chords. My dad filmed the recital, even though I had told him not to. My fingers couldn’t hit all the keys at once; it ached to reach that far.
I watch the film through your eyes. I recognize all those moments from all those GIFs, all loopy and all lovely. "How do I look?" Self-hypnosis. Though now the moments are finite; blink and you’d miss them.
So, I fall asleep. My best friend Jess thinks it’s boredom. No one else even notices because my eyes are always so small. Seemingly closed. Self-defense. During high school sleepovers, we always marathoned horror films, and I would always make myself fall asleep so I wouldn’t have nightmares. Play dead, like a possum. Self-defense.
I go home early, but I stay up late. I read that director Blake Edwards had expressed regrets about Mr. Yunioshi. Wished he had never done it, wished it could be recast, “but it’s there, and onward and upward.” Rooney was heartbroken, said he wouldn’t have done it if he knew it would offend. Said he was delivered by a Chinese doctor, that “Asians and Chinese” have only ever complimented him about the role. His wife said they married in Hong Kong, and they love Chinese food.
“But it’s there.” And it still stings. Regret is not an apology. And who doesn’t like Chinese food?
But onward and upward.
I try to remember how it’s unfair and overdramatic to tarnish Audrey like this, to make her into a ghost of my own—your first short film, your ex, yellowface, and failed piano performances have nothing to do with her (and yet everything, still). She must be tired of being already mythologized on college dorm walls and in Halloween costumes.
But if I could, I’d take this myth instead. Though still a myth, it’s better, sweeter than my own. This is a myth that doesn’t terrorize; it inspires. I long for the day that I believe in this Audrey in the posters, the costumes, and the often-overlooked charity and aid. The one that you see in your ex, that your ex sees in herself. The one that Jess plucks her eyebrows to, sets her profile pictures to. "How do I look?" Self-confidence.
And I like to think that this Audrey will wait patiently for me to believe in her. She will wait on those posters, through those costumes. On overpriced pillows, on cheap fridge magnets. In her films, ready to be watched, awake and unthreatened. In uncanny CGI in chocolate commercials, next to an Italian man, in a fancy car, by the sea. In those smiling GIFs, still loopy, still lovely. "How do I look?"
Self-hypnosis. I will smile back.