Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) — the only organization solely dedicated to monitoring the media and pushing for balanced, sensitive and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans — is reminding Academy voters of the numerous actors who’ve accepted whitewashed roles or even donned yellowface make-up to play Asians and nevertheless gone on to get Oscar nominations and even Oscar trophies.
This year, they include nominees Scarlett Johansson, Jonathan Pryce, and Charlize Theron.
Johansson, in the running for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, played the role of Motoko Kusanagi in the 2017 box office bomb “Ghost in the Shell.” Based on the popular anime/manga, her character was called “The Major” for most of the film. But in the end, while searching for her birth mother, she meets a Japanese woman who confirms that before her daughter’s brain was put into The Major’s cyborg body, she was Motoko Kusanagi.
Despite the outcry by MANAA and others, the actress lied when she told “Good Morning America” host Michael Strahan, “I would never attempt to play a person of a different race, obviously.”
Megan Colligan, Paramount president of worldwide distribution and marketing, admitted that “Ghost,” which cost at least $110 million to make and only took in only $40 million domestically and $170 worldwide, was done in by the whitewashing controversy, as more people than usual googled the film before deciding to see it and kept coming across the issue in movie reviews, online articles, and social media (actresses Constance Wu and Ming-Na Wen also chastised Johansson for taking away the opportunity for a real Asian woman to play the role). Despite Johansson being one of the highest-paid actresses in the business, the masses decided to stay home.
The movie lost $100 million. But apparently believing that one bad turn deserved another, in 2018, Johansson agreed to once again team up with director Rupert Sanders, this time to play the real-life story of transgender man Dante “Tex” Gill (who owned a string of massage parlors that were fronts for prostitution in the ’70s and ’80s) in “Rub and Tug.”
When people expressed outrage that the Johansson was taking away the chance for a real transgender person to play the part, the actress shot back: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.” (The actors had received Emmy or Oscar nominations for playing transgendered people in “Transparent,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Transamerica,” respectively, with Tambor and Leto winning).
Someone tweeted: “You’re making a movie about a fat, trans man who was a crime boss and Scarlett Johansson is the first name that comes to mind? Really?”
This time, the actress changed her mind and withdrew from the role. But showing how oblivious she was to her privilege as a white woman, last July, told As If magazine: “As an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job… I feel like [political correctness is] a trend in my business and it needs to happen for various social reasons, yet there are times it does get uncomfortable when it affects the art because I feel art should be free of restrictions.”
Johansson later told Vanity Fair, “I wasn’t totally aware of how the trans community felt about those three actors playing… transgender people.”
But for years, Johansson was aware of anger building over news that she was going to play Kusanagi in “Ghost in the Shell” yet still hasn’t apologized for taking the role and lying about the character’s ethnic identity.
In 1989, Jonathan Pryce, a Best Actor nominee this year for “The Two Popes,” infamously wore yellowface make-up (prosthetics on his eyes and darkened skin color) to play The Engineer in the London production of “Miss Saigon.” When producer Cameron Mackintosh tried to bring the musical to Broadway, Actors’ Equity refused to accept Pryce playing an Asian man but ultimately relented after the producer canceled the production. It opened in 1991 and Pryce won the Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actor.
In 2016, Charlize Theron voiced the part of Sariatu in the animated film about a Japanese family, “Kubo and the Two Strings.” She’s nominated this year for Best Actress in “Bombshell.”
MANAA urges the Academy to reconsider awarding Scarlett Johannson, Jonathan Pryce, and Charlize Theron awards for acting based on their whitewashing/yellowface history.
In the history of the Academy Awards, no Asian American actor has received nominations for Lead Actor/Actress trophies. And only five were up for supporting roles: Miyoshi Umeki (“Sayonara,” 1958), Mako Iwamatsu (“The Sand Pebbles,” 1967) and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita (“The Karate Kid,” 1985), Meg Tilly (“Agnes of God,” 1986), Jennifer Tilly (“Bullets Over Broadway,” 1995).
Over the years, many Asian Americans whom awards experts predicted were shoo-ins for acting nominations (e.g., Hong Chau in “Downsizing,” Awkwafina in “The Farewell”) were passed over.
Yet throughout history, many actors who’ve played Asian characters in yellowface make-up or in white-washed roles (those originally written for Asian people but played by non-Asians) have nevertheless been rewarded with Academy Awards or Emmys.
In the yellowface category: Luise Rainier won the Best Actress Oscar for playing a Chinese peasant woman in “The Good Earth” (1937). In 1984, Linda Hunt (currently a regular on “NCIS: Los Angeles”) won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Billy Kwan in “The Year of Living Dangerously.”
Fisher Stevens was painted brown to play an Indian in “Short Circuit” 1 & 2 (1986, 1988); in 2010, he won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for co-producing “The Cove.”
Katherine Hepburn, who looked as if she had her eyes pulled to play a Chinese villager in “Dragon Seed” (1944), went on to win the Best Actress prize three times for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” (1968), “The Lion in Winter” (1969), and “On Golden Pond” (1982).
John Wayne played Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror” (1956) and later won Best Actor for “True Grit” in 1970. Marlon Brando took the role of Sakini in “Teahouse of the August Moon” (1956) and was named Best Actor for “The Godfather” in 1973.
Between 1997 and 2009, despite protests from MANAA, Alex Borstein put on prosthetic make-up to play nail salon owner Ms. Swan on Fox’s “MAD TV”; in 2018, she won an Emmy for Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance (“Family Guy”) and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series (“The Marvelous Ms. Maisel”; she repeated that win in 2019).
Ironically, David Carradine got an Emmy nomination for playing Kwai Chang Caine in “Kung Fu,” a show developed by Bruce Lee.
In the whitewashed category, Benedict Cumberbatch played the Asian Indian Khan Noonien Singh in “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013) and got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for “The Imitation Game” in 2015; Emma Stone was ridiculed for playing Allison Ng, a half Hawaiian/Chinese character in the much loathed “Aloha” (2014); Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mackenzie Davis portrayed Indian and Korean American characters, respectively, in “The Martian” (2015); Tildon Swinton’s Ancient One character, a 500+-year-old Tibetan man in the comic books, became a Celtic woman (though living in Nepal) in “Dr. Strange” (2016), Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, and Rooney Mara voiced Japanese family members in the animated “Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016); and Natalie Portman played a half-Asian American woman in “Annihilation” (2018).
Hank Azaria, who’s voiced the part of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in “The Simpsons” since February 1990, has won four Emmys for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance (1998, 2001, 2003 and 2015) for playing various characters on the show, including Apu. As a live actor, he won Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie (“Tuesdays With Morrie” in 2000) and Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series (“Ray Donovan” in 2016).
In 2017, seven days after it was announced that Ed Skrein was hired to play the role of Japanese American Ben Daimio in the rebooted “Hellboy” film, the actor stepped down after facing social media backlash. Daniel Dae Kim was eventually cast for the role. MANAA hopes in the future, other actors will follow Skrein’s lead, research the role they’re offered, and if it was originally written for an Asian person, “just say no” and ask that a real Asian actor play the part instead.
This year, for the 12th time — and the first in 12 years — an actor got Oscar nominations for both lead and supporting roles. Johansson is up for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, in “Marriage Story” and “Jojo Rabbit.”
“If she wins in either category,” points out MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki, “She will be offered even more roles than before. We think it’s time to stop rewarding privileged white actors who take away opportunities from Asian Americans and other underrepresented communities.
“Johansson, Jonathan Pryce, Charlize Theron and other highly paid actors can afford to turn down roles written specifically for ethnic or transgender characters. We ask the Academy to keep this in mind while filling out their ballots. And we ask Hollywood to give Asian American actors more opportunities so that they can be recognized for their great talent.”