Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Race in Movies

For those of us who watch old movies, you can't go very far without the question of race coming up. In Hollywood the maids were always black simpletons, the cooks were Chinese, the Mexicans and Italians were eye-bulging lotharios or half-wits. I watched a few moments of a Bruce Lee bio-pic on Sunday and there's a scene where Bruce Lee goes into a movie theatre with his girlfriend and they're showing Breakfast at Tiffany's. She's seen the movie before and says to him, "this is so funny" about an upcoming scene. It's when Audrey Hepburn's character comes home and she's with George Peppard. Mickey Rooney as the Japanese landlord (or neighbour) comes out and he's angry about something and he carries on in most scene-chewing manner. It's excruciating. His depiction is not only tasteless and well past the time when such a thing should have been allowed (it belongs alongside a black-and-white minstrel show), but it's also incredibly un-funny. Anyway, Bruce's girlfriend (who is Caucasian) soon picks up on how offended he is and they leave.

Then I got to thinking about The Party (1968), which I love. I know some people are offended by Peter Sellers playing an Indian. Sellers plays Hrundi delightfully and he is ultimately the hero of the film, so does it matter? Well, maybe it does. Or does the fact that he is sympathetically portrayed makes it okay? I don't know. It would be far harder to take if he was playing him as a villain. I don't suppose it would be cast this way now, for one important reason: we have actors now who can play characters of different ethnicities. But even this has to be handled delicately. Remember the outcry when Memoirs of a Geisha was cast with Oriental, but non-Japanese actors. To the American producer, they probably "all looked the same". Same with Anna and the King, which spawned lots of controversy over the casting of Yun-Fat Chow, a Chinese actor, playing the King of Siam.

I'm just grateful we've come this far. I know there's a way to go, But I still love my old movies, despite the wince-making moments.


Anonymous said...

There is a long cringe-making history of using non-orientals to portray orientals in the movies.

Remember Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice, and the "japanesing" of 007? WHat a ghastly wig they put on him!

"Love is Many A Splendored Thing" is a good example. Jennifer Jones was cast as the character who was supposedly half Chinese. While Jennifer is lovely and full of grace and did very well in that role, she hardly passes as one who has even a drop of Asian blood in her.

But who can complain about a movie which shows Hong Kong as a beautiful paradise full of clean beaches, lush greenery, and pristine streets? Looks more like Capri than any Hong Kong I recognize.

1960's movie "The World of Suzie Wong" introduced the gorgeous Nancy Kawn---finally an Asian actress playing an Asian role!

Anonymous said...

The Party is a great party. Birdy num-num!

And what a house!