“Crazy Rich Asians,” which is projected to have a $26 million-plus opening weekend, is the first Hollywood studio movie in 25 years to feature an Asian cast in a contemporary story.
A studio-backed Asian-led film getting a wide release in America is so rare that the New York Times called it a “cinematic Halley’s comet.”
Asian-Americans have long been woefully underrepresented in Hollywood. And that’s actually an improvement from when they were being offensively caricatured by white actors, in performances that reinforced negative stereotypes when they weren’t creating new ones.
Here’s a very brief history of Asian portrayals in major studio movies. Much of the history is shameful, helping illustrate just what a landmark “Crazy Rich Asians” might end up being for Asian-American representation in film.
In this decade and long after, white actors portrayed Asian characters. In the “Fu Manchu” and “Charlie Chan” movies. In “The Good Earth,” in which Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong lost the part of a Chinese woman to Luise Rainer, who won an Oscar for best actress for her performance.
Katharine Hepburn played a Chinese woman in “Dragon Seed.” Rex Harrison played a Siamese king in “Anna and the King of Siam.”
In one of the worst things that has ever happened in a motion picture, John Wayne played Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror.” Yul Brynner played the king in “The King and I.” And Omaha native Marlon Brando played a Japanese character in “The Teahouse of the August Moon.” (Omaha is not in Japan.)
Mickey Rooney played Holly Golightly’s Asian neighbor in a ghastly caricature in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Alec Guinness played a Japanese character in “A Majority of One.” Peter Sellers played an Indian actor in “The Party.”
After losing a role to David Carradine on “Kung Fu,” Bruce Lee scored a star-making performance in the Warner Bros.-produced “Enter the Dragon.” He died six days before the movie was released, but he helped pave the way for the careers of international superstars Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
Linda Hunt won an Oscar for playing a Chinese-Australian man in “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Alec Guinness played an Indian character in “A Passage to India.” As did Fisher Stevens in “Short Circuit” and “Short Circuit 2.”
Hey, it’s “The Joy Luck Club.”
Movies dinged for whitewashing characters of Asian descent: “21,” “Speed Racer,” “The Last Airbender,” “Aloha” and “Ghost in the Shell.” On the plus side, you have the “Harold and Kumar” movies, the first Hollywood franchise led by Asian-American actors. And there’s “Better Luck Tomorrow,” Justin Lin’s 2002 breakout film about overachieving Asian-American teenagers who break bad.
Enter “Crazy Rich Asians.”