Here's a zen koan to ponder: When the director Rob Marshall got slammed for casting Chinese actors as Japanese characters in Memoirs of a Geisha, was that controversy actually a sign of progress? This old article, keying off the hubbub over the Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce's casting as a Eurasian pimp in Miss Saigon, gives some perspective. Not too long ago, fully Euro thespians were donning "yellowface" to play Asians:
"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."
The article, by one Robert B. Ito, contains some humor (and Mickey Rooney's "Mr. Yunioshi" is singled out for well deserved abuse), but I don't understood why a 100-percent Asian actor would have been more appropriate to play a Eurasian than a 100-percent Euro actor. Should we insist on precise 50-50 genetic makeup for mixed-race roles, and if so should mixed-race performers be allowed to play 100-percenters? Back in the glory days of "passing" dramas, white actresses like Susan Kohner and Jeanne Crain brought home the kudos for playing troubled mulattos, while Jennifer Jones turned in an admirably anti-communist performance as a Eurasian in the otherwise unwatchable 50s dinosaur Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing. Today, on the other hand, Halle Berry acts like she's Harriet Tubman in her Oscar acceptance speech, even though her white mother is her only family member in the Kodak Theater.
Ito also leaves out some of the richest material in the history. There's no mention, for example, of Khigh Dhiegh, the Anglo-Egyptian-Sudanese actor who made a career out of playing inscrutable Asiatics, most famously the recurring villain "Wo Fat" on Hawaii Five-0. Maybe Dhiegh, like Jones, gets a pass because he didn't wear grotesque makeup. (Interesingly, Dhiegh became a notable I-Ching scholar and founder of the Taoist Institute of North Hollywood, suggesting an Iron Eyes Cody-level submersion of self into a reverse-ethnic signature role.) Nor is there any mention of Keye Luke, who started out portraying the ultimate ABC—the jazz-age, roadster-driving Number One Son—but ended up voicing Charlie Chan himself in The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan and playing the guy who sells Hoyt Axton the gremlin in Gremlins. That must make Keye Luke the Bert Williams of yellowface.
What of the Caucasian version of yellowface: the rich tradition of all-purpose "ethnics" in film? Tony Shalhoub, Mercedes Ruehl, F. Murray Abraham, Anthony Quinn—what would we do without all you wonderful Italian Greek Slavic Colombian Arab Jews? Should the same leeway apply in Asian casting? Memoirs of a Geisha seems like lateral progress: Instead of a Caucasian group standing in for an Asian group you have two Asian groups who hate each other exchanging roles. Since the movie and the source novel are really works of Asian fetishism suited to the David Belasco era, there may have been no way to get it right. As it turns out, Geisha pretty much tanked, bringing in $48 million and being categorized as a "loss marker" or "bomb" in a recent Film Comment roundup of the 2005 box office. Little, yellow, different, better indeed.