Saturday, April 2, 2016

You Will Become My Perpetual Opponent (You Only Live Twice)

fig. 1: Mickey Rooney


Where to begin?

Some trivia: The screenplay for this film was written by Roald Dahl, as a kind of a swap with Fleming, where Fleming wrote the screenplay adapting Dahl's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Either as a result of this or because the producers couldn't quite swing their original plan of adapting On Her Majesty's Secret Service just yet, much of the plot of the novel went out the window. It marks the first full-on glimpse of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played here by Donald Pleasance in a performance that would be readily parodied in decades to come. Pleasance plays Blofeld as a slimy little creep, and we finally get our first look at him just as James Bond does.

It's a build-up audiences were waiting for since the second James Bond film, From Russia With Love, which first introduced the character, and SPECTRE. This was, however, Pleasance's only turn in the role. Blofeld would be played two years later by Telly Savalas--who, despite his baldness, bears zero resemblance in his portrayal to Pleasance--and two years after that by Charles Gray, who again switches up the character traits, making him cheerily, urbanely evil.

fig.2 John Wayne
One element went largely unchanged from the novel of You Only Live Twice to the book: In order to get close to Blofeld's hideout, James Bond must disguise himself as a Japanese fisherman, meaning Connery spends about a half hour or so of this film in yellowface. There is, in fact, an unsettling, long tradition of yellowface in Hollywood, outlasting blackface by decades. There are all sorts of reasons for this, and I'm not political-science literate enough to go in to all of them. Suffice it to say that instead of just refusing to tell stories about East Asian people (as they largely did for Black people) Hollywood just subbed in White actors to play East Asian characters.

fig. 3: Warner Oland

The tradition of yellowface goes back at least as far as the beginnings of cinema, because racism. The most prominent early examples are the Charlie Chan series of films starring Warner Oland, a Swedish actor in heavy makeup who played the titular detective in sixteen movies throughout the 1930's. Chan would go on to be played by White actors Sidney Toler (twenty-one films!) , Roland Winters (six films), and J. Carrol Naish (TV series: forty episodes), not getting an actual Asian actor until the Seventies when Keye Luke played him. Oh, but fret not. He'd be played later by other White actors, including one of my favorite performers, Peter Ustinov.

fig. 4: Luise Rainer
Worse offenders (we have to grade on kind of a curve here) are films like The Good Earth, an adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's runaway best-selling novel, also made in the Thirties. As far as that film goes, all the leads are played by White actors, anyone with whom the audience is meant to sympathize is White, and the background extras, well, you can guess about them. Producers of the film lobbied Actual Chinese American actress Anna May Wong for the role of the film's villain. Wong politely told them to go to Hell.

Wong is a tremendous example of the damaging effects of this kind of Hollywood-mandated racism. A mesmerizing performer, she wasn't even considered for the lead. A third-generation American, Wong was pigeonholed into Butterfly and Dragon-Lady roles throughout her career, encountering hostility in her ancestral country and typecasting in America.

fig. 5: Sean Connery

In the novel, Bond is made up to look Japanese in order to pose as a coal miner and get closer to Blofeld's organization. This works right up until his confrontation with the evil mastermind and the ensuing fight, which leaves Bond with amnesia, believing himself to be a Japanese fisherman until he reads his own obituary. In the film, the ruse is simply to get him geographically closer to the secret volcano lair of SPECTRE. It never comes up, and by the time Bond swims over to Blofeld's volcano fortress, the whole business has washed off just in time for the climactic fight.

You could argue SPECTRE's goons are active in the surrounding fishing villages, and that Bond--who makes about as convincing a Japanese as your average 6'2'' Scotsman--needed to blend in, but this whole business could have been excised completely from the film without much hand-waving.

fig. 6: Christopher Lee

It's a shame, because there are things to like about this movie. Much like the later Roger Moore films, the sets in You Only Live Twice are just frigging dynamite. The volcano lair gets much attention (And it should: that monorail, yo.) but Tiger Tanaka's office is also great, the sets at the Osata corporation are fantastic in this mod Sixties fashion, and the cavernous workings of US Central Command, where the Men in Charge watch events transpire at a tremendous remove are well worth looking at also. Tanaka himself is an enjoyable presence, even dubbed. This is a stylish film, and set designer Ken Adam deserves a lot of credit.

Unfortunately it has aged just astonishingly poorly.

fig. 7: Scarlett Johansson (Honorable Mention)

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