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"A Certain Slant"
A Brief History of Hollywood Yellowface
page 1 of 2
In 1990, when English actor Jonathan Pryce was selected to play a Eurasian pimp in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon, members of the Asian-American artistic community cried foul. Asian-American directors, playwrights, and actors protested against not only Pryce's "yellowface" performance Pryce had performed the role on the London stage wearing heavy prosthetic eyelids, until he was informed that some people might find this racially offensive but also against the show's producer's refusal to allow Asian-American actors to compete for the role. After a multiethnic coalition raised concerns about the casting decision, members of the Actors' Equity Association voted to bar Pryce from reprising the role in the United States, stating that Equity could not "appear to condone the casting of a Caucasian in the role of a Eurasian." The show's producer, Cameron Mackintosh, quickly canceled the $10 million New York production, which had already brought in more than $25 million in advance ticket sales. Less than a week later, Equity reversed their decision, citing the need for "artistic freedom" in casting as the primary reason.
The Miss Saigon controversy brought national attention to two long-standing traditions in U.S. theater and film. The first, most obvious tradition was simply the business part of "show business," where the bottom line almost always takes precedence over artistic and ethical considerations. In the case of Miss Saigon, the choice between possibly pissing off a few Asian Americans or canceling an obscenely lucrative Broadway production turned out to be, predictably, not much of a choice at all. While terms like "artistic freedom" and "nontraditional casting" were bandied about throughout much of the debate, these philosophical terms were invoked primarily to justify what was essentially an economic decision.
The second tradition, and the one that got far more press, was the time-honored practice of white actors performing in "yellowface." Many Asian Americans were angry at Pryce's yellowface performance largely because it was not an isolated, one-time casting decision, but represented a return to an earlier time when yellowface was the rule rather than the exception. During much of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, scores of actors, big-name actors, had no moral qualms about taking roles that required them to "slant" their eyes, do that funny walk, and practice their embarrassingly poor "Oriental" accents. Although most actors did the yellowface thing as a one-shot deal, a handful, like "Charlie Chan" actor Warner Oland and Siamese king Yul Brynner, actually spent much of their careers unashamedly accepting such roles.
The list of actors appearing in yellowface is disturbingly long: Katharine Hepburn; Fred Astaire; Myrna Loy; Ricardo Montalban; Ingrid Bergman; John Wayne as Genghis Khan; Marlon Brando as a comical Okinawan; Mickey Rooney, complete with "slanted eyes," thick glasses, and buck teeth, doing the "Jap thing" in Breakfast at Tiffany's; Peter Sellers; Helen Hayes; Peter Lorre; Lon Chaney; Anthony Quinn; and that perennial, "probably still believes he's an Asian" David Carradine. And the list goes on.
But while the history of blackface has been well documented in American film criticism, with such classics as The Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer featuring whites pretending to be blacks, the history of yellowface has received much less critical attention, and considerably less public censure. Long after it became politically unacceptable for a white actor to appear in blackface (Ted Danson's ill-advised appearance at the Whoopi Goldberg roast notwithstanding), white actors and actresses continued to accept yellowface roles. In fact, while contemporary "how-to" books on makeup for theater and film no longer explain blackface techniques, many continue to describe the yellowface process in great detail. As recently as 1995, Penny Delamar's The Complete Make-up Artist had two listings under the category "Ethnic Appearances" "Caucasian to oriental" and "Caucasian to Indian," complete with really sick before-and-after photos of a young blond woman made up to look like Fu Manchu.
Of course, yellowface didn't begin in Hollywood. Just as cinematic blackface had its roots in traveling minstrel shows, yellowface performances have been around in the U.S. for over 200 years. The first such production, Voltaire's Orphan in China, opened in 1767, and others soon followed. In these early productions, white actors, most of whom had never seen an Asian person, performed in yellowface for audiences who also had never seen a real, live Asian. As film and theatre professor James May noted, "The notion of Chineseness ... became familiar to the American spectator long before sightings of the actual Chinese."
But yellowface performances continued to flourish on stage and screen long after these sightings of "actual Chinese." Job protection for white actors was one obvious factor. With the relatively small percentage of actors that support themselves by acting, it was only logical that they should try to limit the available talent pool as much as possible. One way of doing this was by placing restrictions on minority actors, which, in the case of Asian actors, meant that they could usually only get roles as houseboys, cooks, laundrymen, and crazed war enemies, with the rare "white hero's loyal sidekick" roles going to the big name actors. When the script called for a larger Asian role, it was almost inevitably given to a white actor.
"Giving the audience what they want" was a common justification for this one-sided deal, which was a nice way of saying that audience members didn't want to have to look at Oriental actors for any extended period of time (this was the primary reason given for the now infamous casting of David Carradine in the 1970s television show Kung Fu, over original choice Bruce Lee). Another justification was that there just weren't any "qualified" or talented Asian or Asian-American actors, a sentiment echoed by Miss Saigon's casting director, who stated that if there had been a suitable Asian actor for the role of the Eurasian pimp, "we would surely have sniffed him out by now" (a tellingly weird metaphor, in any case). Of course, this type of thinking is a catch-22 for so many Asian actors, who can't find work because they lack experience, and can't get experience because all the good Asian roles go to white actors.
A third justification for yellowface was that white actors simply made better "Orientals" than Asian actors did. This was probably true, since the white actors were often actively trying to play "Orientals," trying to play the stereotypes, while the Asian actors were perhaps trying to play humans. Whatever the reason, the depiction of "real" Asian characters was not a high priority for Hollywood filmmakers. When one critic asked the producer of The Good Earth why he didn't cast any Asian actors in leading roles in the film, he responded, "I'm in the business of creating illusions."
Next page: Turning a white person into an Asian
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