After finishing my third book this weekend (there is no spring break in grad school), I decided to watch a favorite film/book of mine, Memoirs of a Geisha. Now some years ago, my old sister kept telling me about the book until I finally picked it up and couldn’t put it down. Scenes with Hatsumomo were my driving force for reading. I usually love most book’s antagonist characters, and Hatsumomo never let me down. Well, while viewing the film I began to recall some of the issues that the Asian community raised about the casting choices. You know I had to do a little research.

. . .But long before audiences have even seen a trailer, “Memoirs” has generated an underground controversy over the director’s decision to cast non-Japanese actresses in the three leading geisha parts. From the opaque alleys of Kyoto’s geisha districts to Internet movie chat rooms and the cast of the movie itself, the decision has created unease over what kind of footprint Hollywood will leave on this iconic element of traditional Japanese culture.

Declaring that “my only criteria was who’s the best person for the role,” Marshall chose China’s Ziyi Zhang (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) to play Sayuri, the fictional Japanese girl snatched from her humble fishing village and taken to a Kyoto “okiya” where she becomes the most celebrated geisha of the 1930s.

Marshall then cast Gong Li, perhaps the most recognizable international Chinese star of her generation, as Sayuri’s conniving rival, Hatsumomo. He picked Malaysian Michelle Yeoh, also of “Crouching Tiger” fame, to play the guiding mother figure, Mameha.

And he salted his vision of Japan’s imperial age with supporting actors and extras from a multitude of Asian ethnicities. The choice of a pan-Asian cast raises hard questions about the way Hollywood views the world outside America. By using Chinese actors in quintessential Japanese roles, has Marshall become the Quiet American director, an innocent abroad, shaving the edges off human diversity to produce an imagined Japan for an American audience that doesn’t know the real thing?

Or is it a progressive act, as Marshall says, nothing more sinister than hiring the best-qualified actors, regardless of ethnicity, to do what actors do: act?

“Every action you make, how you walk, how you use a Japanese fan, how you treat people and what kind of facial expressions you have when you talk is going to be expressed based on your Japanese cultural sophistication. … For Hollywood, however, this does not matter. For them, there is no difference between Japanese and Chinese.” (Read full article . . .)

This reminded me of another favorite movie of mine, Imitation of Life. If you’ll recall, the second casting of the film called on a white actress to play the passing mulatto Sara Jane. As the website noted below mentions, the 1934 film was more progressive since it not only allowed a black woman to play the passing mulatto, but also because it allowed the black and white mothers to be business partners. In the 1959 version, Sara Jane (formerly Peola in previous version) is played by a white woman and Annie (her mother) is the help—and only the help. No aspirations or goals. Nothing. But here’s what you didn’t know about the original book by Fannie Hurst.

The author of numerous bestselling novels, a masterful short story writer, and an outspoken social activist, Fannie Hurst was a major celebrity in the first half of the twentieth century. Daniel Itzkovitz’s introduction situates Imitation of Life in its literary, biographical, and cultural contexts, addressing such topics as the debates over the novel and films, the role of Hurst’s one-time secretary and great friend Zora Neale Hurston in the novel’s development, and the response to the novel by Hurst’s friend Langston Hughes, whose one-act satire, “Limitations of Life” (which reverses the races of Bea and Delilah), played to a raucous Harlem crowd in the late 1930s.

So we know that Hurston influenced Hurst, but what about the opposite?

“Sweat” is influenced not only by Hurston’s childhood town but also by her relationship with her employer, Fannie Hurst (Seidel 117). Hurston met the writer Hurst at Opportunity‘s award dinner, May 1, 1925, one year prior to the writing of “Sweat.” Hurst hired Hurston as a live-in secretary (Howard 19). Hurston felt dependent on Fannie Hurst’s white patronage for recognition, much like Delia did in “Sweat,” and saw her patron as a restriction to her art (Seidel 117). (Read full article . . .)

Now, this post has gotten out of hand. I really wanted to discuss Hollywood’s “nontraditional” castings in two of my favorite movies. But I found this interesting article on Susan Kohler, the woman who plays Sarah Jane and figured I should post it. I’ve chopped the article down, but as always, feel free to click the links to read more.

Though not Black, Susan Kohner portrayed Sarah Jane. Kohner’s mother was Mexican actress Lupita Tovar and father Czech producer/agent Paul Kohner. Both Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore won an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the movie. The picture is especially poignant and heart rendering due in large part to the great performances given by Moore and Kohner whose strained relationship is a pivotal part of the movie. . .Mr. Hirsch regaled the film, discussing many important scenes within the movie. In one scene, Sarah Jane sneaks to meet her white boyfriend, played by Troy Donohue, who beats her upon discovering she is black. “Troy actually hits me in that scene,” recalled Kohner. “Troy didn’t realize how hard he hit me. I ended up with bruises. The director sent me yellow roses that night with a note that said he hoped I was feeling better because he needed to re-shoot the scene,” grimaced Susan. “While Mr. Sirk was often patient and gentle with Juanita, with me, he could be a great forceful, didactic Prussian man. I was afraid of him. I understand he needed to be forceful in order to get the angry emotions from me he needed for the scene,” recalled Kohner whose Oscar nomination never did boost her career.

“I never had qualms about playing a black character because prior to my Imitation role, I played other ethnic characters. Juanita and I have remained friends since the picture, but during the making of it, we were not close. My character was unhappy and often mean to her mother. Thus, I didn’t dare get too friendly in order to keep the integrity of the character” explained Susan. “We purposely didn’t get chummy because Susan was passing,” chuckled Juanita. (Read full article . . . )

Somebody should tell Juanita that it’s ok to keep it real now. We know the real reason why Susan couldn’t get “chummy” with you. Unfortunately, Fredi Washington, the original Sarah Jane, or rather Peola (you’ll also recall Peola from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye), didn’t have quite the career that Kohner had following the movie.

Anyway, happy reading, ya’ll!