Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sessue Hayakawa, Japanese Star of the American Silent Screen

I thought I'd take this entry to write about another person who is very influential to me. An actor whose life was so damn amazing that it's actually much more interesting than the movies he starred in, which is really saying something, as his movies are great.

I really won't get into the whole portrayal of Asians in American media, as it's a touchy subject and has been covered countless times before by writers much more educated on these things than I am. However, suffice it to say that there are a scant few Asian stars in Hollywood at all, and when they are in films, their nationalities are chosen at random, and they are limited to playing stereotypical parts like "the kung fu master", "the demure geisha", "the awkward math genius friend", or "the scary Japanese girl terrorizing Americans". When you see an Asian at all... often the parts are re-cast to star white actors. So it's hard to find a good role model, a leading man doing awesome things (non-martial-arts-related) who just happens to be Asian.

This sort of thing is not new. Back when movies were first getting really popular, silent films and then the subsequent "Golden Age" of Hollywood, quite a few films included an Asian character. And since this was the movie industry's first big chance to enrapture their audience with resplendent images of exotic Asian locales, they didn't simply move the picture to an American location and re-name everyone to make them American. Very few foreign or foreign-looking stars found success, however. Perhaps the most famous silent film star, and one of the only foreign men to attain romantic lead status, was Rudolph Valentino.

Yeah, that guy, the one with all the eye makeup. Women lusted after him, some even committing suicide when they got news of the actor's premature death, and his roles as a Spanish Matador or Arabian Sheik or the like coined the phrase "Latin Lover", first used to describe Valentino's appeal. Of course, the moral society of the time didn't like seeing foreign men taking away their white women, so often Valentino would have to play over and over again opposite the few Italian/Spanish/etc. actresses in the roster, or eventually sacrifice himself to return the girl to a man of the proper, ie, same, race, or, in a flourish of Shyamalanian proportions, reveal himself to actually be a white European in disguise... somehow.  Those "foreign" actresses I mentioned that he often had to star with were hired for the sole purpose of starring with him, a luxury afforded to one, maybe two other "foreign" stars.

The problem was that the studios wanted to make money, and with no real Asian actors having a big star name, a film full of nobodies, Asian or otherwise, wouldn't draw audiences. Also, during one of their psychological surveys that they so often conducted to predict trends and the biggest successes, audiences complained that they didn't like seeing white actors playing Asian with Asian actors doing stereotypical bit parts in the background, because it made the white actors' yellowface look extremely inauthentic and distracting. The studios' solution? Fine, just re-cast everybody with white actors!

So we ended up with big-name stars granting us little gems of thespian nuance like these:

(Mickey Rooney, Katharine Hepburn)

Oh,that's nice.

It's not as if this practice has gone away, but Asian-Americans are just such a minority, and today most major movies are still just star-vehicles for the big name to stand there looking hot and doing nothing, that it's really a battle of principle instead of a want to see Asian actors taking on roles that require acting talent. But I digress.

I'd like to introduce you all to a Hollywood star from Japan who not only played the romantic lead, but did so with such sheer talent and complete disregard for "what was expected of him", that he became one of the top draws of Hollywood cinema.

Sessue Hayakawa: Hollywood's Asian Superstar That You've Never Heard Of