Friday, September 15, 2023

China Dolls? Anna May Wong and “Joy Ride”

Anna May Wong? Who exactly was she? Fans of Old Hollywood remember her as an “exotic” (though American-born) actress, mostly cast as self-sacrificing Madam Butterfly types or as a sinister Dragon Lady. The most outrageous moment of her career (basically 1919-1961) came in 1935, when MGM denied her the leading role of O-lan, the sympathetic Chinese peasant in Pearl Buck’s bestselling The Good Earth. The part went instead to Luise Rainer, a German actress who won an Oscar for playing O-lan in yellowface. The word is that Wong was screen-tested to play the seductress Lotus in The Good Earth, though it is not clear whether she was rejected by her studio or indignantly turned the part down.

  My colleague Carl Rollyson, an extraordinarily prolific biographer and chronicler of biography as an art form, recently published a piece in the New York Sun assessing what has come to be a boomlet of books on Anna May Wong’s career. Now that people of Asian heritage are slowly being acknowledged as part of the American scene, the time seems ripe to survey those who’ve come before. I read Carl’s column with great interest, partly because my own growing-up years had important links to Japan and partly because I’d just seen (in the wee hours on a trans-Atlantic flight)  a recent flick called Joy Ride.

 There was a time, of course, when actors from Asian backgrounds were rarely at the center of any Hollywood production. In 1961, two decades after The Good Earth, I remember the very Caucasian Alec Guinness being cast as a Japanese businessman with a romantic streak in A Majority of One and a bucktoothed Mickey Rooney in a cringeworthy performance as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Actual Asian women seemed to have slightly more opportunity: though the 1956 comedy Teahouse of the August Moon starred Marlon Brando as a wily Okinawan interpreter, the lovable geisha role was played by a genuine Japanese actress, Machiko Kyo, who had previously starred for the great Kurosawa in Rashomon. In the splashy 1957 romantic drama, Sayonara,  Miiko Taka played opposite Marlon Brando in a story of two post-war love affairs between  American soldiers and Japanese civilians. The same film featured Miyoshi Umeki, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Red Buttons’ doomed Japanese bride.

 These roles for Asian (and Asian-American) women have tended to showcase them as demure and loving. But in recent years it has started to seem OK to be both Asian and funny, even brash. The burgeoning career of Awkwafina has surely helped move things in that direction, and the success of Crazy Rich Asians is another indicator that Asian (and Asian-American) actors can be as outrageous as anyone else in Hollywood. Then of course there’s the Oscar-nabbing Everything Everywhere All At Once, which introduced some moviegoers to both screen veteran Michelle Yeoh and busy newcomer Stephanie Hsu. Having gotten critical acclaim for playing both Yeoh’s daughter Joy Wang and arch-villain Jobu Tubaki in the Daniels’ absurdist film, Hsu is also highly visible in this year’s Joy Ride, a female-and-Asian take on the kind of raunchy road trip movie that has previous featured white males (The Hangover) and Black females (Girls Trip). Joy Ride begins with the stereotypical high-achieving Asian-American lawyer (Ashley Park), sending her to Beijing along with her hot-to-trot childhood friend (Sherry Cola), an androgynous cousin (Sabrina Wu), and a star of Chinese TV with secrets of her own (Hsu). Their language is raw, and some of their adventures are grotesque, before the inevitable upbeat ending. Who says blondes have more fun?


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