By ROGER FRISTOE
This month’s Spotlight looks at the representation of Asian American characters through the lens of Hollywood. Such portrayals have long been a subject of controversy because they have frequently dealt in stereotypes rather than authentic representations of Asian culture, customs, attitudes and behaviors.
In the silent era, Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong managed to break through as major film stars, although their Asian characters were often stylized and stereotypical. In later decades, stardom was achieved by such players as James Shigeta, Nancy Kwan, and martial-arts practitioners Bruce Lee and Sho Kosugi.
Even when rich opportunities arose for Asian actors, Caucasian actors often filled the roles. Over the years, numerous American and European movie stars have donned “yellowface” to portray East Asians, including Lon Chaney, Katharine Hepburn, Boris Karloff, Myrna Loy, Marlon Brando, Loretta Young, Mickey Rooney and even John Wayne!
One of the big disappointments of Anna May Wong’s career was losing the role of the Chinese wife in “The Good Earth” (1937) to German actress Luise Rainer, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance. The exquisite Miiko Taka won her memorable role in “Sayonara” (1957) only after Audrey Hepburn wisely refused it.
Merle Oberon, a beautiful and capable leading lady in films of the 1930s-50s, was born in Bombay but denied her Indian heritage throughout her life and career — possibly because she feared the revelation would damage her image. Until her death, Oberon perpetuated the myth that she was an Australian born in Tasmania.
In more recent times Asian American performers and filmmakers have gained mainstream access thanks to television, YouTube and the Internet. But Asian casts in American films have remained rare despite the success of such ventures as Wayne Wang’s “The Joy Luck Club” (1993) and Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018).
Here are some of the accomplished performers of Asian heritage who are featured in our tribute.
Sessue Hayakawa (1886-1973) was a Japanese actor who became a major star in Hollywood by playing exotic, sexy villains and anti-heroes during the silent-film era. He became the first actor of Japanese descent to achieve stardom in the U.S. and Europe.
Among Hayakawa’s English-language silent films is “The Dragon Painter” (1919), in which he plays a young artist who believes that his beloved (Tsuru Aoki, Hayakawa’s real-life wife) is a princess who has been turned into a dragon. The film was restored in 1988.
Because of rising anti-Japanese sentiment, Hayakawa left Hollywood in 1922 and acted on Broadway and in Japan and Europe before making a Hollywood comeback in 1931. Among his later U.S. films is “House of Bamboo” (1955), a Samuel Fuller film noir also featuring China-born Japanese actress Shirley Yamaguchi.
Hayakawa is perhaps best remembered for his role as the POW camp commander in “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” (1957), which brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Anna May Wong (1905-1961), born in Los Angeles, was the first Chinese American actress to win Hollywood stardom and international recognition. By the mid-1920s Wong had become famous as a film star and fashion icon She was top-billed for more than 20 years and later played character roles.
Wong stars in “Piccadilly” (1929), a British “part-talkie” melodrama, as a nightclub dancer who meets a tragic end. Among her other starring vehicles is “Daughter of Shanghai” (1937), an American crime drama featuring Korean American actor Philip Ahn, who also was California-born. This film is unique among Hollywood features of its time for casting Asian Americans in the leads.
Ahn again starred opposite Wong in “King of Chinatown” (1939). His Hollywood career would continue into the 1970s. (A book about the actor and Asian ethnicity, “Hollywood Asian: Philip Ahn and the Politics of Cross-Ethnic Performance” by Hye Seung Chung, was published in 2006.)
Richard Loo (1903-1985) was a Chinese American film actor who was born in Hawaii and became one of the most familiar faces associated with Asian characters in numerous movies and TV shows from the 1930s through the ’70s.
Loo is especially remembered for his roles in American war movies of the 1940s and ’50s, where he usually played fierce Japanese fighters. He had a rare heroic role in Samuel Fuller’s Korean War film “The Steel Helmet” (1951), playing a battle-worn Japanese American soldier.
Loo appeared in “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” (1955), which starred Caucasian actress Jennifer Jones as Eurasian doctor Han Suyin. Loo plays her wealthy Chinese friend. Philip Ahn also appears in this film, playing Jones’ “Third Uncle.”
Loo plays Major Chin, a Nationalist Army officer, in “The Sand Pebbles” (1966), director Robert Wise’s screen version of the Richard McKenna novel. The film stars Steve McQueen, with Japanese American actor Mako winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the engine-room coolie Po-han.
Miyoshi Umeki, a Japanese American actress/singer who was born in Japan and moved to the U.S. in her mid-20s, is the only Asian actress to have won an Academy Award. Her Oscar came for her supporting performance in “Sayonara” (1957), Joshua Logan’s screen version of the James A. Michener novel. Marlon Brando stars opposite Japanese American actress Miiko Taka, and Red Buttons also won a supporting Oscar for his role as Umeki’s American bridegroom.
Umeki repeats her Tony-nominated stage role in the film version of the Broadway musical “Flower Drum Song” (1961). Other actors of Asian heritage in the movie include Japanese American James Shigeta and Chinese American Nancy Kwan (both of whom enjoyed breakthrough success in leading roles of this and other Hollywood films), along with Benson Fong, Jack Soo, Reiko Sato, Kam Tong, Victor Sen Yung, and James Hong.
Shigeta also stars in “The Crimson Kimono” (1959), a Samuel Fuller film noir in which he plays a Los Angeles cop whose partner (Glenn Corbett) is Caucasian. Another Japanese American actor, George Yoshinaga, has a supporting role.
Other films in our salute to Asian American actors include the Bette Davis drama “The Letter” (1940), which features Victor Sen Yung, Willie Fung, and Tetsu Komai; “Phantom of Chinatown” (1940), starring Keye Luke and featuring Lotus Long; “Night Song” (1947), starring Merle Oberon; and “Song of India” (1949), starring Sabu.
Schedule (times PDT)
Wednesday, May 6
“The Dragon Painter” (1919) at 5 p.m.
“Piccadilly” (1925) at 6 p.m.
“Daughter of Shanghai” (1937) at 8 p.m.
“Phantom of Chinatown” (1940) at 9:30 p.m.
“The Letter” (1940) at 11 p.m.
“Night Song” (1947) at 1 a.m.
Wednesday, May 13
“The Crimson Kimono” (1959) at 5 p.m.
“House of Bamboo” (1955) at 6:30 p.m.
“Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” (1955) at 8:30 p.m.
“Song of India” (1949) at 10:30 p.m.
“The Steel Helmet” (1951) at 12 a.m.
Wednesday, May 20
“Flower Drum Song” (1961) at 5 p.m.
“Sayonara” (1957) at 7:30 p.m.
“The Sand Pebbles” (1966) at 10:15 p.m.
Visit http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/1569332|0/Asian-Americans-in-Classic-Hollywood-5-6.html and click each film title for a full synopsis.