For those too young to know this history or those wanting to take a walk down memory lane, here are the 25 “yellow face” film performances (so no David Carradine in Kung Fu unless the long-rumored film version gets made) that have arguably had the most impact on our cultural landscape.
5 | I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007)
Rob Schneider as Asian Minister
Does the fact that Schneider is part Filipino let him off the hook? Hell no, and a two-time participant of the AZN Asian Excellence Awards should definitely know better. Schneider appears in a cameo as a strange Japanese rabbi in full offensive “yellow face” mode that wouldn’t feel out of place if this were 1942. For a film that argues for the rights of gays, it’s even more disappointing that the message of acceptance does not extend to Asians.
4 | The Good Earth (1937)
Paul Muni as Wang, Luise Rainer as O-Lan
MGM producer Irving Thalberg bought the rights to Pearl Buck’s novel about a poor Chinese peasant couple but ignored capable Asian actors like Anna May Wong, who lobbied to play O-Lan, for the leads. The film did win two Oscars and was a hit, but the casting adds an air of inauthenticity that hangs over everything like thick smog.
3 | The Charlie Chan series (1931-1981)
Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, Roland Winters, Peter Ustinov as Charlie Chan
Earl Derr Biggers created the iconic Chinese detective to counter negative stereotyping of Asians, but inadvertently created another one: the non-threatening “Oriental” with his fortune-cookie wisdom. Although the character was usually portrayed by Caucasian actors in his many incarnations, Asians have occasionally taken on the role; Japanese actor Sojin portrayed the detective in 1927’s The Chinese Parrot.
2 | Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi
Can a romantic comedy get any better than this — the captivating Audrey Hepburn at her best, a charming script based on Truman Capote’s novel, Henry Mancini’s sublime score, including the now classic “Moon River”? But unfortunately, you also have Rooney’s racist portrayal of clownish Japanese landlord Mr. Yunioshi. Rooney embraces just about every stereotype imaginable, but even without that, his low-brow antics would still feel out of place in an otherwise classy film. Director Blake Edwards later acknowledged the character was a mistake, but it didn’t stop him from treading similar ground again (see number 19, The Party ).