Madame Butterfly (1915): Like blackface, the trend toward passing Caucasian actors as Asians has existed since cinema’s near-earliest days. When director Sidney Olcott adapted John Luther John’s novel about an American lieutenant who marries a 15-year-old geisha, he ran into a slight snag: not the 15-year-old part, but the Japanese part. Mary Pickford got the lead, but the two fought relentlessly over his desire she play it more “Japanese.” Pickford won out, which may be for the best.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933): This entire list could be films from the 1930s, when non-Asians were constantly cast as Asians: the various Charlie Chans, Peter Lorre’s Mr. Moto, Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy in The Mask of Fu Manchu, Luise Rainer’s Oscar turn in The Good Earth. The most regal can be found in Frank Capra’s terrific pre-code drama, with Danish-born Swede Nils Asther playing a fearsome but kind warlord who falls for American Barbara Stanwyck—a rare case, at the time, of not only international but interracial romance.
Dragon Seed (1944): Even postwar Asian actors had trouble getting decent roles in Hollywood productions. While they were often cast in sinister roles, the meaty Asian roles went to, of course, Caucasians, including Katharine Hepburn as a Chinese woman standing up to the Imperial Japanese Army.
The Conqueror (1956): John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Laugh all you want, but ignore the makeup and the dialogue clunkers, and this is a not-bad western. It was shot in Utah, near a nuclear weapons testing site that very likely contaminated the cast and crew.
7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964): Not long after Mickey Rooney’s infamous turn as bucktoothed Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Tony Randall starred in George Pal’s fantasy as the shape-shifting head of a magical circus, whose most prominent caricature is a broad Asian stereotype—a lovable, broad Asian stereotype, but a weird, dated stereotype nonetheless.
Cloud Atlas (2012): No doubt meant to reflect co-director Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski’s own gender reassignment, this pricy epic finds the same actors freely taking on different characters, ages, genders, even ethnicities. Still, try not to chuckle at those forced—in the futuristic “Neo Seoul” segment—to pass as Asian. Technology changes, but Asian makeup is always embarrassing. n
Neil Barsky’s "Koch" Keeps It Light