Saturday, November 24, 2012

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Friday, September 28, 2012

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Friday, August 3, 2012

‘Miss’-ing the Point

My last two blogposts about controversies over casting in the entertainment industry bring to mind Miss Saigon.  The furor that erupted in 1990 over casting a white actor in the Broadway musical’s Asian male lead remains, to me, the mother of all casting controversies.  It sticks in my mind because the press and public discourse at the time barely recognized Asian American performers as a group that did not have equal opportunities in the entertainment industry — and the reason they didn’t have those opportunities was because of their race.  For this post, I have reprinted a slightly modified version of an article that I wrote about the controversy in 2000, marking the dispute’s tenth anniversary:

Ten years have now passed since the tumultuous casting controversy over the musical Miss Saigon.  Back in August 1990, many Asian Americans exploded with anger when the powerful British theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh (Cats, Phantom of the Opera) cast a white British actor, Jonathan Pryce, as the Asian male lead, the Engineer, in the Broadway transplant of the original London production.  (Pryce had originated the role on London’s West End wearing eye prosthetics to make him look more Asian.)  The Asian American actors took their grievance to their union, Actors’ Equity, saying that they were not seriously considered for a rare Asian male lead on Broadway.  Equity agreed and denied the British actor approval to obtain an H-1B visa and play the role in the U.S., saying that Mackintosh hadn’t cast his net wide enough and that a white actor in a lead Asian role was “an affront to the Asian community.”  Mackintosh then indignantly claimed that Equity had denied Pryce a visa “on the basis of his race” and announced the cancellation the Broadway production.  (Mackintosh had the option of taking Equity’s decision to arbitration but chose not to.)  By then, Miss Saigon had already racked up a then-record $25 million in advance ticket sales, and New York City was hoping that the musical would bolster a financially lackluster season on Broadway.  Here is how I describe the events elsewhere:

The response by the press and the Broadway elites [to Mackintosh’s cancellation] was swift and severe: Equity was being “racist” against Pryce. Little mention was made of Asian American actors routinely denied the opportunities to star on the mainstream stage. All the punditocracy could see was a white man victimized by “reverse discrimination.” Equity eventually backed down. Pryce opened the Engineer on Broadway in 1991 sans prosthetics, and he was awarded the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical, perhaps as an apology by the Broadway establishment.

Jonathan Pryce wearing eye prosthetics as the Engineer in
the 1989 London production of ‘Miss Saigon’.  Pryce discarded
the prosthetics when the musical moved to Broadway in 1991.

The Miss Saigon controversy erupted in an effort to raise awareness about the paucity of opportunities for Asian American performers.  A decade later, it may be said that Asian actors have a somewhat higher profile in the American entertainment industry, and producers appear to be more conscientious about casting Asian roles with ethnically Asian thespians.  Still, outside the Asian American community, the Miss Saigon dispute is widely remembered as a clear-cut case of “anti-white racism.”  Meanwhile, within very vocal parts of Asian America, it’s considered to be either a “war” that was won or a “battle” not worth fighting in the first place. 

To some, the musical’s most important issue isn’t its casting, but its stereotypical characters, for Miss Saigon is merely an uncritical re-telling of the opera Madame Butterfly with the setting transposed from early-1900s Japan to wartime Vietnam.  The musical’s title character, Kim, is a Vietnamese prostitute who falls in love with a (white) American G.I., bears his child, and kills herself when she realizes that she and her love can never be together.  

The history of the Miss Saigon controversy is covered in Helen Zia’s book Asian American Dreams (2000; no longer in print), and her excellent chapter on the contentious dispute deserves a wide readership.  In her book, Zia quotes actor B.D. Wong, one of the prime movers behind the grievance against Pryce’s casting, as saying,  “We may have lost the battle, but we won the war.”   Apparently, Wong is referring to the fact that after Pryce stepped down from playing the Engineer in 1992, the role has been filled only by ethnically Asian actors.

But in an article for (the now-defunct website) aOnlineOliver Wang writes: “Miss Saigon’s very plot — regardless of who is cast in the roles — is already problematic, forcing Asian characters into the role of either victim (Kim) or villain (The Engineer).  One wants to ask B.D. Wong, what war are we winning when our actors and actresses are only afforded these kind of roles to play?”  Implying that Asian American performers should avoid playing characters like those in Miss Saigon, Wang concludes by saying: “[N]ow that Asian America is in its third decade as a political entity, isn’t it time we stopped capitulating to simple economics? Asian American actors deserve to find work, but Asian Americans as a whole deserve to have cultural productions that are free of racism and stereotypes.”

However, this exchange raises two important questions: First, was the “war" over Miss Saigon, in fact, “won” by the Asian American community?  Second, how will not “capitulating to simple economics” guarantee “cultural productions that are free of racism and stereotypes”? 

Asian Americans protest ‘Miss Saigon’s’ racial stereotypes on the opening
night of the musical’s Broadway premiere in 1991.  Photo by Corky Lee.

Was Miss Saigon a victory for Asian Americans, as B.D. Wong says?  Although Pryce has been succeeded on Broadway exclusively by Asian actors, he was largely viewed by the press and the public in 1990 as the victim of “reverse discrimination.”  Coverage of the casting controversy seemed to assume that Asian American performers have just as many opportunities as white performers to open lead roles on Broadway.  Therefore, it was implied, any objection to a white actor in Miss Saigon’s Asian male lead was unreasonable.  (The Miss Saigon creative team called the Engineer “Eurasian,” I believe, solely to accommodate a white actor in an otherwise full-blooded Asian lead role, because nowhere in the musical’s original lyrics is any reference made to his European ancestry.)  However, the Engineer was, in actuality, Broadway's first Asian male lead (non-supporting) role in 15 years (since Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures in 1976).  And Asian American actors decried Pryce's casting not so much because he was white, but because no other actor was seriously considered for this rare Asian male lead on Broadway.  Still, as Zia succinctly summarizes: “The news story became focused on ‘less qualified’ Asian actors who were insisting that they should get the part held by a white male star, solely because they were Asian and he was white.”  Meanwhile, Mackintosh was portrayed “as a besieged white male who did not cave in to racist demands by Asians.” 

Editorials were overwhelmingly against Equity and the Asian American performers, and some opinion pieces used the issue to argue against affirmative action in general.  But their obloquy obscured more subtle aspects of the controversy.  “Remember this name: Cameron Mackintosh,” opined conservative columnist George F. Will.  “He is the British producer who, by standing up for artistic freedom and against today's trendy racism [i.e., affirmative action], told some American liberals that he will not be party to their traducing of this American...principle: It is wicked to allocate opportunity on the basis of race.”  Given this rhetoric, one wonders what role Miss Saigon played in other rollbacks against affirmative action, such as the passage of Proposition 209 in California in 1996. 

But it’s hard for a critical reader not to detect some hypocrisy in championing Mackintosh as the defender of a “colorblind” world.  To the contrary, the producer had indeed used race as a criterion in casting the role of Kim.  After all, only ethnically Asian actresses were considered eligible to audition for the part.  The musical's official coffee-table book, The Story of Miss Saigon, openly says that the show’s creative team “were determined to have as many real-life Asians in the cast as possible; Madame Butterfly-type make-up, though suitable enough for opera, would, they knew, be inadequate, especially for the female members of the cast.  Also, the physical demands made on performers in Miss Saigon required an authentic Asian litheness and grace.” 

The book, however, never says exactly what an “authentic Asian litheness and grace” is, or why Asian makeup was “inadequate” for the female performers but adequate enough for Pryce, who opened the role of the Engineer in London wearing prosthetics to give his eyes an epicanthic almond shape, a kind of make-up that critics call “yellowface.”  Yellowface is viewed very negatively among Asian Americans because the make-up has historically been used to allow white performers to play Asian roles, thus diminishing opportunities for ethnically Asian actors, while no commensurate tradition has allowed Asian actors in the West to play roles of another race.  The controversy’s coverage in the press obscured this important question: Why is it acceptable to have a racial criterion for casting an Asian female lead, but “racist” to have one for casting an Asian male lead?  Why the double standard?  No one in the press bothered to ask because they were too busy attacking the “ethnic separatism” of the Asian American community. 

‘Miss Saigon’ producer Cameron Mackintosh in a recent photo

In fact, Mackintosh and Equity’s official position is that Pryce “never wore ‘yellowface’” for his role as the Engineer — even though photos and films of the actor in the London production clearly show him in Asian make-up.  After the union reversed its decision barring Pryce, Mackintosh and Equity met behind closed doors to hammer out a “Statement of Mutual Understanding” regarding Miss Saigon’s casting.  Asian American representatives were actively excluded from the negotiations.  The resulting statement acknowledged that Pryce had indeed worn eye prosthetics, but it asserted that such make-up did not constitute “yellowface.”  To most Asian Americans, a white actor portraying an Asian is considered to be yellowface whether make-up is used or not.  But in this situation, it was Mackintosh who had the power to define just what the word “yellowface” meant. 

The ten years since Miss Saigon have marked a noticeably higher profile for Asian American actors, but one which could be higher still.  Subsequent years have seen the emergence of performers such as Lucy Liu, Russell Wong, Jason Scott Lee, Margaret Cho, the women of The Joy Luck Club, and a few other Asian American thespians to near-star status.  And in the wake of Miss Saigon, producers and casting directors seem more conscientious about casting ethnically Asian actors in Asian parts.  For example, one wonders if Disney would have made such a concerted effort to cast Asian voice actors — performers who aren't even seen by the audience — in most of the animated feature Mulan’s Chinese roles if it hadn't been for the casting controversy.  So, to a certain extent, something may very well have been gained from the imbroglio over a maudlin Madame Butterfly knock-off.  If the role of the Engineer needed to be sacrificed in order to ensure that Asian American actors could play characters who are less stereotypical, then the sacrifice was well worth making. 

But despite Miss Saigon’s high profile ten years ago, the U.S. entertainment industry has still not acknowledged any binding responsibility to cast minority roles with minority actors, who are usually underemployed compared to their white colleagues.  Whether a non-white character is played by a non-white actor is still seen as a decision solely at the creative team’s discretion.  In fact, in 1992, two years after the Miss Saigon dispute, a Hollywood production company cast a white actress as Frida Kahlo in a biopic of the revered Mexican painter.  When Latina actresses — deprived of yet another rare opportunity to play a Latina lead — protested the casting, the production was canceled, and the aggrieved Latinas were castigated in the industry press as “reverse racists.”  To many, the studio’s intransigence suggested a replay of Mackintosh’s tactics in Miss Saigon.  Clearly, if the industry can keep non-white actors out of “bad” non-white leads, like the Engineer, it can keep them out of good ones, like Frida Kahlo, as well.

Granted, as an art, the freedom for a producer to cast a role with the performer of his or her choice should be protected under the First Amendment, and no legislation should interfere with this freedom.  But as a business, the entertainment industry has the responsibility to make sure that arbitrary obstacles do not artificially restrict the advancement of an entire racial group.  Indeed, the question that the Miss Saigon controversy ought to have posed to the public is this: How do we reconcile free-speech rights with equal-opportunity rights when the two come into conflict?  Unfortunately, the press's focus on Mackintosh’s side of the dispute and the presumption of “reverse racism” against Pryce prevented the question from being asked in any meaningful way.     

For there to be a real “victory” in the casting dispute, the entertainment industry will need to stop using yellowface as a means to exclude Asian American talent from the spotlight.  In an article for A. Magazine in 1996 (which has since ceased publication), Hugh Son wrote of the Miss Saigon controversy: “To many, this public outcry served as yellowface's obituary — a declaration that the practice wasn't acceptable, period.”  But even as he wrote, Son acknowledged that the revived Kung Fu television series (Kung Fu: The Legend Continues), starring David Carradine, was perpetuating the exclusionary tradition. 

Alex Borstein as Ms. Swan on ‘Mad TV’

Today (2000), on the Fox comedy series Mad TV, non-Asian comedian Alex Borstein may occasionally be seen as the recurring character Ms. Swan, a nail-salon owner whose sketches all revolve around her inability to speak and understand English in a competent manner.  There are no Asian American actors in Mad TV’s regular cast.  To play Ms. Swan (originally named “Ms. Kwan” but mysteriously rechristened after her first sketch), Borstein dons a black wig, and while she doesn’t wear heavy prosthetics, she still makes up her eyes to look more almond-shaped.  Responding to complaints from Asian American viewers, Mad TV’s producer Dick Blasucci said of Borstein: “She's not in ‘yellowface.’  We do not do that.  They keep telling us we do, but we don’t.  She does not get into yellow makeup.”  Although Borstein is clearly altering her appearance to look more Asian, the meaning of “yellowface” is once again being decided by producers outside the Asian American community. 

Blasucci doesn't deny that the Ms. Swan character is supposed to be Asian, but he says: “[W]e’ve never come out and said it.”  This seems to be the lesson of Miss Saigon to entertainment producers: keep practicing yellowface, just don’t be up-front about it.  So, by these measures, it’s doubtful that the “war” over Miss Saigon was really won at all.  Reports of “yellowface’s obituary” are evidently exaggerated.  

However, some Asian American media critics — those who think that the “war” over Miss Saigon wasn't worth waging — would simply say that they wouldn't want to see an Asian American actress playing Ms. Swan any more than they’d want to see an Asian American actor playing the Engineer.  Both characters, to these critics, are mere stereotypes.  But this is missing the point.  As long as yellowface is passively accepted by American audiences as just another theatrical convention — while blackface, by contrast, has fallen into disrepute — few will question the racial politics of such an exclusionary practice.  And as long as white actors continue to play prominent Asian roles while Asian American actors are not extended commensurate opportunities to play leads of any race, the Asian presence in American culture will remain marginal.  More importantly, if white actors are unquestioningly accepted in Asian roles, this will only make stereotyping more pervasive: Asian American actors will not have the opportunity to bring their first-hand understanding of Asian culture to an Asian character. 

For all of these reasons, the barring of Asian American actors from playing Asian roles in the U.S. must be challenged whenever it arises, regardless of how “one-dimensional” a role might seem.  Also, the misrepresentation of equal-opportunity rights for Asian Americans as “anti-white racism” must always be exposed as the fraud that it is.  This isn’t to say that the issue of stereotyping is unimportant — quite the contrary — but the routine exclusion of Asian American actors from the spotlight won’t increase an audience's awareness of Asian people.  And Asian American indifference to the racial politics of casting won’t make Asian stereotypes go away. 

*          *          *

So, what do I think now, 12 years on?  Opportunities for Asian American actors have gotten markedly better, but they could be better still.  Thanks in part, I think, to the economic power of the Asian American demographic market, Asian faces are now much more conspicuous in American advertising — especially being shown as average, everyday U.S. citizens — and I think that this has done much to blunt the once-pervasive perception that Asian people are perpetual, unassimilable foreigners in America.  Similarly, Asian faces are now widespread on U.S. network television, with many (but not enough) primetime TV series including at least one Asian character among its ensemble — epitomized by Korean Canadian actress Sandra Oh’s scene-stealing supporting character in the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy (2005- ).  Oh, yes, and the character of Ms. Swan is no longer on the air.

However, most of these Asian parts are still supporting characters, or secondary co-starring roles at best.  We haven’t yet seen a breakthrough that would put an Asian American performer on par with his or her white colleagues.

One positive development has been the appearance of Asian action stars from abroad in Hollywood productions: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yun-Fat, and Michelle Yeoh.  But this phenomenon was largely restricted to the action genre (especially kung-fu) and relatively short-lived.  Plus, the Hollywood productions starring these overseas celebrities were of varying quality.  For example, if one compares the excellence of Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong movies to the usually execrable quality of most of his Hollywood starring vehicles, it appears that Tinseltown’s investment in the star was only halfhearted.  And the current fading of these personalities from the U.S. media spotlight confirms that their Hollywood careers were a mere flash in the pan.  It’s a bit sardonic that the single most enduring overseas action star of this generation — who owes his Hollywood career in part to the Asian influence on the U.S. entertainment industry — is the English actor Jason Statham.  But more important, from my perspective, is that the brief trend of Asian-national action stars in Hollywood didn’t enable the emergence of any Asian American stars.  

Lucy Liu

The one big exception to all of this is the career of New York-born Lucy Liu, who, since my article was written in 2000, became the unexpected breakout star of the TV dramedy Ally McBeal (1997-2002).  This enabled her to receive above-the-title co-starring roles in the Hollywood action movies Shanghai Noon (2000), Charlie’s Angeles (2000), and Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002), as well as a number of supporting roles in high-profile films like Chicago (2002).  But when her 2003 Charlie’s Angeles sequel disappointed industry executives and her one solo starring vehicle for the big screen, Rise: Blood Hunter (2007), vanished as soon as it appeared, Hollywood seemed to lose interest in her.  She has since returned to TV but hasn’t yet repeated her initial success in that medium.

And a semi-exception to this are the careers of John Cho and Kal Penn with their Harold and Kumar trilogy.  But outside of this comedy series about two Asian American stoners — a series that only came about due to the persistence of its white creators, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg — both Cho and Penn have had trouble playing anything other than supporting roles in Hollywood.  Also, while the many independent Asian American films have facilitated the careers of some behind-the-camera talent, such as director Justin Lin, they haven’t done the same for their in-front-of-the-camera talent.  

But perhaps the Asian American presence is greatest in the new media of the twenty-first century.  Such phenomena as YouTube and computer-streaming video are redefining exactly what is meant by “entertainment industry” now that audiences can easily produce videos on their mobile phones and upload their images onto the Internet.  YouTube has allowed the emergence of such high-profile Asian American video creators as KevJumba, HappySlip, and Wong Fu Productions.  And this has considerably increased the visibility of Asian Americans in audiovisual media.

So, in short, the Asian American presence in the U.S. entertainment industry is a mixed bag.  But it’s currently much more conspicuous than it was back in 1990, during the Miss Saigon controversy.  And despite what appears to be resistance from the front offices, there’s every reason to hope that this presence will be even more conspicuous in another 12 years.  Perhaps we will finally see the emergence of the first A-list Asian American Hollywood star to stand alongside the Brad Pitts and the Sandra Bullocks.  But I believe that this will take longer to come about without public outcry whenever the industry — however unintentionally — snubs its Asian American talent and relegates them beneath a racial glass ceiling, as it did during Miss Saigon.

A Wong Fu Productions video on YouTube

Update, September 26, 2013: Lucy Liu is back on series television in the successful Sherlock Holmes update Elementary, which begins its second season tonight, with the actress as Dr. Joan Watson.  Is this the first time that Dr. Watson has been portrayed as a woman?  As far as I can tell, Liu is the first to play the doctor him-/herself as female.  However, a Watson figure opposite a character who mistakenly believes himself to be Holmes has been played by actresses twice: Joanne Woodward as Dr. Mildred Watson in the feature film They Might Be Giants (1971) and Jenny O’Hara also as Dr. Joan Watson in the TV movie The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective (1976).  Both characters were psychiatrists to the deluded men whose belief that they were Holmes (George C. Scott in the former and Larry Hagman in the latter) endowed them with superior sleuthing skills.  (Incidentally, movies that updated the character of Holmes from the Victorian and Edwardian eras to contemporary times had been the norm until the 1939 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles.)  However, Liu’s performance appears to be the first time that Watson has been portrayed as Asian to a Western audience.  (But she is not the first ethnically Asian performer in the West to play the role in a mainstream production: a white-passing Ben Kingsley [born Krishna Bhanji] played Dr. Watson in the 1988 Holmes comedy Without a Clue.)  I don’t think that mainstream U.S. media creators would have cast such a character as ethnically Asian back in the days of Miss Saigon.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Another Casting Controversy: ‘The Nightingale’

Echoing my post “Yellowface Top Ten,” another casting controversy has been recently roused.  The La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, California, has originated a new musical (one still in development, in fact) called The Nightingale, based on the story by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, with music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater, the team behind the hit musical Spring Awakening.  Andersen’s story, you might know, takes place in long-ago China, a setting that the new musical preserves.  From the news reports I’ve read, Sheik, Sater, and director Moisés Kaufman did not see The Nightingale as taking place in the China of history; they saw it set in a China of the imagination, China as envisioned by a 19th-century Danish writer.  For this reason, they say, they decided to cast The Nightingale “colorblind”: auditions for the musical were open to actors of all races  The result is a cast that is largely non-Asian, with a Caucasian actor playing the protagonist of the Chinese Emperor and an African American actress playing the Empress Dowager.  Only two performers in the twelve-member cast are Asian American.

The Nightingale’s casting sparked some heavy criticism by Asian American actors and others in the arts community for not casting all of its parts with performers who are ethnically Asian.  The controversy has become so widespread that the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, Christopher Ashley, has scheduled a discussion on the subject following the musical’s matinee on Sunday.  I appreciate the people of the La Jolla Playhouse for taking the issue so seriously.  When Asian American actors complained in 1990 over the casting of British actor Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon’s Asian male lead, the producer cancelled the show’s upcoming Broadway premiere until Actors Equity dropped their objections.  It’s nice to see the La Jolla Playhouse taking a different tack because I agree with the Asian American actors’ complaints. 

Now, I haven’t seen The Nightingale, but there is no doubt in my mind that the show as it now stands is a good one.  I don’t doubt that the present cast — Caucasian Chinese Emperor and all — execute their roles with the utmost professionalism and aplomb.  I might even regard their performances as excellent.  My issue is not with these thespians themselves; my issue is with the creative team of Kaufman, Sheik, and Sater and their decision to cast The Nightingale in this way instead of casting primarily Asian American actors in these roles. 

By casting The Nightingale colorblind, Kaufman and company disregarded an important issue: Asian American actors do not have equal opportunities to play roles, especially lead roles, in the mainstream American entertainment industry.  Most roles on Broadway or in Hollywood are written as non-Asian, and Asian American actors are rarely considered for such parts.  So, this automatically tilts the industry’s playing field in favor of non-Asian actors.  Also, the entertainment industry has a long and troubled history of casting roles written as Asian with non-Asian actors while seldom, if ever, allowing the reverse.  As a result, whenever a non-Asian is cast as an Asian character — however well intended — this diminishes already scarce opportunities for Asian American actors and perpetuates a racially discriminatory double standard in casting. 

The issue that I’ve just stated is often misrepresented by its detractors as, “This means that only Polish American actors will be able to play Stanley Kowalski.”  No, it doesn’t mean that: Polish American actors don’t suffer from racial discrimination.  Asian American actors, by contrast, are subject to the unspoken racial assumptions of Broadway and Hollywood.  The issue isn’t ethnically specific casting; no one is saying, for example, that only Danish actors can play Hamlet.  The issue is the entertainment industry’s preferential treatment of its Caucasian talent over its minority talent. 

If the La Jolla Playhouse cast more of its shows colorblind, its creation of a multi-racial China in The Nightingale might be viewed differently.  But this is one of the Playhouse’s few productions calling for Asian lead roles.  As such, I believe that The Nightingale’s creative team should have given priority to Asian American actors for their show’s cast.  I think that professional theatres (including regional theatres like the La Jolla Playhouse) and movies should continue this practice until it achieves true parity among actors of all races.  Once this is accomplished, controversies about casting according to skin color will go the way of all flesh.  

Part One of the discussion following the July 22, 2012, matinee of La Jolla Playhouse’s “The Nightingale”

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Film Dwarfed by Controversy

This week, I went to see Snow White and the Huntsman, this year’s second revisionist take on the familiar Grimm Brothers fairy tale (the first being Mirror, Mirror), most widely known in its Walt Disney iteration.  The film was an intriguing, action-packed, PG-13-rated rendering of the story.  Of course, the tale’s best-known supporting characters are the seven dwarves, but Snow White and the Huntsman took so many liberties with the story that I began to wonder if the erstwhile titular characters would be part of the film at all.  Then, longer into the story than I would have imagined, the seven familiar figures inevitably appeared.  I appreciated the seven dwarves’s hardscrabble gruffness, which was perfectly credible given the film’s miserablist milieu.  

But as I watched the on-screen dwarves, I began to talk to myself.  “Hey, that dwarf looks like Ian McShane.  And that one looks like Bob Hoskins.  That one bears a certain resemblance to Ray Winstone.  I know Toby Jones is short, but he’s not as short as his lookalike dwarf on the screen.”  After reciting this litany of non-dwarf actors (with the possible exception of Jones, who isn’t an achondroplast in any case) inside my head, it gradually dawned on me: the film had digitized these regular-sized actors into dwarves.  I heaved a sigh of dismay.  Later, I discovered that a controversy about the casting of the dwarves in Snow White and the Huntsman had been brewing for a month.

If you’ve read my blog post “Yellowface Top Ten,” you’ll know that I’m attuned to issues of casting underemployed minority actors in mainstream entertainment.  If a role is written as something other than a youthful, able-bodied Caucasian, casting directors ought to look to the pool of acting talent from those non-able-bodied and/or non-Caucasian communities first.  Why?  Because the overwhelming number of lead roles in mainstream entertainment are for thespians not from those communities.  This gives white TAB performers an enormous (functioning) leg up in the industry.  Casting directors first eyeing minority actors for minority roles helps to level the playing field a bit.  

But when someone puts forward the idea of reserving non-white or non-able-bodied roles for non-white or non-able-bodied actors, there is often some pushback from some quarters.  The usual retort goes something along the lines of: “It’s called acting!  It’s about the performer pretending to be something other than what s/he is!  Should only Danish actors be allowed to play Hamlet?”  This kind of reaction, of course, doesn’t view casting disputes in the context of the entertainment industry’s hiring practices, which is the source of such disputes in the first place.

The average dwarf actor in the industry has very few mainstream roles to choose from.  No director this side of John Waters is going to cast him as Fitzwilliam Darcy or her as Lizzie Bennet — or virtually any other mainstream character besides.  With his roles in The Station Agent and Game of Thrones, Peter Dinklage has probably the highest profile of any dwarf thespian in the world, but he is very much the exception.  Other dwarf actors usually earn their money from other occupations and are lucky to be cast as one of Santa’s elves in a Christmas commercial.  

Snow White and the Huntsman could have given seven dwarf actors a rare opportunity to show their stuff on the mainstream screen, perhaps even discovering the next Peter Dinklage in the process.  Instead, the movie gave these opportunities to well-known character actors whose careers don’t face the same obstacles, thespians who have more character options than an elf.  

Snow White and the Huntsman’s snubbing of dwarf actors is rather personal for me.  As you might already know, I myself am very short.  I have a dwarfism (spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia tarda) that leaves me standing only four-feet, eight-inches tall.  I’m not an actor, but I did some amateur acting in high school and college, and I know what it’s like to be told by a director that I won’t be cast in a part because, however good my audition was, I’m too short.  When I did land a role back then, I was often complimented on my performance.  Would I have been drawn more to acting if I had been taller?  We’ll never know.  

But you might say, “This has been done before.  The Lord of the Rings digitized regular-sized actors into Hobbits.”  But Hobbits aren’t humans; they’re a fictional species.  In fact, I was rather relieved that Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy used CGI instead of dwarf actors for its Hobbits because I’m tired of little people being portrayed as beings other than members of the human race (for example, Time Bandits, Willow, Munchkins, elves).  Although they inhabit a fairy-tale world, the dwarf characters in the Grimm story (and its various adaptations) are flesh-and-blood humans and not magical or supernatural creatures, especially in Snow White and the Huntsman.

Chinese American playwright David Henry Hwang once said that when he watched television as he was growing up in the 1960s, he would change the channel when an Asian character appeared on the tube. He did that because he knew that the TV show would get it wrong, because he knew that the Asian character would do more to reflect the writers’ ignorance of Asian people than the character would to reflect Asian people themselves.  I feel pretty much the same way when it comes to portrayals of little people in the mainstream media: the non-dwarf creators are going to get it wrong, and the little person will wind up being a stereotype, usually the butt of a joke.  So, you might ask why I set myself up by going to see a movie version of “Snow White.”  I’m not entirely sure, but given that dwarf characters are so central to the story, maybe I’m hoping that a Snow White movie might prove the exception and get the dwarf characters right for a change.

Snow White and the Huntsman’s use of digital dwarves in place of real ones is especially disappointing because the film boasts the most intriguing portrayal of little people that I’ve seen on the screen in some time.  But in seeing these non-dwarf actors in the roles, my mind left the story and thought about all those dwarf thespians who don’t have the opportunities of an Ian McShane or a Bob Hoskins and who were passed over for this rare acting opportunity.  I also wondered if CGI dwarves would become the norm in the future, if instead of hiring dwarf actors for dwarf roles, movies would just digitally shrink a normally proportioned actor.  If so, that role as Santa’s elf in a Christmas commercial, for dwarf actors living in a non-dwarf world, may become one more thing out of reach.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ezbd Uzktd (Face Value)

[Btl] Ezbhzkr zqd cdfqzchmf — zmc sgzs’r vgx sgdx’qd rn gns.

Sgd lzm’r rdldm cndr mns “cdfqzcd” sgd vnlzm’r ezbd.  Hs’r dwzbskx sgd noonrhsd.  Sgd vnlzm’r ezbd zeehqlr sgd lzm’r rdldm. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Karl Rove’s New Political Ad

Here is the new television ad by Republican strategist Karl Rove’s political action committee, American Crossroads:

It's interesting: When Democratic president Bill Clinton left the White House with a prosperous economy and a $236 billion budget surplus, Republicans, like Karl Rove, said that our economic fortune was due entirely to the dot-com bubble and other things beyond Clinton’s control. When Republican president George W. Bush left the White House with the economy in a tailspin and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Republicans said that our economic misfortune was due entirely to the “war on terrorism” and other things beyond Bush’s control. 

In other words, to Republicans, our good times under Clinton had nothing to do with Clinton, and our bad times under Bush had nothing to do with Bush. But now that the economy is still troubled under a Democratic president — a president whose term has been marked by unprecedented GOP obstructionism — Republicans say that the economy suddenly has everything to do with the man in the White House. Can you say “double standard”?

Friday, March 2, 2012

So Long, Sushi Nozawa

One of my favorite places to eat shuttered its door this week: Sushi Nozawa.  If the name of the 25-year-old Los Angeles restaurant sounds familiar to you, then you’ve probably heard the stories of the small sushi eatery in the nondescript Studio City strip mall, how celebrities flock there, how the chef is so temperamental that he sometimes throws customers he doesn’t like out of the place.  I can’t add much more to these stories of the celebrities, but I can say something about how much I enjoyed the food. 

The sushi restaurant was quite tiny, in fact (it seems strange to refer to it in the past tense), with room enough for only six or seven tables and about a dozen seats at the bar.  Because of this, especially during the restaurant’s height of popularity about a decade ago, the line to get in would stretch out the door and take up most of the room on the outside sidewalk.  Newspaper reports say that some customers would wait in line for two and a half hours for a 45-minute meal. 

I liked to go to Sushi Nozawa quite often because it was within walking distance of my apartment.  I moved to Studio City a year after the restaurant opened, and I remember the adventure of becoming familiar with places to eat near my new digs and was delighted to see so many sushi places nearby.  Since Sushi Nozawa’s reputation wasn’t established at the time, checking the place out wasn’t a high priority.

When I finally got around to going there, I was unimpressed by its lack of atmosphere and ambiance.  But that was okay with me.  I often eat alone and take something with me to read, so the bright lighting made it easier for me to scan my books and magazines. 

At the time, the place was largely a two-handed operation, with the taciturn chef Kazunori Nozawa slicing away solo behind the sushi bar and his soft-spoken and very charming wife Yumiko acting as host-cum-waitress (there might have also been a busman at the time, but I don’t remember).  I had no trouble getting a seat at the bar. 

Not until my second time there did I truly take notice of the food.  Perhaps I was distracted by what I was reading, but it only gradually dawned on me that the sliced fish I had popped into my mouth had a buttery consistency that I hadn’t tasted in sushi before.  Also the fish — yellowtail, I think it was — had a gentle flavor that didn’t seem fishy at all but still smacked of the sea.  And most impressive of all — the rice was warm!  I was so struck by this experience that as soon as I swallowed, I said out loud at the bar, in a soft but pleasantly surprised tone of voice, “That’s really good.”  I put down my reading material and concentrated on the parade of fish that the unsmiling chef behind the bar handed to me.  Each piece was as good as the last.  Before I left, I told the chef how much I enjoyed what I had just eaten.  I remember him only nodding in reply, as though he expected nothing less.  Fortunately, the ever-smiling woman at the cash register was there to thank me and wish me a good night. 

I noticed that the restaurant only served sushi, sashimi, miso soup, and beverages — nothing else.  Given this epicurean austerity, I concluded that so little thought had gone into the restaurant’s atmospherics because so much thought went into the fish it served.  I quickly made Sushi Nozawa a regular part of my evening meals.  I became acquainted with and would occasionally make conversation with Chef Nozawa and Yumiko.  Yumiko seemed impressed that I knew as much as I did about Japanese culture (maybe she was just being polite).  I would even practice my faulty grasp of the Japanese language with them. 

Once, when the chef asked me if I wanted any more sushi, I said, declining, “Iie, kekkô desu.”  Yumiko, who was standing just to the side of my chair, had a wide-eyed look of surprise on her face.  Thinking I might have put my foot in it, I asked her, “That is polite, isn’t it?”  Still with a look of surprise, she answered, “Very polite.”  I think I impressed her.  Chef Nozawa didn’t say anything.  For a time, before leaving, I would say to the chef, complimenting him, “Nozawa-sensei, totemo oishkatta desu.  Go chisô-sama deshita.”  Poker-faced, he would quickly nod and then go back to his fish.  To Yumiko, I would say, wishing her a good night, “Oyasumi nasai.”  She would pleasantly smile and repeat the phrase back to me. 

Chef Kazunori Nozawa and Yumiko

Although it was also open for lunch, I didn’t like eating my midday meals there — the sushi was so good that I didn’t want to go back to my workaday world afterwards.  In fact, when I would walk into the restaurant and the couple were within earshot, I would wish them a good evening: “Konban-wa.”  I got so used to saying this to them that when I bumped into Yumiko in town one sunlit day, I automatically said to her, “Konban-wa.”  Always smiling, she corrected me, “Not konban-wakonnichi-wa.”  Not good evening — but good day.  Yes, I thought to my embarrassed self, I knew that.  I’m sure that wasn’t the only Nihongo faux pas I made. 

I was also something of a show-off about matters Japanese.  One evening in my early years eating at the restaurant, my check total came to $16.03.  I added a tip of $2.50 to bring the total to $18.53.  After I wrote down the figure, I was struck by a coincidence: two very important years in Japanese history are 1603, when Ieyasu Tokugawa became supreme shogun and created a ruling order in Japan that would last for the next 250 years, and 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. sailed to Japan and began the opening of the then-insular country to the rest of the world.  I thought this coincidence was too amusing not to show to Yumiko, but she seemed to be less impressed by it than I was. 

However, word of this restaurant must have gotten out because (no surprise there), before too long, I found it increasingly difficult to get a seat at either the bar or a table.  I also started to realize that there were some house rules: when you sat at a table, you could order anything you wanted from the small sushi menu, but when you sat at the bar, you had to eat whatever Chef Nozawa served you. 

Also, there were certain things that the chef wouldn’t serve.  At first, two signs adorned the wall behind the sushi bar — “Today’s special: no California roll, no spicy tuna roll” and “Today’s special: Trust me.”  Allowing the sushi chef to serve you whatever is the best catch of the day is a traditional Japanese way of eating sushi called omakase.  And the patrons who sat at the bar, including myself on occasion, would often talk among themselves about how good the food was. 

Soon, the stories started to spread about Chef Nozawa throwing patrons out of his restaurant who insisted on ordering items that he did not serve.  The stories were true; I was in the restaurant on one such occasion.  I spotted a number of celebrities at Nozawa’s — it’s the sushi restaurant where I encountered Johnny Clegg.  Artists from nearby animation studios would leave drawings and small paintings for Nozawa to display on the wall, works of art all on the theme of “trust me.” 

And when Nozawa handed his sushi to the customers at the bar, he would often tell them how to eat it.  “No soy sauce.” “No wasabi.”  “One bite.”  For customers having trouble wielding their chopsticks or mastering how to dip the sushi into the soy sauce lightly and quickly, Yumiko would come up to the bar and show them.  (But the sushi rice was packed so loosely — a trademark of Nozawa’s — mine often fell into the soy-sauce dish on its way to my mouth.)  The restaurant didn’t take reservations. 

One kind of reservation the restaurant did make: Chef Nozawa reserved certain kinds of fish — all of which he bought himself at the downtown L.A. fishmarket at 5:00 in the morning — for certain patrons.  My first taste of the chef’s discretionary powers came before the restaurant got extremely popular.  One of my favorite kinds of sushi is mackerel — or saba, as it’s called in Japanese — a delightfully salty fish that I never saw on Nozawa’s menu, despite Spanish mackerel (aji) being a restaurant staple.  One evening, when virtually the only other patrons in the restaurant were a group of Japanese businessmen, making animated conversation with the chef, I heard the word saba in their otherwise unintelligible speech.  I asked Yumiko if saba was being served that night.  She said yes, so I ordered some.  Word soon got back to me that Chef Nozawa wouldn’t serve it to me because he didn’t think that I would like it. 

This was something that I never experienced before: a restaurant item was available, and I was willing to pay for it, but the chef wouldn’t give it to me.  I could feel a quizzical, scowling “what the hell?” expression forming on my face.  Apparently, he was reserving the saba for the Japanese customers.  I stopped eating and reading to ponder what was going down.  Eventually, Nozawa relented and gave me some mackerel.  It wasn’t salty like sushi-bar saba usually is — maybe that’s why Nozawa didn’t think that I would like it.  But I still thought it was rude for him to refuse serving me an available item. 

And not everything that Nozawa served was always on the menu.  One of my favorite offerings of his was his monkfish-liver handroll.  Monkfish liver, or ankimo, is usually served in Japanese restaurants as an appetizer: the sausage-like liver is sliced and served in ponzu sauce.  Instead, Chef Nozawa would put his ankimo in a creamy sauce and wrap it with rice in nori seaweed.  The flavor was delightfully tangy, and the richness of the sauce contrasted nicely with the thinner consistencies of the soy sauce and ponzu sauce served in the other dishes.  But I only discovered this delicacy when a customer eating at a nearby table (he must have been a V.I.P.) was too full to eat the ankimo handroll that Nozawa served him, so he offered it to me.  If this fluke of fate hadn’t happened, I might never have learned about this outstanding menu item. 

Once, I took a sushi-loving friend from Baltimore to Nozawa’s.  He liked the food there so much that he couldn’t eat sushi in Baltimore for the next six months because it couldn’t measure up.  (Don’t get angry, Maryland — Nozawa used crabmeat from the Chesapeake Bay for his delicious crab handrolls.)  I took friends to Sushi Nozawa whenever I could.  In fact, I even had a few small birthday gatherings there, for which I brought slices of my own birthday cake, since the restaurant didn’t serve desert.  I always made sure to bring a slice for Yumiko to ward off any official disapproval of outside food. 

However, as the years went by, my fondness for Sushi Nozawa waned.  The biggest intervention into my enjoyment of the restaurant was the paralysis of half my face after my surgery: because one side of my mouth no longer closes completely when chewing, and because half of the inside of my mouth is numb, this made eating sushi in one bite rather difficult.  Also the prices got increasingly expensive so that it was hard for one lone individual to ingest a decent amount of sushi and sake without generating a three-figure check.  And the restaurant seemed to grow less welcoming.  One evening, I sat down at my usual well-lit table by myself but was asked to move to another where the lighting wasn’t as good, probably so that the table could be put together with another if a large crowd came in.  I quietly decided to eat elsewhere that night.  (To be fair, I was only asked to move again one more time, for understandable reasons.) 

My visits became less frequent, and the visits I did make became more expensive.  With no real opportunity to speak it anywhere else, my Japanese got rusty, so I stopped trying it out on the Nozawas.  But by then, Yumiko all but stopped waiting on tables, leaving most of that task to the growing number of Latino busmen, and largely confined herself to working behind the cash register.  Some nights, she wasn’t at the restaurant at all.  But despite these changes, the sushi was always spectacularly good. 

The last time I ate at Sushi Nozawa was two weeks ago, after hearing of its impending closing.  I savored the food that night in case it was to be my last night eating there.  Sure enough, I showed up on its last night, but the line out the door was very long, and the night was very cold.  Since I was by myself, I decided just to hold onto my memories of the restaurant, especially in its early years.  In some important way, Sushi Nozawa on its last night was different from the restaurant whose food my taste buds fell in love with so long ago.  I decided to go somewhere else.  

Sushi Nozawa - Kazunori Nozawa's final day at restaurant

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Monkees - Daydream Believer

In memory of Davy Jones (December 30, 1945 - February 29, 2012)