06 July 2006

Hayakawa's Regret

    One of the perverse things about updating this blog at this time of morning is that the only non-news show to be found is Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.  Its ridiculousness, of course, is (appropriately) legendary, and so hardly needs further remark here.  Even letting it air in the background, however, does incur a degree of physical danger.  As I have been reminded, it is profoundly imprudent to sip scalding hot coffee when, at any time, Semi-Known-Available-Asian-Actor might mutter something impossibly risible right into the camera.  I always pity the SKAAA after I wipe the accidental spray from my beard and shirt.  The SKAAA is usually some poor chap like Mako or Soon Tek-Oh or James Hong, a M*A*S*H alum stuck taking any part that comes along because Hollywood hardly offers him any better.  This morning's victim was George Takei, no stranger to televised shite, but for whom I still felt intense sympathy--- after I had wiped the coffee out of my nose. 
    Sure, Takei's no Toshiro Mifune or Tatsuya Nakadai, but my heart momentarily went out to him, much as it might for a colleague reduced to swigging vodka from a paper bag in some darkened alley.  SKAAAs are a pitiable lot, seldom getting decent parts, and often in those instances when parts demand venerable Asian actors, Hollywood has tended to think to itself, "Gee, we need a Brit to play this part!"  See the classically unconscionable casting of John Gielgud as Chang in the 70s Lost Horizon.  Or, rather, don't.  You'll not forgive me if you do.  See even, dare I say it, Alec Guinness in the fifties "comedy" Majority of One.  

      Let us consider, for example, poor Keye Luke, Master Po from the original Kung Fu series, was in the film industry for 55 years and never really got past being a SKAAA.  Most of my readers will know him only as Mr. Wing from the Gremlins movies, which is in itself quite sad.  Asian actors in North America just aren't going to get the chances to cultivate renown or respect as they age in the same ways that, say, Gene Hackman or Morgan Freeman have had.  The older they get, the more they will simply become SKAAAs, interchangeable and largely anonymous, except perhaps to have the odd Baby-Boomer say, "Oh, yeah, wasn't he on M*A*S*H?"  Sure, there will be brief flirtations with Chow Yun-Fats and Jet Lis every now and again, but those flirtations are sporadic and fleeting.  The only exceptions here, really, are Mifune and Bruce Lee, but the latter died young and the former stayed primarily in Japanese films that happened to find markets here, namely the Kurosawa classics.  My female readers may note that I haven't mentioned any actresses in all this.  I don't simply because the actresses have generally been even more abominably treated.   Let me put it simply: Is there, in North America, an Asian Maggie Smith or Angela Lansbury, or even, heaven forefend, Susan Sarandon?   Frankly, I'd love to see a Helen Mirren.
    It happens, coincidentally enough that I write this in the same week that I watched The Bridge On The River Kwai again.  One of its stars, the stalwart Sessue Hayakawa, is reputed to have said that his one ambition was to play a hero.  He never did, even though he tragically turned down the role that made Rudolph Valentino a legend.  Hayakawa's predicament, however, remains largely typical for Asian actors who don't get routed through chop-socky flicks with shoestring budgets.  There's something more than a bit sad about that, so relatively little having changed over the decades.  There remains the stable of SKAAAs, most treated pretty scuzzily and trapped in stereotypes guised as parts.  I wonder what Mr. Hayakawa would have to say about that.

     Somehow, I doubt he'd shoot coffee through his nose.

     FOLLOWUP:    It occurred to me that to post as I did without art was, in effect, to create my own SKAAA-type error, reducing these actors to generic types. So I have since added the few pics above Misters Takei, Luke and Hayakawa. Odd to note, though, the general dearth of pictures of these actors on the web that are NOT connected to Star Trek. Oy vey.

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