Friday, August 3, 2018

On Asian-American Actors and Woody Allen

My previous two posts focused on Asian-American actors.  This post will make it three.  Spielberg's blockbuster hit, JURASSIC PARK, is on TV right now.  When this movie was just opening, I worked on WNBC's local weekend morning news show.  I got cast member B.D. Wong to come in for a live, in-studio interview.  He and I went to the same gym back in those days and he lived in my neighborhood.  I asked him to be on the show.  During the interview, I commented that the Spielberg sci-fi thriller would be dinosaur-big at the box office and would probably inspire a sequel.  I asked him if he'd be interested in repeating his scientist role in a sequel.  He said, "Yes," but he was not in the next JURASSIC PARK thriller.  No one wrote a part for him.  That's an example of Asian-Americans being underrepresented in film, in my opinion.  Look at 1993's JURASSIC PARK again.  If it was not for B.D. Wong's scientist character, there would not have been any modern-day dinosaurs.  He was a Dr. Frankenstein, if you will.  A vital character who scientifically engineered the rebooting of dinosaurs.  But a few JURASSIC PARK sequels went by before someone had the idea to bring B.D. back in for another appearance.
When I was in high school, I went to summer camp.  I'd gone to summer camp in my elementary school years and hated it.  I didn't want to be in the San Bernardino mountains.  I wanted to be home, indoors, with a cold drink and watching classic Warner Bros. cartoons.  The high school camp experience was the exact opposite.  It was a late 1960s camp experience called "Camp Brotherhood Anytown."  The National Conference of Christians and Jews sponsored this camp to bring Southern California kids of different races and backgrounds together to dialogue in that politically turbulent decade.  A few of us guys from the same high school in Watts attended.  We met kids white kids who lived in the Beverly Hills and Brentwood areas.  Kids who'd been to Europe.  Some of us black teens had never been out of California.  After we talked and heard about their high school experiences compared to ours in South Central L.A, the thing that hit us in the face like a bucket of cold mountain creek water was the access they had to scholarships, financial aid and extra-curricular school activities that we'd never even heard of -- and they came from financially upscale suburban households.  The differences weren't just racial.  The differences between the haves and have-nots were especially stunning to us.  Those white teens from upscale families had privileges they didn't even realize.

One the fellow campers I met and kept in touch with was a dancer, an Asian-American high school student named Cherylene Lee.  She was a show biz kid so, of course, I loved chatting with her.  When we all returned from camp, she was planning to audition for a musical slated to play the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the L.A. Music Center.  Cherylene had a movie to her credit.  She was in FLOWER DRUM SONG, Universal's film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway hit musical comedy.  In this number, Cherylene was littlest one in the trio of kids.
In a current edition of The Hollywood Reporter, there's a major article about CRAZY RICH ASIANS.  It's "CRAZY RICH ASIANS:  The Stakes Are High for 'Crazy Rich Asians' -- And That's the Point."  The columnist wrote that before CRAZY RICH ASIANS, opening this month, 1993's THE JOY LUCK CLUB was the only Hollywood studio movie to feature an entirely Asian-American ensemble.

What about 1961's FLOWER DRUM SONG?  Oscar winner Miyoshi Umeki repeated her Broadway leading lady role.  She'd won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her dramatic performance in 1957's SAYONARA.  She'd add a hit sitcom to her credits thanks to ABC's THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER.  FLOWER DRUM SONG also featured the versatile and vivacious Nancy Kwan, handsome actor James Shigeta and fabulous comic actor Jack Soo (years later, a member of the BARNEY MILLER hit sitcom ensemble on ABC.)

In our talks and letters, what was a main topic between Cherylene and me in our teen years?  Diversity in show biz.  She knew I wanted to go into TV and, if possible, film.  We both hoped there would be respectable work opportunities for two young people of color.  We knew then, in the late 1960s, that there were color barriers in show business.

Is there work for people of color in Film and TV?  That topic is still active today.  Recently, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in Los Angeles released findings -- disappointing findings -- on the current state of Hollywood's embrace of diversity and inclusion. In areas of Underserved Groups in Films, Films Without Any Characters and Percentage of Speaking Characters, the Asian-American community is last under woman, characters with disabilities, LGBT characters, Black and Latino characters.  That is why CRAZY RICH ASIANS is such a big deal.  People who have been overlooked will be getting close-ups on the big screen come August 15th.
If we people of color had been hired by network TV news shows and syndicated film review programs to be film critics, we would have raised these diversity and inclusion issues years ago. We notice those things and we tend to call them out because we know how it feels to be passed over and ignored.  For a fairly recent example of how Asian-Americans were underrepresented in a film, watch Woody Allen's Oscar winning 2013 film, BLUE JASMINE.  Cate Blanchett deserved the Oscar she won for Best Actress.  Sally Hawkins deserved her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  However...BLUE JASMINE is a film that takes place in and was shot on location in San Francisco.  I lived in San Francisco around that time in some of the very neighborhoods seen in the film.  You know what I saw every single day in San Francisco?  Lots and lots of Asian people.  Everywhere.  I saw them and interacted with them.  San Francisco has Asian-American people like McDonald's has buns and burger patties.

Now watch BLUE JASMINE.  There's not one single role done by an Asian-American actor.  I was dumbfounded.  The characters played by Peter Sarsgaard and Louis C.K., and the dentist played by Michael Stuhlbarg could have been played by Asian-American actors.  And, if they had been, BLUE JASMINE would've had a more accurate representation and feel of the San Francisco so many of us know.  To a degree, with his characters played by Andrew Dice Clay and Bobby Cannavale coupled with the way they played them, Woody Allen shipped the 1970s/80s Brooklyn vibe of his previous New York City-based films to San Francisco.

BLUE JASMINE is on Netflix.  Check it out and see what I mean.  And, again, I wish all the best the cast of CRAZY RICH ASIANS.

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