The Fairy Princess has her tiara in a tilt. She was all chill from being at
and she wrote about it and she thought she was done with talking about Diversity in Casting for a while. Until she read this response from Joel and Ethan Coen to Jen Yamato from The Daily Beast who asked a question based in part on the recent controversy of #OscarsSoWhite started by @BroadwayBlack Managing Editor, April Reign.
The Coen Brothers – who earlier in the interview called The Oscars unimportant and diversity important, quickly changed their tune when it came to the spotlight being turned on their own new film, Hail Caesar!
(Did he just indicate it is difficult to tell Chinese people from Aliens?
That is totally ridiculous – you go to film specifically to see Aliens because they are a long accepted part of our cinematic landscape!
Asian Americans could only dream of being as popular as Aliens in American cinema!
Plus everyone seemingly can tell all the different kinds of Aliens apart!
Alien franchises, species, prequel or sequel etc, but according to literally every Asian American TFP knows, no one can tell if an Asian person’s ancestors hail from China, Japan, Korea, The Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand
….New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka, one need only list half the planet and get the point – IF ONLY AMERICA WOULD LOOK UPON ASIAN AMERICANS WITH THE FONDNESS THEY HAVE FOR ALIENS….oh wait, they are not done talking yet…)
To be honest, TFP cannot tell the Coen Brothers apart – but she does know that one of them is married to Frances McDormand.
However, she would simply say YES your film IS set in the Hollywood of the 1950’s, in which the image was strictly controlled to represent one kind of look.
Despite the white washing of virtually every ethnicity by that power machine – including religious cleansing – Hollywood has always had some diversity behind the scenes, never overwhelming, but there. The Coens seem to think that because they did not know about them, Hail, Caesar did not have to include them, but PoC were there, getting defensive and arguing artistic freedom does not negate the fact that they existed.
The Coen Brothers HAVE INDEED USED PEOPLE OF COLOR as leads in films – THE LADYKILLERS in particular, was a diverse cast – Tzi Ma, Marlon Wayans, and Irma P. Hall right up there with Tom Hanks. Steve Park was in FARGO, and of course, Javier Bardem in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. In TRUE GRIT, they cast Hailee Steinfeld, who of course, has Filipino heritage.
No one is calling The Coen Brothers racist or any kind of thing like that – that is very far from what this conversation is – don’t get it twisted!
This IS the point of Ms. Yamato’s question – your job as a filmmaker is to tell the best damn story there is, everyone is agreed, and you pretty much do on a consistent basis. Ken?
However, telling the best damn story does not have to mean that everyone is #AllLookSame – obviously in a film about the film industry in the 1950’s, those in front of the camera had the appearance of being white. The definition of what was considered ‘white’ at that time, was very loose. People spent an inordinate amount of time ‘passing’, and Hollywood helped them do it.
Rita Hayworth born Margarita Carmen Cansino, Kirk Douglas born Issur Danielovitch, Tony Curtis born Bernard Schwartz, Lauren Bacall born Betty Joan Perske, Anthony Quinn born Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca – to name a few.
Here are some inspirations you could have looked to, real life Asian people who existed in Hollywood -for example:
Sessue Hayakawa – was as popular as Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks! He was a one of the FIRST movie stars of the United States. He became a heartthrob to American audiences after starring in Cecil B. DeMille’s film, The Cheat. He threw ‘wild’ parties that were famous and drove a gold plated Pierce Arrow car! In addition to that, he turned down the iconic role of “The Sheik” that went to Rudolph Valentino and made him a star. He founded his own studio and produced 23 films and made $2 million!
His first ‘talkie’ picture was in 1931 opposite Anna May Wong. He journeyed to France to work on a piece and got trapped by the German Occupation, where he supported himself by selling watercolors and joined the French Resistance! In 1949, Humphrey Bogart’s people found in him France and offered him a role in Tokyo Joe – after which he came back to the USA and wound up being nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Bridge on The River Kwai. He lost to Red Buttons. He also received a Golden Globe nomination for that role, became a Zen Master, an Acting Coach, wrote an autobiography called Zen Showed Me The Way.
The only thing that limited his work, was the the anti-miscegenation laws that existed in the 1930 Hollywood Production Code, that prevented portrayals of interracial romances on screen.
Let’s go of course, to his aforementioned leading lady, Anna May Wong – born and raised in California, who was definitively, America’s FIRST Asian American Film Star – Mr. Hayakawa having been born in Japan – she appeared in her first film at the age of 14 as an extra in Alla Nazimova’s The Red Lantern.
Ms. Wong’s career has typical actress highs and lows, however hers were tinged with the racism that pervaded the country in regards to Asians.
For example, when MGM refused to even consider her for the character of O-Lan in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, and went with a German actress, Luise Ranier. O-Lan, of course, was supposed to be Chinese. Anna May Wong was Chinese American, feted all over the world, and a marquee name, and yet…they preferred eye tape. However, in the 1950’s – which is when Hail, Caesar is set – she was starring in her own television show in the United States, called The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.
So…was there an Asian American film star floating about in the 1950’s, well yes there was – and she had been in Hollywood, in films, since 1919.
Merle Oberon was a giant film star, who was of mixed heritage, what they called at the time Anglo-Indian.
She tried to conceal that by saying she was from Australia, and there was a fire with all the birth records destroyed.
However, she was born in Bombay, India to a 12 year old mother. She was raised as a daughter by her Grandmother. It was complicated.
Ms. Oberon was a bona-fide star, cementing that title with several films that remain iconic – Wuthering Heights, The Dark Angel – for which she won an Academy Award, A Song to Remember, and literally dozens more. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Ms. Oberon’s first film in a role was in 1933, The Private Life of Henry VIII and her last film was Interval, filmed in 1973.
Vivian Leigh, considered one of the greatest stars of all time for her role as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, was also of mixed heritage, some say Indian Parsi, and some say Armenian – whatever the case, she was a glorious actress. A legend.
Her role in A Streetcar Named Desire created an indelible image of a Tennessee Williams’ heroine on film, both of the aforementioned performances earned her an Academy Award. A Streetcar Named Desire, for those keeping track of the timing of Hail, Caesar, was released in 1951. Ms. Leigh also has a star on the Walk of Fame.
Keye Luke was the first Chinese American contract player signed with RKO, Universal Pictures and MGM. Born in China, he grew up in Seattle and was also an accomplished fine artist.
He was known for playing Charlie Chan’s Number One Son in the Charlie Chan films, the original Kato in the Green Hornet film serials, he was in the Space Ghost cartoons, and appeared on Broadway in the original production of Flower Drum Song.
James Hong! Still working!
Mr. Hong began his career in the mid 1950’s with television roles, but he is one of the most prolific Asian American actors around- and is in fact, currently in the theaters represented by his work in Kung Fu Panda 3. TFP‘s personal favorite performance is as Lo Pan in Big Trouble In Little China –
Besides the Actors, there were People of Asian descent working in Hollywood behind the scenes, for example:
She was half Chinese, although she usually told people she was half Japanese as she published under a pseudonym, Onato Watanna. She spent six years at Universal and MGM, she was sent to Los Angeles from the New York office by Carl Lemmle himself. While she wrote hundreds of stories, treatments, scripts, she only received credit on six of them – one of them being the 1929 version of Showboat.
Obviously not everyone who was of minority status in the United States and working in Hollywood was in the Industry, many people of color were involved on the support side, and one such man was Toriachi Kono, the longtime assistant to Charlie Chaplin.
Mr. Kono and Charlie Chaplin became estranged after Mr. Chaplin began his relationship with Paulette Goddard, however prior to that, he was known as The Gatekeeper to Mr. Chaplin. He began as his driver, and ascended to a position of complete trust where he oversaw businesses and all manner of things. Mr. Kono parting with Mr. Chaplin had a deleterious effect on his life, he was accused of spying for the Japanese, and imprisoned prior to the Internment Camps. Still, for many years, he was a player in Hollywood – he was the man you had to get past, to get to one of cinema’s greatest stars.
Look, this is TFP’s point – there is always an opportunity to make diverse films that represent Hollywood because Hollywood is not just one type of person -it’s many.
People of Color have always been in the system, whether in front of the camera, behind the camera, writing scripts, catering, being a grip, or a dresser, or a driver, working in the wardrobe department, set design, or a production accountant or an assistant or anything else, SINCE THE BEGINNING OF THE FRIGGIN’ INDUSTRY! This list could have probably been longer, but the point is not the number of names, the point is – they were there.
People of Color were there.
If we are making films today that reference the 1950’s studio system and all it’s intrinsic problems then casting diversely is a way to illustrate there was more to the story than we have all been shown in the past. Why let Louis B. Mayor and his view win? Why let those guys at the top that told us what we could like and what was attractive – why continue their vision?
Casting without a wide range of people is really just the effects of The Production Code still trickling down after all these years.
Asking a question about diversity in light of all the #OscarsSoWhite was an appropriate journalistic thing to do, the answer though, could have used some polish.
For downright rudeness, when the reporter was just trying to do her job, TFP sentences The Coen Brothers to 20 whacks with the wand – each.
The answer that Ms. Yamato received reeks of sexism – really, you are telling a female reporter that she doesn’t know what she is talking about?
After they began the interview by saying that Diversity is what is important and not the Oscars? So she asked them about the diversity in their film and they lose it? C’mon.
No. Just, no CoBros…not cool.