Oscar 2005: Discriminating Asian Americans

Due to the peculiar nature of casting the high-profile but artistically disappointing “Memoirs of a Geisha,” three Asian actresses (all playing Japanese geishas) are vying for Oscar nominations. Zhang Ziyi, who plays the lead, is known to voters from “Crouching Tiher, Hidden Dragon,” “Hero,” and “The House of Flying Daggers.” Gong Li, still associated with her collaborations with Zhang Yimou and terrific turn in Chen Kaige's “Farewell My Concubine,” and Michelle Yeou, the Hong-Kong based actress who appeared in the James Bond picture, “Tomorrow Never Dies,” are vying for the Supporting league.

What About Asian American Actors

In 1983, an all-Asian, female-dominated melodrama, “The Joy Luck Club,” directed by Wayne Wang and based on the popular best-seller, found an audience, but comes Oscar time, the film and its actresses were totally ignored by the Academy.

In 1984, rather coincidentally, two Asians were nominated for the Supporting Actor Oscar: Haing S. Ngor (who won) for “The Killing Fields,” and Noriuki “Pat” Morita, as R. Macchio's instructor, Mr. Miyagi, in “The Karate Kid.”

In 1987, even when a movie like Bertolucci's “The Last Emperor” sweeps all nine of its nominations, including Best Picture and Director, no Asian or Asian-American was even nominated for the film. This was a major blow to John Lone, who played the grown-up Pu Yi, and Joan Chen, as his expresses, both of whom were excellent. It's noteworthy that “The Last Emperor” was one of the few Best Picture winners (the first since the 1958' “Gigi”) to receive no nominations for acting.

In fact, Asian and Iranian performers stand stronger chance to received acting nominations that Asian American or Arab American actors.

In 2003, Iranian actress Shoreh Aghdashloo received a lot of attention when she earned a Supporting nomination for “House of Sand and Fog,” in which she played an Iranian wife.

In the same year, Japanese Ken Watanabe was singled out, also in the secondary leaguer, in the Tom Cruise starrer, “The Last Samurai.” As I pointed elsewhere, Watanabe may receive a second Supporting nomination this year, as “the General” and object of desire of Zhang Ziyi, in “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

Whites Winning Oscars for Asian Roles

It took a long time for Asian American actors to be recognized by the Academy. Reflecting Hollywood's biases against Asian Americans, several white performers won the Oscar for playing Asian roles, a practice that would not be acceptable today. Luise Rainer won a second undeserved Best Actress for The Good Earth, based on Pearl S. Buck's book, in which she played O-lan, the gentle wife of poor Chinese peasant Wang (Paul Muni).

In “Dragon Seed” (1944), also based on a Buck work, Katharine Hepburn was miscast as bright, intelligent woman growing up in a Chinese village. Though not as prestigious as The Good Earth, the film was nominated for two Oscars: Supporting Actress to Aline MacMahon, as Hepburn's tradition-oriented mother, and cinematography to Sidney Wagner. Ironically, the few Asian actors in Dragon Seed played the villainous Japanese invaders. Ludicrously miscast from the leads to the second bananas, the film also features Walter Huston, Agnes Moorehead, and J. Carrol Naish as Chinese villagers.

Naish deserves a note in this discussion. Though Irish by descent, he always played ethnic roles due to his dark skin and great capacity with accents. Naish received a supporting nomination for A Medal for Benny (1945), in which he played the father of a young man scorned by his villagers who becomes a war hero after his death in combat.

Naish was in “good” company. Flora Robson, one of Britain's finest actresses, received a supporting nomination for Saratoga Trunk (1946), a Gary Cooper vehicle, in which she was preposterously miscast as a mulatto servant.