Tuesday, November 17, 2015

12 Cool Crowd Pleasers

Was my list of “10 Favorite Films” too art-housey for you?  Okay, to make up for it, here is a list of twelve movies whose carefully honed, audience-tested appeal has won a place in the sprocket holes of my heart, oldest to youngest:


With crackling dialogue and a sure-footed storyline, the film that defined the romantic comedy. 


The Marx Brothers rein in their explosive anarchy to appeal to a wider audience, but the results are still sublime.  


Made in 1942 but officially released in January 1943, it won the latter year’s Oscar for Best Picture.  Hollywood’s studio-era apotheosis.  


Epic. Action-packed. Awesome.


Silver-screen Hollywood craftsmanship at its heartwarming best.  (Listen to the DVD’s commentary by Bruce Block to realize just how much thought and care went into this film.)


Shoot-’em-up excitement with an art-house edge. 


The Seven Samurai (or at least their cowboy counterparts) saunter south of the border.


The funniest film I’ve ever seen. No joke. 

MAD MAX 2 (a.k.a. The Road Warrior, 1981)

Casablanca with a case of road rage. 


Steven Soderbergh rebounds from his mid-career doldrums to capture Elmore Leonard’s semi-cynical, semi-sentimental romantic roundelay between a U.S. marshal and an escaped con.  Exhilarating and arresting. 


Stop saying that Saving Private Ryan was robbed of its Oscar! Shakespeare in Love is a compelling, character-driven masterwork with lots of laughs and an air-tight story. Methinks its critics protest too much. 

KING KONG (2005)

Peter Jackson’s Kong-sized do-over of the 1933 classic is going to give CGI-heavy remakes of pre-sold properties a good name. 
(However, the film’s brief portrayal of the Skull Island natives as barbaric savages is a big step backwards.)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Dalton — Timothy Dalton

I have a female friend who’s a big Sean Connery fan.  When we first met, she seemed to come up with an excuse to bring up the movie star most associated with playing secret agent James Bond 007 in each of our conversations.  Sean Connery this — Sean Connery that — Sean Connery the other thing.  She talks about him less these days, but shortly after we first met, I’m sure the Scottish movie star’s ears were ringing whenever my friend and I shot the breeze.  One evening, she was hosting a James Bond-themed event at a local restaurant.  I ended up sitting at a table with my friend and some of her companions.  That night, one of my friend’s friends asked me a question that my friend herself had never asked: “Who’s your favorite Bond?”  I replied, “Timothy Dalton.”  My friend did a double take at the table: “Whuh?”  She probably just assumed that Connery was everybody’s favorite 007 and was thrown for a loop when I — her sounding board on all things Connery — proved her assumption to be untrue. 

At the time, I was aware that my pro-Dalton opinion was in the distinct minority.  I’m not the world’s biggest Bond fan, but I did see most of the movies and follow the literature about the character from time to time, so I know it wasn’t long after Dalton inherited the role from Roger Moore in 1987’s The Living Daylights that many Bond aficionados started grousing about the Welsh actor’s performance.  Among ardent fans, the vituperation was especially venomous, but it was never really clear to me exactly why these fans were so upset.  I got the idea that these grumblers merely thought that Dalton’s inadequacy in the role was self-evident and no further explanation was needed.  Dalton made only one more film as Bond, Licence [sic] to Kill (1989), but the criticism continued.  As the years went by, this opinion seemed to be set in stone: the fans liked Roger Moore; they liked Pierce Brosnan; they loved Sean Connery, of course.  You could even find a few to put in a good word for the one-off George Lazenby.  But they hated Timothy Dalton.  And I wasn’t given a straight answer as to why. 

It’s difficult to find any of the scathing anti-Dalton diatribes of the 1980s on the Web at the moment, but as one Internet poster puts it: “All I’ve ever heard from friends ... is that [The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill] are lesser Bond films and that Dalton sucks.”  

With the latest Bond adventure, Spectre, now in theatres, I was contemplating writing a defense of Dalton-as-007 on this blog.  But as I read over some on-line articles in preparation, I learned that my disquisition of Dalton was no longer necessary: Dalton-as-Bond now has quite a few advocates on the Internet.  It appears that several fans have reconsidered Dalton’s two outings as Bond and found more to champion than to criticize

Timothy Dalton as James Bond 007 in ‘The Living Daylights’ (1987)

Looking for an explanation of this reversal of popular opinion, I stumbled upon this theory: Dalton inherited the role from Roger Moore, who played the secret agent as a semi-comical figure.  Moore’s penchant for dryly raising an eyebrow each time he heard a double entendre became a signature of the film series.  The only Moore Bond that I really liked — indeed, my favorite film in the series up to that time — was For Your Eyes Only (1981), which had a more serious plot than usual and a more feral performance by Moore than usual.  But by the time Moore retired from the role after A View to a Kill (1985), the Bond movies were noted more for their camp than their cloak and dagger. 

Behind the scenes, it’s well known that Dalton was first offered the role of Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), but the actor, then in his twenties, felt himself too young for the part and turned it down, whereupon it was later offered to Lazenby.  Also, after Moore’s departure, the creators’ first choice as his replacement was Pierce Brosnan, who by then had made a name for himself in the humorous detective TV series Remington Steele (1982-87), but at the last minute, the show activated an option on Brosnan’s contract, making him unavailable to play Bond.  With Brosnan out of the picture, in both senses of the term, Dalton was persuaded to accept the part he declined 18 years before. 

Poster for ‘Licence to Kill’ (1989)

When Dalton took over the role of Bond, he and the films’ creators wanted to return to a more serious interpretation of the character:

[Dalton] made two Bond films, both noteworthy more for his darker, brooding take on the role than for the films themselves. Dalton sought to get away from Moore’s jokey boulevardier and instead played Bond as a man with an edge, an interpretation he felt was closer to how author Ian Fleming had depicted the character in the books. Indeed, Dalton was often spotted on the sets of his 007 films paging through the original Fleming novels as a reference aid.

The audience’s ill-preparedness for this darker view of James Bond, it’s been hypothesized, alienated many Roger Moore-weaned fans from Dalton’s version of the character.  Only more recently, with Daniel Craig’s similar approach to the part, has Dalton’s work been reappraised and accepted by a large number of Bond fans.  And many are now voicing the opinion that I have held for quite some time: it’s unfortunate that Dalton — due to a legal dispute that forced the series into a hiatus until his contract expired — didn’t do more than two films as 007.  As one writer says of the fans’ new acceptance of Dalton as James Bond:

The quiet, self-effacing actor … has always kept his private life away from the tabloids, has always been loyal to the Bond franchise … without surrendering himself to endless retrospective chat shows and conventions. And perhaps as a result, people are finally beginning to appreciate his two Bond films for the stylish, underrated thrillers they have always been.

Dalton and the filmmakers didn’t only want to revise Bond’s character; they also wanted to tweak other aspects of the franchise.  The actor’s second entry, Licence to Kill, is a good case in point.  Where most of James Bond’s previous villains had been cartoonish characters with an eye toward world domination, Licence to Kill put 007 up against a topical nemesis: a drug lord, Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), who already controls his own corner of the world and is bent on keeping it.  This was a wise choice since the Cold War was winding down in 1989, so Bond’s antagonists sympathetic to the Soviet Union wouldn’t be as threatening as in years past.  And in moving the milieu from a conflict losing its menace to one ripped from the headlines, Licence to Kill made the story’s environment more realistic and hardened the characters. 
Robert Davi as drug lord Franz Sanchez in ‘Licence to Kill’
The film diverged from the formula in other ways as well.  Where Bond movies had previously tended to be set in at least two different countries on two different continents, all of Licence to Kill is set in the same area: south Florida and northern Latin America.  (In the movie’s biggest false note, it gives its fictional Latin American banana republic the English name of “Isthmus.”)  Instead of Licence to Kill having Bond given his assignment by M, 007 goes rogue to avenge a friend, supplying the agent with a more rebellious bite.  And instead of the villain’s palatial lair exploding in a massive fireball at the story’s climax, what detonates is a gas tanker after a high-speed chase. 

But Licence to Kill subverts still more.  As the most casual observer of the film canon knows, an obligatory moment of each movie is when 007 announces himself to someone as “Bond — James Bond.” In the previous Bond films, the scene consistently comes across as a moment of confident coolness, an eagerly awaited announcement that our unflappable, invincible hero has arrived. The moment in the series isn’t so much the character introducing himself as it is a moment of dauntless self-declaration. (Do I really need to say anything about how entrenched these three words of film dialogue have become in our popular culture?)  But when Dalton says this ultra-important line in License to Kill, it’s during an anomalous moment: when he extends his hand in introduction to Sanchez.  In Licence to Kill, Bond isn't so much announcing the arrival of the hero to the audience as he is merely making the bad guy’s acquaintance. And then, Sanchez blows off Bond by refusing to shake his hand.

In the other movies, “Bond — James Bond” are strong words of self-assertion. In Licence to Kill, they’re convivial words preceding a snub. I think that the Bond fans in 1989 were looking forward to this line in the film, but they didn’t get the moment that they had expected.  These sorts of small deviations from the previous Bond films may have put off the contemporaneous fans even more from Dalton’s interpretation of the secret agent. 

But I’m glad to hear that many Bond fans are now revising their harsh opinions of Dalton’s work in the film series, so any further inarticulate advocacy from me is unnecessary.  Although Dalton only appeared in two movies as James Bond, those offerings, The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, remain among the best in the series, despite the latter’s underperformance at the box office.  However, Daniel Craig’s newer rendition of Bond has taken the venerated cinema cycle to a whole new level.  Craig’s films as Bond — Casino Royale (2006), Quantum of Solace (2008), Skyfall (2012), and now Spectre (2015) — have dazzlingly ratcheted up the action, the spectacle, the humanity, and the overall impact of what is on the screen.  Craig’s 007 efforts will be the new measure for future films in the franchise.  Still, we should spare a thought for the Bond actor who tried to do what Daniel Craig is now doing, but who was at first pilloried by the fans for it: Timothy Dalton. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Diversity in Casting: An Exception I’d Make

Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in ‘Pan’ (2015)

As I’ve said several times before, limiting my remarks to the mainstream U.S. entertainment industry: Due to a historical lack of opportunities for minority thespians, characters of color ought to be portrayed by actors of color, ideally actors who are the same race (although not necessarily the same ethnicity) as the roles they play.  It’s unfortunate that some people refuse to see this issue in a historical perspective and insist that reserving non-white roles for non-white performers is unreasonable racial territorialism that goes against the make-believe at the heart of storytelling.  But they are wrong, and making certain that minority characters are played by minority thespians — at least for the time being — redresses past discrimination and past invisibility in the entertainment industry.  This is an issue that I feel very strongly about. 

At the same time, I wouldn’t set that standard in stone as a hard-and-fast “rule” that must never be contravened.  Aside from such a “rule” probably being an unconstitutional infringement on free speech, there may be things to be gained by casting a character of color (or one ostensibly so) with a Caucasian performer.  However, I believe that exceptions to this rule would be few and far between. 

For example, in 1997 and again in 2013, English actor Patrick Stewart essayed Othello in two U.S. touring productions of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.  However, where previous white interpreters of the Moor would use cosmetics to darken their features, Stewart played the part without such maquillage, and the rest of the cast, playing historically white characters, was all African American.  In other words, Stewart’s productions of Othello flipped the racial composition of the play from a black man among whites to a white man among blacks, allowing the audience to view the racial dynamics of the work from a different perspective.  That was a rare example of a Caucasian actor taking a lead “minority” role in a production while still giving uncommon opportunities to performers of color and making the issue of race a prominent one in the project’s execution.  There aren’t very many other exceptions to reserving non-white roles for non-white actors that I would find agreeable, but I can think of one more. 

If a character of color in an adapted work from the past is so racially stereotyped as to be offensive to modern-day audiences — and it would be logical in the work for this character to be white — then rewriting such a dramatis persona as Caucasian and casting the role with a Caucasian actor would be acceptable to me, at least in theory.  However, it might then be suitable to relocate a non-offensive racial diversity elsewhere in the work.  

This brings us to Joe Wright’s recently released film Pan (2015), a prequel and origin story to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, first performed as a play in 1904.  While I haven’t seen Pan, a controversy has been brewing for the past year because the film cast Euro-American actress Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, a character usually portrayed as Native American.  This understandably provoked criticism from Native Americans and their supporters that the character should be played by an actress of authentically aboriginal American ancestry.  I more than appreciate this stance: a rare high-profile opportunity for a Native American performer was once again taken away. 

But — as is often asked in such circumstances — is that high-profile role worth playing?  After all, the pidgin-speaking damsel in distress that is Peter Pan’s Tiger Lily is dismaying (at the very least) to modern sensibilities and would clearly be regarded as an archaic stereotype.  In the original source material, Tiger Lily and her “tribe” are never explicitly identified as Native American, although most productions have portrayed them as such.  As an article for Smithsonian magazine says:

In the play, Peter refers to the tribe as “piccaninny warriors,” and in Peter & Wendy (Barrie's book-long adaptation of the story, published in 1911), they are introduced as the “Piccaninny tribe” — a blanket stand-in for “others” of all stripes, from Aboriginal populations in Australia to descendants of slaves in the United States. Barrie's tribespeople communicate in pidgin; the braves have lines like “Ugh, ugh, wah!”  Tiger Lily is slightly more loquacious; she'll say things like “Peter Pan save me, me his velly nice friend. Me no let pirates hurt him.” They call Peter “the great white father” — the name that Barrie had originally chosen for the entire play. A tom-tom pounded in victory is a key plot point.

So, an adaptation of Peter Pan would certainly want to rewrite this character, who is integral to the story, to be less of a stereotype.  But if you’re going to rewrite a racist caricature, why make her and the tribe Native American in the first place?  While Peter Pan is not something that I have ever over-analyzed, I have sometimes wondered why Tiger Lily and her people are in the story’s fictional realm at all.  Here’s how one Native American website puts it:

While casting a white actress as an Indian character [in Pan] is a familiar kind of disappointing, some folks who are trying to read the tea leaves are seeing something else — a revamped Tiger Lily who isn’t Native American at all. This would be a departure from J.M. Barrie’s source material, but maybe not such a radical one. Peter Pan’s Indians, after all, do not live [in North America]; they live in “Neverland,” and there is no real reason why they are Indians. And in J.M. Barrie's original play (but not the movie), they are said to be of the “Pickaninny Tribe,” which adds an anti-African American slur to the anti-Native “redskin” caricature. It’s a blurring that suggests Barrie didn't really care whether he was writing about Indians, or Africans, or African Indians or Indian Africans — he simply wanted a handy caricature and exotic other that might show up in the dreams of white English kids circa 1904.

I hear that Pan director Wright has crafted a character who is not a damsel in distress but a butt-kicking feminist role model.  Furthermore, I understand that Wright has cast both Tiger Lily’s tribe and the Lost Boys with a multi-racial ensemble, so performers of color aren’t being entirely snubbed. 

Given how egregiously racist the portrayals of Tiger Lily and her tribe have been from the get-go, I can certainly understand Wright’s going in the other direction and creating a character who, in and of herself, could not be accused of being a racial stereotype and could not be accused of promoting racism (with the arguable exception of extradiegetically erasing a prominent character of color by doing so).  There’s no real logic to the Indians being in the fictional realm of Neverland in the first place.  If the story were actually set in North America, I’d probably feel differently, but the setting is largely one drawn entirely from Barrie’s imagination, so why not?  This seems to be the reason why Pan reportedly does not make Tiger Lily and her people Native American.  While it makes Tiger Lily ostensibly white, it makes her people multi-racial. 

The musical ‘The Nightingale,’
based on Hans Christian Andersen’s
China-set story, was staged at the
La Jolla Playhouse in 
2012 with a
self-proclaimed “color-blind” cast.
Many will disagree with me, and I understand their perspectives.  For instance, some view compromised minority representation as preferable to no minority representation at all, so to them, casting the role of Tiger Lily with a white actress especially stings.  But given how stereotyped the role has been in the past, I equally understand Wright’s apparent desire to make a 180º turn, race-wise.  (Some, no doubt, will say that even if Tiger Lily in Pan had been played by a Native American actress, critics would still have found fault with her portrayal.)  Others might see an inconsistency between my position here and my preference for seeing the China-set musical The Nightingale (2012) with an all-Asian cast; instead, as its publicity said, the musical was cast “color-blind” (in the words of one critic, “white men and women of color”) because its creators saw its Asian setting as more of a China as it existed in the 19th-century European imagination than the non-fictional China.  But at least China is an actual place inhabited by actual Chinese people, something that The Nightingale ought to have reflected.  Peter Pan’s Neverland, by contrast, is not a genuine geographical entity. 

If I were ever in charge of a production of Peter Pan (which I don’t plan to be anytime soon), I would have gone further in the other direction by making Tiger Lily and all her people a visibly European (Celtic?) tribe and made up for this erasure of diversity by casting the Lost Boys as multi-racial.  That way, there would be no accusations of racially stereotyping Tiger Lily and her people, while I would still maintain a racially pluralistic cast. 

Oh, well.  Those are my thoughts on the subject of the casting of Joe Wright’s Pan.  What are yours?  

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Horror Film to Skip: ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’

Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Frankenstein (left) and Robert De Niro as the Monster
in ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’

Last October, to help everyone get in the mood for the holiday, I wrote a Halloween-themed post about my favorite horror film, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961).  This year, I thought that I would write another about — all things considered — my least favorite horror film.  Although I’m sure that I could find other would-be chillers that are more wanting in subject matter and/or craftsmanship, the film that I would like to write about is, given the talent and resources lavished on it, perhaps the biggest missed opportunity in the history of cinema.  The name of this monstrosity more horrifying in execution than intention?  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), directed by Kenneth Branagh
Director-star Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Victor Frankenstein
Adapting Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic as a follow-up to Francis Ford Coppola’s very successful Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992 — which one critic dubbed the most expensive high-school play in history), Branagh’s Frankenstein boasts a large budget and a very talented cast, not the least of whom is Robert De Niro in the role of the Monster.  Since many adaptations of the Shelley novel show no fidelity to its period or setting (at least two productions transplanted the story to Britain), I was very pleased to see Branagh’s film fixed firmly in the late 18th century (the period of the Enlightenment) and Dr. Frankenstein’s status as an outsider by making him a Swiss national (Shelley’s novel was famously written in Switzerland) studying in nationalistic Ingolstadt, Germany.  For buffs of German literature, Friedrich Schiller even makes a cameo appearance (although the real Schiller was probably nowhere near Ingolstadt at the time). 

With sumptuous costumes evoking the late 18th century and a very accomplished cast, Branagh’s film had a lot going for it.  Unfortunately, he chooses to emphasize the melodramatic aspects of the novel with breakneck pacing, shovel-on-the-head dialogue, and a constantly swirling soundtrack that hardly ever lets up.  In fact, Branagh’s Frankenstein is almost wall-to-wall music, as though the filmmaker feared that any let-up in the orchestral score would put the audience to sleep.  (The first time I first saw this Frankenstein at the Writers’ Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, when the composer’s name, the otherwise distinguished Patrick Doyle, appeared on the screen, the audience broke out into jeers — the only time I’ve ever known that to happen to a composer.) 
Robert De Niro as the Monster
Actor-director Branagh himself plays Dr. Victor Frankenstein, which may have had something to do with his not being able to view the project from a more comprehensive distance.  De Niro’s Monster looks more like a badly scarred human rather than anything especially frightening, so we’re less understanding of the townspeople’s horrific reactions to him.  It would have been appreciated had there been some other element to his appearance (such as his flat head in the Boris Karloff movies for Universal Pictures) to make the Monster more … well … monstrous. 

Branagh’s Frankenstein rushes from one plot point to the next in an apparent effort to cram all of its material into the movie without running overtime.  There’s little sense of the film pausing long enough to allow the viewer (or even the characters) to absorb the proceedings.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of those rare films that might have actually been better had it been longer (and less melodramatic) and given more time for its narrative to unfold. 
Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth, Dr. Frankenstein’s betrothed
(apparently, someone got tired of the film’s bombastic dialogue)
And to top it all off, the script — by Steph Lady and The Shawshank Redemption’s Frank Darabont — wallops the viewer with spell-it-out-for-you dialogue that leaves no doubt about the characters’ actions and incitements.  Here, Victor Frankenstein is given a mother who dies in childbirth to spur his experiments to prolong life indefinitely.  One scene has Victor laying flowers on his mother’s grave, saying, “Oh, Mother, you should never have died.  No one need ever die.  I will stop this. I will stop this.  I promise” — lest we have any doubt what his driving force is.  The scene might as well have had a sign light up in the background saying “CHARACTER’S MOTIVATION.”     

To watch Branagh’s Frankenstein is also to wonder how such a richly pedigreed film got so much wrong.  Rather than playing up the melodrama, I wish that the movie had gone in the other direction and observed its goings-on with a Kubrickian sense of detail and understatement.  The scene of Victor at his mother’s grave needed no dialogue, and I think that the scene could have been more rewarding by allowing the viewers to put Victor’s (rather obvious) motivation together for themselves. 
John Cleese as Dr. Robert Waldman
The only real reason to watch Branagh’s Frankenstein — other than to luxuriate in the production values and wish they were expended on a better movie — is to witness Monty Python alum John Cleese in a rare dramatic turn, in this case in the role of Dr. Robert Waldman, the titular scientist’s mentor.  But even here, as good as it is to catch Cleese in anything, I would still like to have seen an important supporting part like Dr. Waldman go to Christopher Lee as a tribute to his role as the Monster in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), one of the first of Hammer Films’s horror series from the 1950s through ’70s. 

At the start, I called Branagh’s Frankenstein my least favorite horror film.  Where other misfires of the genre can sometimes make me laugh at their inept attempts to frighten the viewer or at least make me appreciate the movie as an artifact of its time, Branagh’s film only makes me sad.  As I watch such lavishly costumed characters spouting hyperbolic dialogue written by scribes who have proven their worth on other projects, I’m filled with a sense of sorrow for what might have been.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

Just thought I’d pass this along...

From TVLine:

THIS JUST IN: We’re getting those final four words!  
Sources confirm that Netflix has closed a deal with Warner Bros. for a limited-series revival of Gilmore Girls penned by series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and exec producer Daniel Palladino.
Although negotiations with the cast are only now beginning, I’m told all of the major players — most notably Lauren Graham, Alexis Bledel, Kelly Bishop and Scott Patterson — are expected back for the continuation. Additionally, per multiple insiders, the revival will consist of four 90-minute episodes/mini-movies.

Read the entire article.

From the Los Angeles Times: “5 Important Questions About the Rumored Gilmore Girls Reboot.”

From the New York Times: “Why a New Gilmore Girls Wouldn’t Really Be Gilmore Girls.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

‘Miss Saigon’: Better Late Than Never

Filipino actor Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer in the 2014 London revival of ‘Miss Saigon’

This is kind of a big deal for me. 

I think that one of the major artistic issues of the last quarter-century or so was Broadway’s casting controversy over the musical Miss Saigon in 1990.  The event has now faded into the nether reaches of time and memory, but it’s something that’s been sticking in my craw ever since. 

Most of you are probably familiar with the title Miss Saigon, the sung-through musical, adapted from Madame Butterfly by tunesmith Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boubil, the French team behind the wildly popular musical staging of Les Misérables.  Under the producership of Cameron Mackintosh (who also produced Les Miz, Cats, and Phantom of the Opera, among other shows), Miss Saigon premiered on London’s West End in 1989 with Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce in the lead male role of the Engineer, a pimp who runs the brothel in war-torn 1970s Vietnam that indentured the young prostitute title character, Kim.  (This was after a worldwide search to find a specifically Asian actress to play Kim, finally finding Lea Salonga in the Philippines.)  The logic of the musical’s plot calls for the Engineer to be a Vietnamese national, but a white actor was cast in the role, the creative team said, because the character was “Eurasian.”  However, nowhere in Miss Saigon’s original lyrics (since revised) is the character’s European heritage mentioned, nor is such a heritage germane to the story.  Ostensibly, the Engineer was a full-blooded Vietnamese who was labeled “Eurasian” merely to accommodate a white actor in the role.  And Pryce opened the role of the Engineer in the West End wearing eye prosthetics to give his eyelids an epicanthic fold.  In 1990, the year after its London premiere, Mackintosh announced that he planned to bring Miss Saigon to Broadway the following year and to have Pryce reprise his role as the Engineer in New York. 

In 1990, I was friends with a number of Asian American actors, and I would often hear stories of their struggles about being racial minorities working for an industry whose primary goal was to attract the majority white audience.  This meant that not very many roles were written for ethnically Asian performers, and if a role wasn’t written specifically as a character of color, I was told, minority actors would seldom be considered for it.  This meant that my Asian American thespian friends didn’t work all that often, and they needed to support their acting careers with day jobs.  Complicating this was the practice of “yellowface,” which is the derogatory nickname for applying cosmetics (of any color) to white actors in order for them to play Asian roles.  So, in 1990, the playing field was decidedly tilted: Caucasian actors — not only because of their talent, but also because of their race — had many opportunities in the entertainment industry, but Asian American actors had few.  Also, the industry, through the practice of “yellowface,” enabled white actors to play Asian characters without a commensurate practice to enable Asian actors to play white characters. 

When it opened in 1991, Miss Saigon boasted Broadway’s first Asian male lead (non-supporting) role in 15 years, since the Stephen Sondheim musical Pacific Overture in 1976.  In all that time, Asian American actors were — for all intents and purposes — “racially disqualified” from playing male leads on the Great White Way.  Miss Saigon’s Engineer would have been a great opportunity for an ethnically Asian actor to open a lead role on Broadway, but with Mackintosh’s announcement that Pryce would re-create the character in New York, that rare possibility was whisked away. 

Jonathan Pryce, wearing eye prosthetics, in the original 1989 London production of ‘Miss Saigon’

Because Pryce was a British national, Mackintosh had to apply for an H-1B visa (a visa which means that no one else can do the job) for him to appear on Broadway, an application that needed to be approved by the American performers’ union, Actors’ Equity, to go forward.  Advocates of Pryce’s participation in the production called it an example of “non-traditional casting” (see below).  The Asian American actors and their supporters complained to Equity that Broadway’s first Asian male lead in 15 years was automatically going to an actor without any racial constraints on his career and that no Asian actors had been seriously considered for the part.  After some discussion, Actors’ Equity denied Pryce’s application for an H-1B visa, issuing a press release to explain their position:

Today [August 8, 1990], the Council of Actors’ Equity resumed its deliberation regarding the proposed casting of Jonathan Pryce in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon.  After a long and emotional debate, the Council has decided it cannot appear to condone the casting of a Caucasian actor in the role of a Eurasian and has therefore voted to reject the producer’s application to permit Mr. Pryce, who originated the role of the Engineer in London, to recreate his performance in the American production.  
Equity’s decision is in no way meant to reflect on Mr. Pryce, whose excellence the Union, once again, acknowledges.  
The question of Mr. Pryce’s appearance at [sic] the Engineer has prompted a long-overdue public debate over the issues of non-traditional casting and the lack of job opportunities for ethnic minority actors, in this instance, those in the Asian community.  
Actors’ Equity was created by actors to protect the actor and improve employment conditions.  When Equity membership believes that they are in some way being humiliated or ignored, the Union is bound to investigate the claim and respond.  The casting of a Caucasian actor made up to appear Asian is an affront to the Asian community.  This casting choice is especially disturbing when the casting of an Asian actor, in this role, would be an important and significant opportunity to break the usual pattern of casting Asians in minor roles.  
The Asian community of American Equity actors has strongly supported the Union’s condemnation of the proposed casting of the Engineer in Miss Saigon and has urged the Union to reject this application, in full awareness that many jobs may be lost to actors of Asian background if the production is cancelled.  
For years, ethnic actors were denied access to roles that were not expressly written for the ethnic performer.  To put it another way, ethnic actors were largely excluded from working in the theatre.  In response, Actors’ Equity has vigorously advocated the creation of equal casting opportunities for its minority members.  Equity originated the use of the term “non-traditional casting” as an avenue of increasing employment for minority actors.  This policy is defined as the casting of ethnic actors in roles where race or gender is not germane to the character.  Non-traditional casting was never intended to be used to diminish opportunities for ethnic actors to play ethnic roles.  The contract agreed to by Equity and the League of American Theaters and Producers provides that all parties agree “to continue their joint efforts toward, and reaffirm their commitment to the policy of non-discrimination, and to an on-going policy of furthering the principles of equal employment opportunity.  It is the desire of the parties that employment opportunities for Equity’s multi-racial membership be improved, and that the stage reflect a multi-racial society” (emphasis added).  [Emphasis and parentheses in original.]
The producer, Cameron Mackintosh[,] was quoted in the Sunday Times of London as stating that “I subscribe to the view that acting roles should be played by the best person and that colour of skin has got nothing to do with it.”  The casting of Mr. Pryce would not be so objectionable if Mr. Mackintosh was also willing to apply this standard elsewhere and cast visibly ethnic actors in the numerous productions of Les Misérables which have created nearly 400 jobs for Equity actors.  Instead, Mr. Mackintosh and the producers of other shows have insisted all too often that the text of a play does not allow the casting of ethnic actors and have consistently refused to consider the talent of minority members for employment.  
The “exhaustive search” for an Asian actor to play the role of the Engineer has been much publicized, but, as Geoffrey Johnson, of Johnson, Liff, and Zerman, and one of the casting directors for Miss Saigon has stated, the search was centered on casting the character of Kim, the young Asian girl in the production.  No actor but Mr. Pryce was seriously considered for [the role of the Engineer].  In fact, one leading Asian-American actor who was mentioned to play the Engineer reports that his representative returned a call he received but was never contacted again.  [I understand that the Asian American actor in question was John Lone, who had recently starred in the Oscar-winning The Last Emperor.]  Further, it has been claimed that no Asian actors have had experience in starring roles and they cannot carry the weight of a Broadway play.  This becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy [sic] unless and until this cycle of casting is broken.  
The assertion that Equity’s refusal to condone the casting of Mr. Pryce reflects an anti-British bias is without foundation.  During the last three years alone, Equity has admitted more than 160 British actors as stars, as “actors providing unique services,” as members of unit companies and as part of the exchange under the reciprocal agreement between Equity and British Equity.  
The Council’s decision in this matter has been a most difficult one.  But Equity must continue to affirm, indeed press, its policy of non-traditional casting and to object whenever it, as here, is exploited.  To allow Miss Saigon to appear as cast without a strong expression of Equity’s displeasure would be a betrayal of those producers and directors and casting directors who have made every effort to encourage and enlarge the Asian talent pool by casting Asian parts Asian as well as casting other roles non-traditionally with Asian actors.  
Equity and its membership are well aware of the threat that we comply with the demand [to approve Pryce’s casting] or we will be punished by the loss of jobs.  
Finally and once again, Equity states that the producer retains the right to bring this matter to arbitration.  Should Mr. Mackintosh refuse to avail himself of this contractually prescribed remedy and cancel or postpone this production of Miss Saigon, lost employment and lost revenues are ultimately his responsibility.  
Equity has vigorously and consistently raised the issue of opening up the casting of numerous Broadway productions in order to break down the barriers facing minority actors.  Indeed right now Equity has tried to schedule a meeting to review the casting practices of not only Les Misérables, but other plays in which the lack of ethnic actors is dramatically evident.  
Equity invites the press to take an in-depth look at ethnic casting in the American theater instead of sensationalizing one example.  
The debate should not end with this decision.  (quoted in Theater Week, IV, 2, August 20, 1990, pp. 17-19)

Mackintosh had clashed with Actors’ Equity a number of times over the years over other issues, so he might have seen the union’s decision as more of a power play than as a principled position.  Although he had the option, as the press release states, to take Equity’s decision to arbitration, Mackintosh instead indignantly announced the cancellation of Miss Saigon’s Broadway production, saying that Equity had denied Jonathan Pryce a job “because of his race.” 

For all of the ink that Equity spilled writing the announcement of its decision, it didn’t do very much good, because I doubt that very many people read it.  After Mackintosh announced his decision to cancel Miss Saigon’s Broadway production, most mainstream news outlets castigated the union’s decision.  Much discussion abounded that the theatre was a place of make-believe, where actors play people other than themselves, and therefore Equity’s decision was unreasonable.  Some misrepresented the union’s position as calling for ethnically specific casting, as though Equity were declaring that only Danish actors could play Hamlet, say, or only Greek actresses could play Medea.  But racial discrimination against Asian American actors in hiring received extremely little attention.  This somewhat sarcastic opinion piece written for Time magazine by Japan-based Indian-British journalist Pico Iyer (who I think ought to have known better) captures the tenor of discussion at the time:

[Equity’ was] raising some highly intriguing questions.  How can John Gielgud play Prospero when Doug Henning is at hand?  Should future Shakespeares — even future August Wilsons — stock their plays with middle-class whites so as to have the largest pool of actors from which to choose?  And the next time we stage Moby Dick, will there be cries that the title part be taken by a card-carrying leviathan?

What is the title of Iyer’s essay?  “The Masks of Minority Terrorism.”  Yes, Iyer calls those struggling for racial equality “terrorists.”  I’m sure that Asian American actors will be flying airplanes into skyscrapers any day now. 

I was very dismayed that racial discrimination against minorities in casting — the motivating issue of the Miss Saigon controversy — was pushed to the background in coverage of the story.  Equity was portrayed as wrong in every regard, and virtually the only mention of Asian American actors in the press was all of the supporting (!) roles that they would lose if Mackintosh’s cancellation of the production weren’t rescinded. 

Producer Cameron Mackintosh in a recent photo

Of course, as the history books now say, Mackintosh prevailed: Equity reversed its veto of Pryce, who opened the role of the Engineer on Broadway without the eye prosthetics that he wore in London.  Also, Pryce won the Tony that year for Best Actor in a musical, perhaps as an apology by the Broadway establishment for that nasty little thing that Equity did.  (The theme of the Tony broadcast of 1991, hosted by Julie Andrews and Jeremy Irons, was the British presence on Broadway, which suggested an attempt to make amends for any perceived anti-British slight on Equity’s part.  If the Tony’s theme that year had instead been the Asian American presence on Broadway, the show would have had a lot less to work with.) 

Despite my dismay over how Miss Saigon’s casting controversy played out (there was another controversy over whether the show’s arguably stereotypical Asian characters were worth playing in the first place), I was glad to see an apparent effort on the part of the entertainment industry to increase minority visibility in the media and to cast Asian roles with ethnically Asian actors.  Even Cameron Mackintosh seemed to accept the core of Equity’s argument: after Pryce stepped down from the role in 1992, his replacements have all been ethnically Asian actors.  Of course, the situation today for minority — and especially Asian — actors is far from perfect, but given the vilification in the media of Equity’s rejection of Pryce, and the constant cries of “reverse discrimination,” I’m surprised that the issue of racial discrimination in casting came to be treated so seriously. 

But also in the intervening years, histories of Broadway and other mainstream chronicles of the past still mention Equity’s veto of Pryce (when they mention it at all) as a mistake, as an example of the union shooting itself in the foot, as a “bluff” called by the intrepid Mackintosh.  So, over last weekend, I was pleased beyond measure when I read this passage in the on-line version of Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, for a story it printed last year on Miss Saigon’s 25th anniversary production on the West End:

As far as Miss Saigon is concerned, Mackintosh believes his biggest mistake was not foreseeing how much of an issue the casting of Jonathan Pryce in the leading Eurasian role of The Engineer would prove in New York. “I said it was a storm in an Oriental tea-cup, thinking I was being clever. I was actually being stupid.” He now accepts that those who argued that the character should be played by an actor of Asian descent had a valid point.

“A valid point.”  That’s what Equity tried to make in 1990 — and was vilified for its troubles.  I don’t think that anyone (including myself) wanted to prevent Jonathan Pryce from appearing in Miss Saigon.  Equity, reports say, was hoping that Mackintosh would take its decision to arbitration, where the issue of racial discrimination in casting could be given a proper hearing before Pryce was approved.  The fact that Mackintosh didn’t take the decision to arbitration — the fact that he stubbornly cancelled the production until Equity changed its position — has long suggested that he saw the union’s veto as utterly without merit.  I’m glad finally to see in black & white, 25 long years after the controversy, that Equity’s and the minority actors’ argument has won.  Better late than never. 

‘The Heat Is On,’ a behind-the-scenes documentary of the original 1989 London production of ‘Miss Saigon’