Casting actresses in ethnic roles

In no way do I mean to criticize Philip Brasor’s Aug. 10 Media Mix column, “Critics get frank when it comes to Godzilla“; however, I have never quite understood the derision given to the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” over the casting of Chinese actresses in three leading roles.

About 45 years ago, similar complaints were made when James Shigeta and Miyoshi Umeki, both of Japanese descent, were cast in “Flower Drum Song,” a musical about San Francisco’s Chinatown. Attractive Asian actors who could sing were sought, and actually the singing of the one Chinese in a leading role, Nancy Kwan, was dubbed. (Jack Soo was also in that movie, but he was born Goro Suzuki — Japanese.)

Moreover, when casting “Miss Saigon,” an attractive young Asian who could sing was sought, and ultimately the role went to Lea Salonga, a Filipina.

I personally think that at least using real Asians for these roles is a great improvement over the days when Caucasians got these roles and were made up to look somewhat Asian, such as Luise Rainer in “The Good Earth” or Ricardo Montalban in “Sayonara.”

Even former U.S. first lady Nancy Reagan once performed as a Chinese maid during her acting days.

As far as Caucasian actors go, they are hardly ever cast according to their true ethnicity. For example, Meryl Streep has won Oscars for roles as disparate as Sophie, a Polish Auschwitz survivor, and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She has also played a Dane, an Italian, a German, etc. Al Pacino of Italian descent has had roles as Cuban, Armenian, Polish-American, Jewish, etc.

As for “Memories of a Geisha,” it did offer significant roles to Japanese actors such as Kaori Momoi, Ken Watanabe and Koji Yakusho. Wasn’t it better to have Chinese actresses play geisha than, say, Penelope Cruz with a lot of eye make-up?

lora sharnoff
tokyo

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.