INTO THE NEXT STAGE: The Less Than Obvious Presence of Asian Americans at the Oscars

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AOKI-GUY-color1By GUY AOKI

It’s become an annual complaint at the Oscars: Where are Asian Americans? Unlike television, where people don’t have to pay anything to watch a network show so executives don’t mind making us regulars (though they remain skittish about crowning us the main star), movie studios are more conservative about allowing Asian Americans to play significant roles in films because the public has to pay to see them.

So the same old white stars get regurgitated with some black actors sprinkled in so producers can pat themselves on their white backs for their ”commitment” to diversity. It was a hopeful year for African Americans because several movies focused on the black experience like “12 Years a Slave,” “The Butler,” and “42.” And among the top four acting categories, there were three black nominees, including “Best Supporting Actress” winner Lupita Nyong’o (“Slave”).

But Asian American actors weren’t given enough great material to warrant acting nods for anything. Contrast that with the ceremony 30 years ago in 1984 when two Asian Americans were in the running for “Best Supporting Actor”: Pat Morita for the first “Karate Kid” film and Haing S. Ngor for “The Killing Fields.” That’s the best it ever got!

One Facebook friend quipped that the most prominent Asian American in this year’s telecast was a seat-filler. I know which one he was talking about too, since I saw him several times in the back of the big white stars. “Is he anyone I should know?” I asked myself. “Nah, probably a seat-filler.”

Still, Asian Americans had a greater presence on the show than you might realize. In the “Best Original Song” category, two of the five nominees were written by Asian Americans. Karen O (half Korean/half Polish) performed “Moon Song” from “Her” and Robert Lopez and his wife won the Oscar for writing the popular hit from “Frozen,” “Let It Go,” performed on the telecast (badly, I might add; I thought she sang the verses in a foreign language) by Idina Menzel (or, as John Travolta called her, Adele Dazeem!).

I always assumed Lopez was Mexican American, so imagine my surprise when I read that he’s part Filipino American (born and raised in New York). His father was three-fourths Filipino, so he’s three-eighths.

Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez hoist their Academy Awards.

Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez hoist their Academy Awards.

Not only that, but Sunday night, he became the 12th person to become a member of the EGOT club, meaning he’s won each of the top four show business awards: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. And he did it the fastest — within 10 years. The Tonys came in 2004 for “Avenue Q” and in 2011 for “The Book of Mormon”; the Grammy was for the “Book of Mormon” cast album; the Emmys were for “Wonder Pets” in 2008 and 2010.

I’m not sure how many people know Karen O (who also did great work on the soundtrack for “Where the Wild Things Are” — like “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze) is part Korean, but most wouldn’t be able to recognize her on the street the next day — let alone guess her ethnicity — because she got no close-ups during her performance. Weird.

Pharrell Williams did his infectious hit “Happy” from “Despicable Me 2,” and for years, his mother has been rumored to be Filipino, but it’s never been confirmed.

Of course, the fact that no full-blooded Asian American was up for much of anything makes you wonder if the talent comes from the non-Asian side (especially since very few full-blooded Asian Americans have sung or even written hits).

Karen O performs on the Oscars telecast with Ezra Koening, lead singer of Vampire Weekend.

Karen O performs on the Oscars telecast with Ezra Koening, lead singer of Vampire Weekend.

Non-Controversial Olympics Department: With NBC running pre-packaged videos on so many American athletes during its recent Olympics coverage, it still wasn’t surprising they swept the Mirai Nagasu controversy under the rug, mentioning it in passing, but not including it in any video that I caught. Many felt the network had used Ashley Wagner in so many of their promos that they preferred her over the uh, shall we say, less photogenic Mirai Nagasu?

Quite frankly, I was hoping Wagner would flop on her ass as she did at the U.S. Championships, where she fell twice, came in fourth, but still managed to make it to Sochi. She didn’t falter, but only managed to place seventh, while the top American, Gracie Gold, could only manage fourth, and Polina Edmunds, ninth. It was the first time in decades that an American didn’t medal in two straight Olympic women’s figure skating competitions. Bachi ga ataru!

What’s He Gonna Be? Department: On the first episode of “Elementary” in the fall of 2012, Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) got a call from her mother. Her cell phone caller-ID showed a picture of an Asian woman with a white man. I asked CBS executives how Watson’s last name was going to be explained. Was she adopted? Was her father white?  They didn’t know.

It wasn’t until last month that her character revealed to Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) that her white dad is her stepdad and that her biological father is schizophrenic and homeless. He wouldn’t take his medication and prefers to live on the streets. Watson hasn’t seen him in three years. Which sounds like a set-up for him to make an appearance soon. Hopefully he’ll be Asian.

In 2003, there was a major ruckus when John Cleese was cast as the biological father of Lucy Liu in the second “Charlie’s Angels” film. Many were upset that Liu’s character —like the actress herself — wasn’t full Asian but half white, as if that was necessary to make her character more appealing and intelligent. In fact, it was Liu’s casting as one of the three Angels that led MANAA to give the producers a Media Achievement Award in 2001. Just two years later, in a “Counterpoint” article in The L.A. Times, Robert Payne, writing on behalf of MANAA, actually asked director McG to return his award!

See? That Wasn’t That Hard, Now Was It? Department: In last week’s “Hawaii Five-O,” I was surprised to see an Asian American couple in the opening scene. They had just moved into their apartment and the wife couldn’t make up her mind where she wanted her growingly exasperated husband to put a framed painting. Finally, he began removing the drywall, only to reveal a dead, mummified body. That was the last we saw of them (I guess they weren’t needed when Five-O came to inspect?).

Hey, there was even a local Asian couple seen leaving before Five-O came to speak to a realtor (no, they had no lines). I continue to ask: Just how difficult is it for the producers to reflect the reality of the 50th state where Asian Pacific Islanders outnumber haoles by than two-to-one unless they’re going out of their way to ignore them?

’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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