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Good Actors, Bad Racial Stereotypes

RooneytiffanyThe recent release of The Jazz Singer, which preserves for history Al Jolson’s energetic version of a blackface performance in a style that used to be commonplace, points out that Hollywood hasn’t always been a haven of racial sensitivity. Historians would argue that standards change over time, and isn’t it wonderful that we’ve grown more sensitive over the years? True enough, but movies do tend to stick around long after the attitudes they embodied have been discarded.

The British newspaper The Guardian recently listed some of Hollywood’s more egregiously insensitive racial caricatures over the years, in which white actors were cast in any number of ethnicities. They somehow managed to overlook Anthony Quinn, who at least brought dignity to his performances as Arabs, Greeks, Italians, Mexicans, Eskimos, and whatever other nationality some studio casting director couldn’t fill. They also somehow overlooked Jerry Lewis, whose buck-toothed Japanese characters make you wonder what the hell he was thinking.

Among the Guardian’s picks:

Peter Sellers as an Indian doctor in The Party (1968)

Mickey Rooney (pictured above) as Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese landlord Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961)

Meryl Streep as Argentine Clara del Valle Trueba in The House Of The Spirits (1993)

Rock Hudson in a loincloth and black wig in the title role of Taza, Son Of Cochise (1954), directed by Douglas Sirk of all people.

John Wayne as Mongol warlord Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956), a movie even Wayne’s staunchest fans find embarrassing.

Katharine Hepburn as "Jade Tan", Dragon Seed (1944)

Marlon Brando as an Okinawan in The Teahouse Of The August Moon (1956)

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