Tag Archives: anna may wong

Scarlett Johansson and Minority Representation on Film

A few days ago, Scarlett Johansson was announced as the lead in a new movie called Rub & Tug about Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender man who owned a massage parlor and became involved in mob crime. The casting of a cisgender actress to play a transgender man has generated an angry buzz, only heightened by a Johansson rep’s reply to it: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment” (cisgender actors who have played transgender characters onscreen). In the wake of this conversation about what it means to have a minority character represented by someone outside the group, I thought this would be a good time to talk about this subject in film history.

When the Hays Code first came into being in 1930, the code explicitly forbade miscegenation onscreen, which was defined as “sex relationships between the white and black races.” This applied not only to what was depicted on film, but also in who was allowed to play which parts, opposite whom. If a leading man was black, for example, the leading lady also had to be black. If he was Asian, the leading lady had to be Asian, if he was white, the leading lady must be white. In order to tell the stories that they wanted to tell, starring the celebrities that would make them the most money, the studios were frequently pushed to put actors in blackface or yellowface, thereby creating films that was marketable–but outrageously offensive. Films such as these were frequently picketed by the NAACP, but for many years the studios found the picketing a small cost compared to the box office revenue from the films, and they had little motivation to do anything about the racially charged nature of the films coming out of Hollywood.

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[IMAGE: Anna May Wong in a jeweled headdress, looking off camera.]

Meanwhile, careers were suffering. Anna May Wong, one of the few leading ladies of Asian descent in Hollywood in the 1930s, left for Europe out of frustration with the anti-miscegenation laws that governed how she could work onscreen. In Europe, she made a huge splash with such films as Piccadilly and Pavement Butterfly, but after her return to the United States when she signed a contract with Paramount, she could only be paired as a leading lady alongside Sessue Hayakawa–while Asian and Asian-American roles opposite white actors had to go to other white actors. Instead of procuring her onscreen roles, Paramount gave her a job as a tutor to teach white actors how to “act Asian” for their parts. The final straw came when the role of Chinese farmer O-Lan in The Good Earth went to Luise Rainer opposite Paul Muni. Wong had had it with Hollywood, and from then on only acted in low-budget films to finish her contract with Paramount, in later years donating her profits to United China Relief.

In 1942, the NAACP succeeded in its efforts to convince Hollywood to stop creating stereotypical characterizations of minorities, and to hire more African-American talent, but the anti-miscegenation laws continued. The role of Julie LaVerne in the 1951 version of Show Boat, a story that deals with the interracial relationship of a white man and a singer with African-American ancestry, was given to Ava Gardner instead of Lena Horne. In 1951, you could depict an interracial relationship–but not with an actual interracial couple.

Lena Horne sings “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat, in the movie Till the Clouds Roll By (1946)

Fortunately, these rules are now long gone in the movies. But their influence still echoes, in the desire to stick with already-established personalities who will bring profit to the movies, rather than prioritize authentic casting. While it is now widely recognized that white actors cannot play characters of color, the same understanding does not yet exist for transgender characters or disabled characters. When the movie Wonder came out last year, starring Jacob Tremblay as a young boy with Treacher Collins Syndrome, I couldn’t help but think how many kids with Treacher Collins would have loved to star in a movie about a child with their disability. Or how many aspiring young actors with the syndrome could have played that role to perfection, and were denied a chance at employment. Like the limited opportunities afforded minority stars in the days of the Hays Code, this tendency to procure big names over authentic casting is costing many actors their livelihoods, and the right to tell their own stories.


Marlee Matlin made her screen debut in Children of a Lesser God (1986), and won the Best Actress Oscar as a deaf actress playing a deaf role. She remains the only deaf performer to have won the award.    [IMAGE: Marlee Matlin signs in the dinner scene from Children of a Lesser God]

There is no dearth of transgender actors in Hollywood. The cast of Transparent, using authentic transgender casting, has earned numerous accolades and awards. Its stars, most previously unknown, have become veritable names in the industry. Had the producers of Rub & Tug managed to look beyond the reflex appeal of Scarlett Johansson and take a risk on an unknown transgender actor, they almost certainly would have found one, able to tell his own story truthfully and honestly. But as long as Hollywood plays it safe, continuing to recycle its moneymaking stars with no attention to authenticity, we will continue to see mere imitations and stereotyped portrayals on the screen, and miss out on witnessing potentially spectacular untapped talent.

There is an oft-repeated phrase in the disability rights community that has made its way into the LGBT rights movement–“Nothing about us, without us.” The producers of Rub & Tug would be wise to take that into consideration.


China’s Upcoming Anna May Wong Biopic–The Controversy

In late July, Shanghai-based film production company Fundamental Films announced that a biopic of legendary Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong is in the works, slated for release in China within the next few years. This announcement has generated a lot of attention within the film community, with many voicing concerns about the details of the production and how they will reflect upon Wong, whose struggles with stereotyping and prejudice ultimately led to the downfall of her career.

Anna May Wong was born in Los Angeles in 1905. Her family had resided in California since 1855, and she grew up in a diverse neighborhood alongside Mexican and Eastern European families that had settled in Los Angeles. Curious about the new picture industry growing around her neighborhood, she received her first film role as an extra at age 14 and was noticed by Hollywood when she played opposite Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad (1924). Though critics saw her talent and potential, her parts were restricted due to U.S. anti-miscegenation laws, which prevented onscreen romance between two actors of different races. As the only Asian-American leading man at the time was Sessue Hayakawa, Anna May Wong could never advance in her career and she was relegated to stereotypical Chinese roles. Often, though, even those roles were few and far between for her. “There seems little for me in Hollywood,” she said,” because rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.”

Anna May Wong in THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD (1924).

Tired of the prejudiced attitudes of the American film industry, Wong moved to Europe, where she acted on both stage and screen and became a European sensation. Hollywood filmmakers spotted her and expressed a renewed interest in what she had to offer, so she moved back to the United States and, to her dismay, found herself cast once again in stereotypical Chinese roles. When passed up by Luise Rainer, a German, for the role of a Chinese villager in The Good Earth, she finally quit Hollywood in frustration.

Luise Rainer in THE GOOD EARTH (1937).

The biopic is called Dragon Lady, a reference to Anna May Wong’s role in The Thief of Baghdad. The film’s title has been a point of contention among those concerned about the project, saying that it unfairly perpetuates the Asian stereotype that plagued Wong throughout her career. In addition, for the coveted role of Anna May Wong, Fundamental Films has chosen Fan Bingbing, a Chinese actress and singer. At the outset, I was upset that Anna May Wong’s story features a Chinese actress playing an American role. Upon further research, I found that this is a Chinese production, and a Chinese-language production perhaps requires a native Chinese actress, rather than the Asian-American actress that might be better suited to portray Wong’s identity and life story.

My biggest point of contention with the project lies not with Fundamental Films, but with the American film industry for not telling her story here. The fact that Anna May Wong’s story is being told in China before it is told in the United States is, to me, a disappointment. This is an American story, about an American woman who suffered under our laws and faced the brutality of American prejudice. Her story should be told here, by the same Hollywood that so ostracized and isolated her, before it is told anywhere else.

Hollywood owes her that.

Cinecon Day 2: Symbolism and Metaphor in “Dangerous to Know” (1938), and Other Noteworthy Festival Events.

Anna May Wong and Akim Tamiroff in “Dangerous to Know” (1938).

The theme of this, the second day of Cinecon, seems to be a motif of masterfully crafted symbolism. I noticed the skill in the subtlety of metaphor first in Dangerous to Know, a surprisingly touching crime film starring Anna May Wong and Akim Tamiroff in the main roles. The movie is slow to start, and the plot is rather unclear, but about half an hour before the end of the film, the plot picked up so quickly that I was on the edge of my chair waiting to see what would happen.

The film is rare and, as far as I know, not commercially available, so I don’t feel too badly giving away plot points, but just in case you want to be warned, SPOILER ALERT.

Throughout the movie, the character of Lan Ying (played by Anna May Wong) is referred to as the “hostess” of noted gangster Steven Recka, but glances and innuendo from various characters makes it very clear that she is his girlfriend. Under the Hays Code, interracial dating was taboo, so any reference to love between them had to be relegated to innuendo, which in this case, makes the film much more ethereal and mysterious, adding to the already mysterious aura of Anna May Wong.

After a long spree of killing and kidnapping, Steven is unexpectedly called for drinks by Lan Ying, who pours drinks for herself and for him while maintaining a very calm, soft voice. When Steven tells her he thinks she’s acting strangely, she turns on a record, which happens to be a recording of “Thanks For the Memories.” With tears in her eyes, she drinks. Steven does not.

Steven then heads over to play the organ, a favorite hobby of his. As he plays, we see Lan Ying, situated behind his back, pull out a knife and start toward him. As she gets closer, she notices the tranquil look on his face as he plays. She puts her hand on his shoulder, and turns the knife toward herself. In a moment of supreme irony, she stabs herself in the stomach, committing suicide just at the moment a detective, who has been following Steven all through the movie, walks in the door. Naturally, he assumes that Lan Ying is just the latest in Steven’s string of murders, and carts him away to trial. As he goes, he gives funeral directions to the servants for Lan Ying. “She loved the Bach Largo,” he says, and instructs them to play that at the funeral. It is at once a sad and vindictive scene, as we have come to see Steven as a feeling person, but a criminal nonetheless and we are saddened to see him carted off for the suicide of his girlfriend, but happy that justice is being carried out for a murderer.

The first thing I would like to point out is that hara kiri (the act of suicide by way of stabbing oneself in the stomach) is hardly a new motif in the arts. In fact, the suicide of Lan Ying hearkened back to an exponentially more famous character, Cho-Cho-San from Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, who committed suicide in the same way. It is hardly speculation that the creators of this film fashioned this moment from Madame Butterfly, and certainly the Asian influence of both characters most likely inspired this aspect of the storyline. In pre-racially aware Hollywood, it was not uncommon to see stereotypes created of minorities from any and every source available, and in this case Anna May Wong, a third-generation California native from Los Angeles, was relegated to the demure Asian “Butterfly” stereotype that continues to permeate certain films to this day.

Anna May Wong in a typical role for her career.

After the movie, I had a discussion with the pianist who had played the score for the film, who happens to be an expert on organs. He informed me, much to my fascination, that the particular type of organ that the character of Steven plays at the end of the film, is designed for use at funerals. Thus, there is a subtle foreshadowing, reserved only for those who know music well, of what is to become of Lan Ying only moments later.

The film itself is filled with music. We know from the very beginning that Steven is a talented and and passionate musician, who always wished his life had ended up in such a way that he could pursue music as a profession instead of turning to a life of crime. It is thus further significant that the “Butterfly” character be implied through the suicide of Lan Ying, as the musical theme continues through the plot line even in covert ways.

Maria Callas’ recording of the role of Cho-Cho-San in “Madame Butterfly.”

When this movie started, I was prepared not to like it, and truth be told the first hour left a lot to be desired. But the ending turned it completely around for me, and when I reflect on the film hours later, I remember it as a fascinating and enjoyable hour and a half.

I leave you with some other highlights of the day:

  • Jane Withers and Marsha Hunt showed up for the screening of Gentle Julia, and after the film was over, I was saddened to see that the entire audience was flocking to Jane Withers and Marsha Hunt, who was wonderful in the film and just as beautiful today at 95 as she was at age 17 in the film, was essentially left without acknowledgment. I wanted to show her how much I appreciated her, so I approached her and expressed my thanks for her attendance, and remarked on her extraordinary beauty. We ended up talking for a good 10 minutes about the film, her memories, and her career. I am extraordinarily grateful for that and impressed with her lovely personality and sweet, modest nature. She told me that she and Jane were initially asked to have an interview, but they ran out of time.

  • One screening, Dollars and Sense, was one of the sweetest, most feel-good movies I have ever seen. It concerned a young baker who did nothing but good, and a woman comes in one day and is so taken by his generosity that she wants to work with him at the bakery. One day, he gave away so much bread that the stress of it made him ill. The woman nurses him back to health and with the help of a benefactor, helps recover his business from the debt of the bread and pays all his hospital bills. In return, the benefactor requests that she come to his apartment to “repay” him. He sends a note to David, implying an affair with the girl he had come to fall in love with. The purpose was to anger David and make him come to his apartment. Reading the note, this tireless do-gooder finally does get angry, and marches up to the benefactor’s apartment demanding an explanation. The benefactor replies that the woman is to be married. David exclaims “To you??” And the benefactor answers “No…to you.” He had arranged a marriage between Hazel and David. It was just the most lovely story, almost like a fairy tale, and so refreshing to see a character who seemed to be the antagonist turn out to be the hero of the whole story.

More tomorrow!