About the time they became well-known, the most famous of all Asian actresses in American films, Anna May Wong, had just died. In the 1950s Shirley Yamaguchi would have a flicker of fame in the U.S. in films such as Japanese War Bride (1952) and House of Bamboo (1955). Just prior to Nuyen's arrival in 1958 and Kwan in 1960, the film Sayonara (1957) brought to our attention the leading lady Miiko Taka and best supporting actress (for Sayonara), Miyoshi Umeki, who also made just a few films, although Umeki would achieve more prominence due to her role on TV's The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Canadian-born Nobu McCarthy was around at the same time as Kwan and Nuyen but never achieved the same measure of fame.
Although Kwan and Nuyen achieved more fame than some of the others, their U.S. star status more or less diminished within the decade, which was the 1960s. Both, however, continued to work in U.S. films. Part of their employability I suspect is because their parts were not limited to their ethnicity. In other words, any race could have played the role, which, of course, is how it should be in most cases.
I perceived Kwan as the sexier of the pair; for certain Hollywood pushed her into such roles, no doubt stemming from her debut film. She was also quite a good comedienne-- sassy, strong, opinionated-- and much of her work was in comedy. Nuyen was a delicate flower... beautiful, brainy, excelling in romantic roles.
France Nuyen was discovered by renowned photographer Philippe Halsman on the beaches of Marseilles, the city of her birth. Her mother was French and her father Vietnamese. She spoke no English when she was cast in the 1958 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. She was young and gorgeous as Liat, daughter of Bloody Mary and brief girlfriend of Lt. Joe Cable. She was featured in two of the popular songs, Younger than Springtime and Happy Talk. I loved how she was presented... as a lovely vision, as though she had stepped out of a dream. You'll hear more about South Pacific in a future post. By the time she joined the all-star cast of In Love and War the same year, she had learned some English.
Nuyen also appeared on the stage in The World of Suzie Wong, arguably the best American play to promote an Asian actress up to that time. The suits liked her work well enough to offer her the role in the film version to star William Holden. Filming commenced in Hong Kong and shortly thereafter she was fired. It was said that she gained too much weight, not the look they wanted to play a hip, young Chinese prostitute. She may have indeed gained weight-- I don't know, I wasn't there-- but what is known is that she was dating Marlon Brando (who, when he was with women, quite enjoyed Asians) and she emotionally came apart at the seems because of their volatile relationship.
Enter Nancy Kwan. She had originally been considered for the starring role but was passed over in favor of Nuyen but now the role would be hers. I cannot imagine Nuyen in the role. Suzie was spunky, naughty, sexy, challenging, a smartass and Kwan easily slipped into the character. It was 1960 and she became a household name, easily eclipsing Nuyen.
Nancy Kwan was born in Hong Kong to a Chinese father and an English-Scottish mother. She became a classically trained ballet dancer and was discovered by producer Ray Stark who produced Suzie Wong. Her intention was to remain in Hollywood for a year and she ended up staying a little more than a decade and then returned to Hong Kong.
Like Nuyen, Kwan was also to be in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical film in the form of Flower Drum Song, her next project. She crackled like fat on a fire as Linda Low and was particularly tantalizing lip-synching I Enjoy Being a Girl. I found the song to be the highlight of a film that is a bit lacking. It is a gaudy musical about the life and residents of San Francisco's Chinatown. It was advertised as an all-Chinese cast, which was a little imaginative. The characters were all Chinese and some of the actors were. But Japanese and Filipinos and others also filled in as did Juanita Hall, who was African-American. Hall also played Bloody Mary in South Pacific which made her the first of only a handful of actors to work with both Kwan and Nuyen.
Another common costar became William Holden when Nuyen joined him and Clifton Webb for the under-rated Satan Never Sleeps (1962). She played a young girl in love with a priest in war-torn China. Next up was arguably my favorite Nuyen role, that of one of two loves of Laurence Harvey in A Girl Named Tamiko (1962). She got to be Japanese. And then she was astonishingly beautiful as Charlton Heston's pregnant mistress in 1963's colorful Diamond Head. Her brother was the Italian James Darren. Oh how we have to suspend our belief.
From there Nuyen mainly seemed to be a television actress. She was briefly married to television actor, Robert Culp. Nancy Kwan made a series of 1960's forgettable comedies such as The Main Attraction (Pat Boone), Honeymoon Hotel (Robert Goulet), Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. (Dick Van Dyke), Arrivederci, Baby (Tony Curtis) and The Wrecking Crew (Dean Martin). In 1964 she made a very fine film, Fate Is the Hunter, portraying one of those helping Glenn Ford discover why pilot Rod Taylor died in a crash.
In 1993 Kwan was one of many Asian actresses up for the many roles in the very fine The Joy Luck Club, but she dropped out over script considerations. France Nuyen, however, did land one of the important roles.
Even though both women continued acting, they also pursued other things. Nancy Kwan became a restauranteer, recorded audiobooks, did infomercials ("Oriental Pearl Cream") and became an author. France Nuyen got a master's degree in psychology.
I think the Asian community in Hollywood owes a lot to Nancy Kwan and France Nuyen. Their fame in a few good films will be long remembered. I have not mentioned American-born Asian actresses here but my intention is not to discount them either. Chinese-born Joan Chen became highly visible in 1987 due to her wonderful role in The Last Emperor and has remained in the American public eye ever since. It wouldn't be until the new millenium and movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha that we became aware of a new breed of Asian actresses such as Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li, although none has become as Americanized as their predecessors.
Here are the answers to last Wednesday's quiz:
1. Donna Reed
2. Burt Lancaster
3. Gina Lollobrigida
4. Shelley Winters
5. Gene Hackman
6. Roy Scheider
7. Robert Shaw
8. Robert Redford
9. Christopher Plummer
10. Paul Bettany
11. Sam Neill
12. Laura Dern
13. Isabella Rossellini
14. Bruce Willis
15. Jessica Tandy
16. Rod Taylor
17. Louis Jourdan
18. Hermione Gingold
19. Jack Lemmon
20. Henry Fonda
21. Jane Fonda
22. Lindsay Lohan
23. Rachel McAdams
24. James Garner
25. Robert Preston
NEXT POSTING: Vera Miles