Friday, November 20, 2020

Banned in Bangkok: Thai-ing One On at the Movies

Thailand had always seemed to me a nice, quiet, faraway place. But no more. American newspapers are reporting on massive street protests against the ruling military junta and the monarchy it props up. When, decades ago, I stayed for a week with a Bangkok family, everyone seemed deeply religious and deeply in love with their king and queen. The top royal, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was a cultivated man who loved photography and jazz, and had a passion for playing the saxophone. (I don’t hold that against him). He and his elegant queen, Sirikit, seemed to live a harmonious life, and before he died in 2016 at age 88 he was honored as the world’s longest reigning head of state.

 Today, though, things are a wee bit different, with King Blumibol’s only son (age 68) sitting on the throne. He sits on it, that is, when he isn’t spending the bulk of his days at his palatial home in Bavaria. Known as a playboy, he’s divorced three wives, and his fourth stays in the background whenever the glamorous recently-named “royal noble consort” is photographed oozing coy sex appeal. It’s something of a throwback to the Siam we encountered on movie screens, in which a silk-clad despot lounged around the palace with his harem of concubines.

 The 1870 memoirs of Anna Leonowens, who described her stint as the teacher of the Siamese king’s many offspring, became the basis for a best-selling 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam. Not many moviegoers today remember there was a non-musical film version of this novel, starring Irene Dunne as the sensible Englishwoman, Rex Harrison (!) as the king, and Linda Darnell, who often projected exoticism in her film roles, as the tragic Tuptim. Released in 1946, it appealed to audiences primed to explore far-off cultures they could regard as charming. But this black-and-white movie paled when compared to the lush Cinemascope version of The King and I, with its rich Rodgers and Hammerstein score. The latter film won 5 Oscars and was nominated for 4 more, including Best Picture. There was a wonderful chemistry between the leads, Deborah Kerr (who didn’t quite admit in 1956 that her soprano voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon) and Yul Brynner, who walked off with an Oscar to go with his Tony awards for his indelible portrayal of the king. No one in the cast, as far as I know, was actually Thai, though Brynner’s Slavic looks and shaved head made him seem suitably foreign. Curiously, the role of Tuptim, the delicate Burmese woman gifted to the king by a foreign leader seeking to impress, was filled by none other than the very Puerto Rican Rita Moreno, who years later was finally able to return to her own roots in West Side Story.    

 Anyone who loves The King and I , as I do, remembers “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” the bravura Jerome Robbins dance number that freely adapts Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as seen through the eyes of  a Southeast Asian concubine. It seems Tuptim, who has been introduced to the book by Mrs. Anna, stages it (using traditional Thai music and dance styling) to quietly comment on her own situation as a slave. The number has covert social resonance as well as charm, but today’s self-righteous audiences might well accuse it of cultural appropriation. Ah, well. It’s not easy to portray a foreign culture fairly and with respect. 

 When I visited Thailand, The King and I was considered insulting to the Thai royalty. Yes, both film and soundtrack album were banned in Bangkok.


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