Race Relations: When Actors Say No To Cultural Sensitivity

December 1, 2017
Though often a champion of racial equality, the movie world also has an unusual, confusing, sometimes funny, and occasionally offensive history of actors playing characters from other races and nationalities.

JOHN WAYNE IN THE CONQUEROR (1956) “I want to play a real man in all my films,” John Wayne once said. “I define manhood simply: men should be tough, fair, and courageous, never petty, never looking for a fight, but never backing down from one either.” Despite the odd spot of massacring and unnecessary murder here and there, historical badass, Genghis Khan (the founder and emperor of The Mongol Empire), probably fit the legendary American actor’s criteria for what a “real man” should be. Though there has been debate about the racial makeup of Genghis Khan, the rampaging emperor was in most likelihood Asian, making the casting of John Wayne in the 1956 biopic, The Conqueror, one of the goofiest actor-to-character assignations in Hollywood history. The whole film, in fact, is so off-the-wall that rumour has it that The Conqueror was only made by mistake. According to conjecture, the film’s writer and director, Dick Powell, was so unhappy with what he’d written that he had every intention of throwing his script into the bin. According to Powell, when he had to leave his office at RKO for a few minutes during a story conference, he returned to find a very enthused John Wayne reading the script, which had been mistakenly left in a pile of possible scripts on Powell’s desk. The Duke then insisted that this was the movie that he wanted to make. “Who am I to turn down John Wayne?” Powell later said. The much derided film, however, ended up being an embarrassment for John Wayne, who once remarked that the moral of The Conqueror was “not to make an ass of yourself trying to play parts that you’re not suited for.”

MICKEY ROONEY IN BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) When most nostalgia buffs think of Breakfast At Tiffany’s – Blake Edwards’ sparkling, romantic, but pithily cynical 1961 adaptation of Truman Capote’s novel – they usually conjure up images of Audrey Hepburn looking wistfully at the display windows of the titular department store while eating a Danish and sipping a coffee, or of the quiet beauty of an empty Fifth Avenue. What they don’t reminisce about is late and legendary Hollywood actor, Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr. Yunioshi, a buck-toothed, bumbling, bespectacled Asian man who bumps his head on hanging lamp shades, and struggles to pronounce Audrey Hepburn’s character’s name, Holly Golightly, in a horribly exaggerated, and absurdly over the top accent. Though slightly problematic during the decidedly more politically and racially insensitive era in which it was released, the ridiculous performance of the Brooklyn-born Caucasian is now rightly seen as not just a blight on the film, but on Hollywood in general. But while producer, Richard Shepherd, and director, Blake Edwards, both confide on the film’s DVD audio commentary that they wish that Mr. Yunioshi had been played by an authentic Japanese actor, Mickey Rooney always remained resolute in his defence of the performance. “They hired me to do this overboard, and we had fun doing it,” the actor said in 2008. “Never in all the more than forty years after we made it has there been one complaint. People say, ‘God, you were so funny!’ Asians and Chinese come up to me and say, ‘Mickey, you were out of this world!’” Rooney obviously missed the protests that spring up whenever the film is scheduled for major retrospective screenings in in the US.

 

LAURENCE OLIVIER IN OTHELLO (1965) Despite its justifiably exalted status, the work of dramatist, William Shakespeare (and even more so, the manner in which it has been performed over hundreds of years), is unquestionably dotted with silliness and moments of era-defined inappropriateness. One of the biggest on-stage negatives of the work of Shakespeare (along with men performing the female roles) has been the unfortunate trend of Caucasian actors playing the titular character of Othello – a Moorish general horribly betrayed by his seeming best friend, and then destroyed by what he perceives to be a treacherous act of infidelity in one of The Bard’s best and most accessible plays – in dark face makeup. When the great Laurence Olivier starred in Stuart Burge’s film version of the majestic, heart-rending tragedy in 1965, it was as Othello himself, much to the chagrin of many American film critics, including The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther. “He plays Othello in blackface! He does not look like a Negro (if that’s what he’s aiming to make the Moor), and not even a West Indian chieftain, which London critics have likened him to. He looks like a Rastus, or an end man in an American minstrel show. You almost wait for him to whip a banjo out from his flowing, white garments, or start banging a tambourine. This Othello is one of the boldest that you’ll ever see, but it never achieves full liberation from that theatrical stereotype frame.” Orson Welles also performed the title role in “blackface” for his 1952 adaptation, though Othello has now rightly been made the domain of black actors, such as Laurence Fishburne (in 1995’s Othello) and Mekhi Phifer (in 2001’s contemporised O).

CHARLTON HESTON IN TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) In his long and storied career, the late, great Charlton Heston played characters of all races, essaying figures from Rome (Antony And Cleopatra), Spain (El Cid), France (The Three Musketeers), The Middle East (Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments), and many more. Heston’s most controversial against-type piece of racial casting, however, came with Orson Welles’ 1958 film noir masterpiece, Touch Of Evil, in which the actor played Ramon Miguel Vargas, a Mexican federal narcotics agent, complete with dark makeup and a razor-thin mustache. Though an unlikely decision from the ever mercurial Orson Welles, at the time, it was also a brave one. In an era when Mexicans were usually depicted in American films as either evil, shifty, stupid or lazy, this south-of-the-border lawman was a wholly upright figure. “You have the Mexican as the hero of the film, and that is very rare,” Charles Ramirez Berg, the author of Latino Images In Film, told National Public Radio in 2011. “I know that Heston is not Latino, and that he has to play a Mexican, but still, the idea that you have the leading star in this film playing a Mexican, and the Mexican is the hero? Well, that’s Orson Welles changing things up, and making it that much more powerful.” Most tellingly, the leading character in the film’s source novel – Badge Of Evil by Whit Masterson – is Anglo, and not Mexican, making Welles’ casting choice a brave and inventive one, with the director throwing a light on Mexican-US relations, and characteristically thumbing his nose at Hollywood tradition. In hindsight, however, Heston’s upright Mexican cop is an admirable but occasionally jarring figure in what remains an extraordinary film.

NICK NOLTE IN LORENZO’S OIL (1992) George Miller’s deeply moving, surprisingly uplifting true life drama, Lorenzo’s Oil – the story of Augusto and Michaela Odone, who fight tooth and nail to find a cure for the rare, seemingly incurable disease contracted by their beloved son, Lorenzo – was one of the finest films of its year, playing out as both a medical detective story, and a heart-wrenching study of a triumphant family who refuse to be ripped apart by forces beyond their control. “This is a story of empowerment,” Miller told The Los Angeles Times. “It’s a little manual for courageous human conduct.” Nick Nolte’s performance as the unlikely hero at the story’s heart, however, was the subject of considerable debate. The blonde, blue-eyed, Nebraska-born Nolte was an unlikely choice to play Italian-born economist, Augusto Odone (who sadly passed away last year), and many reviews of the time questioned the actor’s allegedly theatrical performance. “Nolte’s Italian accent is abominable,” wrote The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley. “He sounds like [Saturday Night Live comic character] Father Guido Sarducci with heartburn.” Such criticisms, however, were truly facetious, with many reviewers indeed praising his performance. “This true story is hardly a rigged disease-of-the-week TV weepie, owing to the remarkable work of Sarandon and Nolte,” said Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers. And though Nolte – with darkened hair and eyes – did indeed go hammer-and-tongs with the accent (George Miller believes that it prevented the actor from receiving an Oscar nomination), he received approval from where it mattered most: Augusto Odone himself. “He spent several days with me, and did quite a good job,” the economist told The Sun Sentinel. “It’s a very commendable performance. Anyway, he’s a great actor.”

ANGELINA JOLIE IN A MIGHTY HEART (2007) When A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life And Death Of My Husband Danny Pearl was optioned by Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company in 2003, it was likely inevitable that the role of the book’s author, Mariane Pearl, would be played by his eventual (and now ex) wife, Angelina Jolie, who Pitt met a year before on the set of Mr. & Mrs Smith. The powerful, heartbreaking story of the kidnap, torture, and beheading of Mariane’s husband, Daniel Pearl (a South Asia Bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal), in conflict-plagued Pakistan, the book was brought to gritty, unsentimental, hyper-authentic life by director, Michael Winterbottom (Road To Guantanamo, 24-Hour Party People), and Jolie anchored it with a beautifully restrained, subtly nuanced performance. Matching Mariane Pearl’s looks, however, provided one of the film’s greatest challenges. Born in France of Afro-Latino-Cuban decent, Pearl wasn’t exactly a dead ringer for Jolie, who is of German, Dutch, Canadian, French, Slovak and Iroquois heritage. “It’s important to do everything that you can to help an audience forget that they’re watching someone that they’ve seen in other ways,” Jolie told FilmInk in 2007 of her physical transformation for the role. “This was an important film, so I wanted to be as invisible as possible, and to let Mariane come through. The transformation did help to do that. We tested five different shades of brown contacts. Michael [Winterbottom] really hates contacts and wigs. I thought that I was going to look terrible with brown eyes and curly hair, but it looked okay. I had so much firsthand reference, but that made me more nervous. I still can’t do Mariane’s accent in front of her.”

WILLEM DAFOE IN THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) The portrayal of Jesus Christ has famously been one of the most racially inaccurate in the history of cinema. Though historically a Jewish man born in Jerusalem in The Middle East, Jesus has been traditionally presented iconographically as being blonde-haired and blue-eyed, obviously as a result of Christianity nestling most comfortably in Europe and its colonies. Though director, Mel Gibson, furnished American actor, Jim Caviezel, with facial prosthesis and a dark wig for a more geographically appropriate portrayal of Jesus in his controversial 2004 film, The Passion Of The Christ, most film versions of the life of Christ have followed on from the decidedly more Anglo depictions common in most Catholic and Christian religious art. Witness Swedish actor, Max Von Sydow, in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965); American heartthrob, Jeffrey Hunter, in King Of Kings (1961); sandy-haired pretty boy hippy, Ted Neeley, in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973); and Portuguese sex symbol, Diogo Morgado, in the recent smash hit TV mini-series, The Bible. Even famed cinematic realist, Martin Scorsese, stuck with the European tradition of his Little Italy roots when he cast blonde-haired and blue-eyed Willem Dafoe in the title role of 1988’s The Last Temptation Of Christ. “I enjoy just wallowing in this imagery,” says the Catholic Scorsese in the book, Scorsese On Scorsese. “The minute that I saw Willem Dafoe, I felt very comfortable with his face. He becomes the Jesus that we are familiar with in the Aryan Christian tradition. Oddly enough, all the guys that we considered for the part were blue-eyed!” Considering the controversy that eventually flared up around the film, Dafoe’s geographically inappropriate casting was the very least of anyone’s worries.

MICKEY ROURKE IN KILLSHOT (2008) “It’s difficult to be an actor regardless of who you are,” says Native-American actor, Tokala Clifford, who featured in the 2006 TV series, Into The West. “But as far as facing adversity based on racial bias, I don’t think there is any doubt that actors of Native American ethnicity have faced an uphill struggle. We still face that uphill struggle.” Hollywood’s history with Native-Americans is an ugly and divisive one. Until the late sixties, the US’ indigenous population was presented in film – particularly westerns – simply as “the enemy”, a brutal bad guy there to be outsmarted and vanquished en masse. To add further insult, Native-American characters were rarely, if ever, played by Native-American actors, with the bizarre likes of Burt Lancaster (Apache), Victor Mature (Chief Crazy Horse), Rock Hudson (Winchester ‘73), Chuck Connors (Geronimo), Katharine Ross (Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here), Audrey Hepburn (The Unforgiven), and many more donning “redface” right up until the late sixties. With the arrival of a new political consciousness, and charismatic Native-American actors like Chief Dan George and Will Sampson in the seventies, that trend was slowly but surely reversed, and indigenous American characters are now more commonly played by racially appropriate actors. There are exceptions: the apparently part-Navajo Johnny Depp upset sectors of the Native-American community by playing Tonto in the big budget western, The Lone Ranger, while the Miami-bred, Irish-heritage Mickey Rourke was a bizarre choice to play Native-American hitman, Armand “Blackbird” Degas in director, John Madden’s little seen 2008 thriller, Killshot. “That movie is the best work that I’ve done for fifteen years,” Rourke said of his strangely compelling performance in the barely released Elmore Leonard adaptation.

ANTHONY QUINN IN ZORBA THE GREEK (1964) Anthony Quinn was born Antonio Rudolfo Oaxaca Quinn in 1915, in Chihuahua, Mexico, to an Irish-Mexican father and a Mexican mother. After a hardscrabble early childhood, his family moved to Los Angeles, California, which eventually set up the dark, racially nebulous Anthony Quinn as an actor who could literally play just about any race or nationality on the planet. Initially, however, his chances were more limited. “They said that all I was good for was playing Indians,” he once remarked. In his long, prolific career, Quinn would ultimately play, amongst others, Mexican (Viva Zapata), Italian (The Salamander), Native American (They Died With Their Boots On), Spanish (Seven Cities Of Gold), North African (Road To Morocco), Filipino (Back To Bataan), and French (Lust For Life). When asked about his often confused ethnicity, Quinn once responded, “It doesn’t make a difference as long as I’m a person in the world.” The actor was true to his word, giving two of his best, most celebrated performances playing characters with far different racial backgrounds to his own. In David Lean’s classic 1962 adventure, Lawrence Of Arabia, he commandingly played Arab desert leader, Auda Abu Tayi, while Quinn unforgettably took the title role in Michael Cacoyannis’ 1964 adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis‘ seminal novel, Zorba The Greek, as a romantic, gregarious Greek who changes the life of an uptight British writer (Alan Bates) travelling through Crete. The original casting choices of backing studio, Twentieth Century Fox, however, were even more unusual. “Nobody wanted to do this role,” Anthony Quinn has said. “Burl Ives and Burt Lancaster turned it down. They said, ‘Who cares about an old man making love to a broken-down old broad?’”

KAMAHL AND ED DEVEREAUX IN JOURNEY OUT OF DARKNESS (1967) Despite boasting a number of fine Aboriginal actors from both the past (Ngarla Kunoth, Robert Tudawali) and present (David Gulpilil, Aaron Pedersen, Deborah Mailman, Luke Carroll, and more), Australia has had an occasionally forced on-screen relationship with the indigenous community. One of the most unusual and internally conflicted examples is the little seen 1967 adventure drama, Journey Out Of Darkness, which was wholly sympathetic to Aboriginal issues of the time, yet featured a white actor playing an indigenous Australian in “blackface”, and a Malaysian-born performer in another Aboriginal role. Co-written by Howard Koch (Casablanca), and directed by his Australian-born, US-based son-in-law, James Trainor (who would never direct again), the film was the first and final feature made by Australian-American Pictures, and followed a police constable (Konrad Matthaei) and Aboriginal tracker (white actor, Ed Devereaux, best known for playing Matt Hammond on the TV series, Skippy) dispatched from Melbourne to arrest an Arrernte man (the one and only Kamahl, years before his installment as an Australian pop cultural icon) responsible for a ritual killing in Central Australia. Though involving and intelligent, Journey Out Of Darkness made little impact at the box office, and quickly sank from view. “Its failure can largely be attributed to the casting (but certainly not the performances) of Kamahl and Ed Devereaux,” writes curator, Richard Kuipers, on the Australian Screen website. “A popular Malaysian-born singer of Tamil heritage, Kamahl vaguely approximates the look of an Arrernte man, but the ‘blackface’ makeup applied to Ed Devereaux severely compromises the film’s credibility. Blackface had all but been abandoned in Hollywood by the late thirties, making Devereaux’s appearance seem all the more anachronistic in the socially progressive sixties.”

PETER SELLERS IN THE PARTY (1968) “With Peter, you never really knew what you were getting into,” director, Blake Edwards, once said. Edwards and Sellers made seven movies together, including the five hugely successful Pink Panther films. “We clicked on comedy,” Edwards told the DGA Quarterly. “We also had an ability to come up with funny things, and great situations that had to be explored. But in that exploration, there would oftentimes be disagreement, but I couldn’t resist those moments when we jelled. And if you ask me who contributed most to those things, it couldn’t have happened unless both of us were involved, even though it wasn’t always happy.” One of the duo’s happiest collaborations was on the 1968 comedy favourite, The Party, in which Sellers plays Hrundi V. Bakshi, an almost impossibly polite actor from India who unintentionally but absolutely ferociously destroys a high-style party being thrown in a lavish Hollywood mansion by a movie studio bigwig. A renowned master of disguise, accents, and racial reappropriation (his French accent as the doltish Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films is a true joy to behold), Sellers daringly plays the role in “brownface”, a decision that prompted a minor critical backlash at the time of the film’s release. The Party’s box office failure, however, prevented any major controversy from boiling over due to a basic lack of interest, though the film has eventually gone on to become a cult favourite. The fact that Sellers’ sweet, soulful, and inherently decent (though clumsy) Hrundi V. Bakshi is the only right-thinking figure in a crowd of morally bankrupt Hollywood phonies also successfully negates any suspicions that the actor is indulging merely in cheap caricature or racial debasement.

THE WHOLE CAST IN CLOUD ATLAS (2012) Not much loved considering its filmmaking cache, Cloud Atlas is an epic mind-bender co-directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana (who created the Matrix trilogy). Based on the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, the film rides on half-a-dozen interlinked stories that chronicle human experience and interconnectivity, taking the viewer across six time periods that span the 19th and 20th centuries and beyond, to two distinct future timeframes. There are 1800s seafaring adventures, enigmatic native tribes, seventies fashions, and primal-futuristic sequences that unfold entirely and unapologetically in Pidgin English. And on top of that, each cast member plays multiple roles within various time periods, often crossing gender and racial lines, and undergoing radical transformations using prosthetic makeup and wardrobe in order to do so. Halle Berry, for instance, plays an African-American seventies-era gossip columnist, an elderly white Jewish woman, a pan-racial male doctor, an Indian woman glimpsed at a party, and a tattooed South Pacific native. “The idea of changing genders and colours and having a Korean actor play a Mexican means that as you are watching the film, the main point of the film comes through subliminally in a fluid way,” actress Susan Sarandon – who plays an Arabic man at one point during the film – told FilmInk. “It doesn’t matter what the wrapping is, because underneath that, the spirit and the humanity is consistent.” Tom Hanks – who plays multiple against-type characters, including an African-American criminal turned author – was thrilled by the whole experience. “The great thing about this is that we got to dress up and pretend to be people that we’re not,” he told FilmInk. “It was liberating fun every time.”

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