In a recent article for Cinematical, I wrote: "Too often, Asian-American actors are relegated to bit parts (the food delivery guy, gangster #3, mysterious prostitute) simply because of their race." Historically, there's another reason why Asian-American actors have not been cast in leading roles, even when the role is that of an Asian or Asian-American character: the "yellow face" factor, in which a non-Asian actor is cast as an Asian.

Playwright/actor David Henry Hwang has written a play with that title, which was inspired by the controversy that arose in the early 1990s when non-Asian actor Jonathan Pryce was cast as a Eurasian character in the original stage production of Miss Saigon. (Hwang's play opens shortly off-Broadway in New York.) Robert B. Ito wrote a biting article on the subject in Bright Lights Film Journalthat gave historical context.

Philip W. Chung commented on the phenomenon last week in AsianWeek: "Often, these 'yellow face' performances [by non-Asian actors] both reinforced and embodied all the negative stereotypes -- funny accent, slanted eyes, buck teeth, and enough 'Orientalism' to send the yellow fever meter through the roof." Chung compiled a list of 25 "yellow face" film performances "that have arguably had the most impact on our cultural landscape." Last week's article counted down from #25 to #11.

Chung starts off his list with a recent example -- Christopher Walken in Balls of Fury-- and then stretches back to Richard Barthelmess in D. W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919), which he says formed a "template for Hollywood's take on Asian men ... unrealistically noble, feminine and utterly asexual." Chung takes a fascinating skip through the decades and points out "yellow face" performances by Fisher Stevens (#20), Eddie Murphy (#18) and Peter Lorre (#13).

AsianWeek's Top 10 will be counted down this week. Who do you think should be included on the list?
categories Cinematical