by John Aquino on 08/13/18
The new movie Crazy Rich Asians revives the question of how racial and ethnic groups are portrayed in movies and by whom.
The cast is predominantly composed of Asians and Asian-Americans in a movie directed by Jon M. Chu, son of a Chinese father and a Taiwanese mother, and co-written by Malaysia-born Adele Lim based on a book by the Singaporean-American novelist Kevin M. Kwan. It is about an American-born Chinese economics professor who travels to her boyfriend's hometown of Singapore to attend his best friend's wedding and meet his incredibly wealthy family. Such a story with such a cast and creative team is unusual for a film with Asian and Asian-American characters and, indeed, for films about most racial and ethnic groups.
I know that most films about Italians and Italian-Americans, my heritage, often involved non-Italian filmmakers and casts and portrayed stereotypes. The lead in the 1940 film They Knew What They Wanted (1940), which was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about an Italian grape farmer who corresponds with and marries a waitress from a San Francisco restaurant, was played by the British actor Charles Laughton using an accent that was indigenous to no part of Italy or any Italian-American community. J. Carroll Naish made a career out of playing Italians, as well as Native Americans, even though he was a New York-born actor of Irish descent. I grew up watching The Danny Thomas Show on television. Thomas, who was of Lebanese descent, played an entertainer who did sketches about Italians. In one, he played a man calling CBS television from a telephone booth about how its show The Untouchables always portrayed Italians as gangsters. Thomas' accent was very broad. At one point, he said, "Hurry up because it's hot in da boots." When the operator didn't understand, Thomas yelled, "The telaphona boots, she's a hot!" The sketch ended with Thomas saying how wonderful Italians are and how much they have contributed to civilization. As he signed off, he added, "And iffa you don't fixa the show I'll putta a bomb ina your car." In keeping with this, Naish and others often played Italian gangsters in the movies. It really wasn't until Marty, Patty Chayefsky's 1955 movie adaptation of his television play about an Italian-American butcher, that an Italian-American was the hero in a non-crime movie. In 1952, Naish brought his radio portrayal of a kindly Italian immigrant to television in Life with Luigi. But in 1972 came The Godfather, and any progress was diminished. The Godfather was made by a director and writer of Italian-American descent, although the family portrayed are Sicilian.
For films with Asian and Asian-American characters, there have been fewer of them, those that were made were full of stereotypes, and the characters were often played by Caucasians with thick makeup. The same things occurred for films with African-American and Native American characters.
In silent films, Sessue Hayakawa, who was born in Japan, did star in a few American films as a hero or a charismatic villian, but returned to Japan when his films did poorly at the box office, while New York City-born Richard Barthlemess played a Chinese immigrant in D.W. Griffith 1919 classic Broken Blossoms. The Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong starred in a handful silent and talking films as an Oriental heroine or vamp, but then so did Myrna Loy, who was born in Montana. Wong was denied consideration for the role of O-Lan, wife of the Chinese farmer Wang in the 1937 film The Good Earth, and the role was played by the German-born Luise Ranier, who won the Oscar as best actress. There were films with Chinese detective heroes, but Charlie Chan was played by Warner Oland, who was born in Sweden, and then by Sidney Toler, who was born in Missouri, and Roland Winters, who was born in Boston, and Naish on television, while James Lee Wong was played in the Mr. Wong series of films by the London-born Boris Karloff after he gave up playing Frankenstein's monster. In the 1944, the great Katherine Hepburn portrayed in Dragon Seed a Chinese woman who poisons a good portion of the Japanese army. Almost the entire cast, which included Naish, were non-Asians. In 1955, the Nebraska-born Marlon Brando, the year after winning the Academy Award for best actor in On the Waterfront, played a Japanese go-between for U.S. soldiers in The Teahouse of the August Moon. He won praise from one critic for the comic articulation of his legs, and the filmmakers boasted that audience members asked for their money back because Brando was so convincing they didn't recognize him. In 1961, Sir Alec Guinness played a Japanese businessman in A Majority of One. (The role had been played on Broadway by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who was also born in England.)
And then there was the issue raised when those born in one Asian country played those from another. The 2005 film Memoirs of a Geisha was criticized for having Chinese actresses playing Japanese characters.
Every culture has a right to be portrayed fairly. Great progress has been made since the days of Charlie Chan and Amos and Andy. In 1983, protesters attempted to disrupt the filming of Charlie Chan and Curse of the Dragon Queen, which starred the London-born Peter Ustinov as Charlie Chan. The protests focused on the stereotypical nature of the portrayal. Since then, the practice of distinguished British actors playing Asians appears to have abated.
But the fair portrayal of races and ethnic groups in movies is more complex than it might appear. There is a current trend in the theatre and television of color-blind casting. Many of the masterpieces of literature and drama were written in the Renaissance, 19th century, and 20th century and the characters depicted were Caucasians. But casting the characters as written deprives capable Asian- and African-American actors of playing these memorable roles. It is now common for Juliet or St. Joan or Medea to be played by an African-American or an Asian-American. Television versions of Dickens novels may have an African-American Pickwick or Uriah Heep, which some of have complained would have been impossible in 19th century England. Contrary-wise, until the 1980s, it was customary for Caucasian actors to blacken their faces to play the title role in Shakespeare's Othello. Sidney Toler wore makeup to play Charlie Chan, and the creators of the radio show Amos and Andy wore black makeup to recreate the characters on film. This is now widely and correctly regarded as unacceptable. African-American actors play Othello. Period. There have been also calls to continue this trend in operatic versions of Shakespeare's plays, but producers have argued that very few singers, regardless of their race, have the innate skill and the years of vocal training that singing Othello requires and that casting primarily by race would weaken the performance. But, when you come down to it, a white actor playing Othello or Charlie Chan is a prime example of color-blind casting.
As I wrote earlier, progress has been made. But there are actually two trends that some would call conflicting. Progress is step by step. Asian and Asian-American Asians making Crazy Rich Asians is one of those steps, although the previous step in movies was the Joy Luck Club back in 1993 and, before that, the Flower Drum Song in 1961.
I find some proof of progress in the story of Flower Drum Song. As I wrote in a previous blog, the movie was based on a 1958 musical with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and a book by Hammerstein and Joseph Fields, based on a book by C.Y. Lee. The musical was an affectionate and earnest attempt by three white men to present a story about Chinese and Chinese-Americans living in San Francisco's Chinatown. The musical was directed by the song-and-dance man Gene Kelly, and some of the cast, including one of the lead Chinese-American characters, were Caucasians. The show was a modest hit, was sold to the movies, and made into a film with an all-Asian cast, although the screenplay was by Fields and the direction by Henry Koster. Both Koster and Fields were of Jewish heritage, and three of the four leads were ethnic Japanese while the fourth was biracial with a mother of Scottish descent. The film was a box office hit but was seldom reshown because of protests that its portrayal of the characters was stereotypical and even racist. The original stage musical was not much revived, until 2002 when it was produced on Broadway with a book revised by Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang. The revival ran only 169 performances and appeared to be a case of one playwright struggling to remold the work of another while retaining the songs. And yet, I have often heard from Asian-American friends that they have grown to like the film version of Flower Drum Song. It is a well-produced musical with tuneful songs and Asian-Americans singing and dancing in gorgeous color. Fields knew that film is a more realistic medium and worked to soften and eliminate in the screenplay some of the stereotypes that had been criticized in the stage musical. And, in some ways at least, the plot of Crazy Rich Asians has similar stereotypes to Flower Drum Song, with parents set in the old ways who meddle with true love.
Progress has been made, some of it very gradual, but progress just the same.
Copyright by John T. Aquino