Friday, July 5, 2013

That Face, That Race

Tuesday, I read the short article on the Buzzfeed website called "10 Times White Actors Played People of Color."  The article, with photos, was inspired by the opening of Disney's The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp as Tonto, a Native American.  Depp is one of the ten.  Also included are Burt Lancaster and Chuck Connors and Indians (Native Americans), Mickey Rooney as an bucktoothed Asian in Breakfast at Tiffany's and Laurence Olivier in Othello.  Missing is Robert Downey, Jr. in his Oscar-nominated performance as an actor playing a black soldier in the Hollywood satire, Tropic Thunder.
The race-switching issue in casting is really more widespread than hinted at in the Buzzfeed piece and has been happening since Hollywood's silent era.  Sometimes, it's an opportunity for ethnic actors to prove their versatility in character roles -- or simply to get a paycheck because they didn't get as many script offers as a Hedy Lamarr.  And there's an example for you.  MGM had beautiful singer/actress Lena Horne under contract.

But who did the studio cast as the African jungle temptress in 1942's White Cargo?  Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr.  In dark make-up and wearing Congo attire.

The movie was a hit for Hedy.

Luise Rainer, Jewish and born in Germany, won her second consecutive Best Actress Academy Award for her performance as a Chinese peasant in 1937's The Good Earth.

The Best Actor Oscar for 1937 went to a burly Irish guy from Milwaukee.  Spencer Tracy won for playing a Portuguese fisherman father figure in Captains Courageous.
Tracy and his co-star in several films, Katharine Hepburn, both played outside their race.
She played a Chinese bride in the movie Dragon Seed (1944).

My point is -- this kind of casting has happened in Hollywood for a long, time time.  We minorities do it too.  Anthony Quinn was Mexican.  He won his first Oscar for playing a Mexican revolutionary in  Viva Zapata!  Marlon Brando played Zapata.  Quinn got another Oscar nomination for his starring role as Zorba the Greek.  He also played an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia.  Rita Moreno is Puerto Rican.  She won her Oscar for playing a Puerto Rican in West Side Story.  Before that, she played an Asian woman in the musical, The King and I.  Mexican Ricardo Montalban was Asian in Sayonara.  Rex Ingram, a gifted black actor from Illinois, had one of his biggest roles as the genie in 1940's The Thief of Bagdad. He went on work with Lena Horne as The Devil next to her polka-dotted vamp character in MGM's all-black musical comedy fable, Cabin in the Sky.

Eddie Murphy played Saul, a Jewish senior citizen in Coming to America (1988).
Yes.  That's Eddie Murphy.  Brilliant make-up job in that comedy.

Sidney Poitier played Middle Eastern men in The Long Ships and the Biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told.  There are two Oscar-nominated performances in classic films, however, that make me say "Bless your heart, but you are so not a black person."  The first film is Saratoga Trunk.  Before I write about that movie, let me introduce you to Theresa Harris.  This lovely, talented black actress worked steadily in films through the 1930s and 40s.  She was usually, but not always, in maid roles.  The camera loved her.

She acted opposite Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich and Loretta Young.  She played opposite Barbara Stanwyck as the best friend in Baby Face and she was the maid to Bette Davis' headstrong Southern belle in Warner Brothers' Oscar-winning Jezebel.

British actress Flora Robson worked opposite Laurence Olivier in 1939's Wuthering Heights.  She played Queen Elizabeth I in The Sea Hawk starring Errol Flynn.  She also played one of the conflicted nuns in the classic British film, Black Narcissus. 

Somehow Warner Brothers studio executives looked at Flora Robson, turned to each other and said, "That white lady is perfect to play the black Southern maid in our production of Saratoga Trunk starring Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper."

For this performance in Saratoga Trunk, Flora Robson was an Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress of 1946.  Theresa Harris and Butterfly McQueen must have called each other up and said, "What the phuk?" (Pardon my language.)  The next film is a tragedy from Shakespeare.

Laurence Olivier earned one of his 9 Best Actor Oscar nominations for playing Othello.
I didn't see this film when it was released in 1965.  I saw it years later.  Before I did, I remember a Pakistani classmate in college talking about it when I was a freshman.  She'd seen it and told me, "Olivier was too black and looked like he'd just eaten a cherry popsicle."  I never forgot that.  When it aired on TV, I saw exactly what she meant.

A good performance is nearly sabotaged by a bad make-up job.  He's unnaturally dark.  He should've been the same shade as Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder.  Instead, Laurence Olivier is so dark as Othello that he makes Yaphet Kotto look mulatto.  On the stage, he could've gotten by with it.  But, for the movie cameras, it just looked wrong.  If they wanted a good black actor as Shakespeare's Moor, why didn't they just cast Sidney Poitier?  He was one of the Top 10 box office stars of the decade.  He won his historic Best Actor Oscar for 1963's Lilies of the Field.  He starred in two of the biggest hits of 1967 -- and they were two of the five Oscar nominees for Best Picture:  In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?  The winner was In the Heat of the Night.

I know.  Oliver's production sported an all-British company.  And a good company it was.

I loved Olivier's acting in several films.  He was a master at his craft.  Still, for me, it would've been wonderful to have seen Sidney Poitier play Othello onscreen.

There you have it.  Some examples of different race casting that missed.


  1. Yes, Buzzfeed missed quite a few. Race casting was pretty much business as usual in the Golden Age of Hollywood and has persisted far longer than a lot of people realise. I remember a few years ago I did a series on Native Americans on television and I wasn't surprised to find out so many non-Natives had played Native characters.

    1. My initial feeling was that the Buzzfeed columnist is a young writer. You're right. Race casting was pretty much business as usual. The first time I saw THE SEARCHERS on a big screen in a revival theater, I thought that the blue-eyed Indian who took little Debby looked like he should've been in OCEAN'S 11 with Sinatra.

  2. If the world wasn't divided so much by race, perhaps some of these portrayals wouldn't be so offensive. A good role is a good role to an actor. I love Theresa Harris. There is a play in Chicago loosely based on her life. Val Lewton gave her a great role in I Walked With A Zombie.

  3. Lewton sure did, Stephen. I would have loved to see Theresa Harris work with Ingrid Bergman in SARATOGA TRUNK.



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