After two straight years of all-white acting nominees in 2015 and 2016, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences responded to the #OscarsSoWhite issue by inviting a far more diverse and younger field of talent both behind and in front of the camera to join. And though there are miles to go until there is true diversity, the academy’s nominees and winners are beginning to reflect our culture.
Last year, “Moonlight” became the first Best Picture winner with an all-black cast. Its director Barry Jenkins shared the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar with Tarell Alvin McCraney, while Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor. Viola Davis also took home Best Supporting Actress for “Fences.”
This year’s black nominees include Jordan Peele, a triple nominee for producing, directing and writing Best Picture contender “Get Out,” which also scored a Best Actor nomination for Daniel Kaluuya. Two-time winner Denzel Washington is nominated for “Roman J. Israel Esq.”; previous winner Octavia Spencer is nominated in supporting for “The Shape of Water”; and Mary J. Blige became the first black woman to receive multiple nominations in one year, for her supporting turn in “Mudbound” and Best Original Song “Mighty River” from the film.
But if there were hashtags during the Golden Age of Hollywood, it would probably be #OscarsAlwaysWhite or #HollywoodAlwaysWhite.
The Motion Picture Production Code — aka the Hays Code — was the Hollywood moral industry guideline from 1930 to 1968, though directors and producers began to successfully challenge the code in the 1950s. Part of the lengthy code stipulated that “miscegenation (sex relationship between black and white races) is forbidden.” But that also meant all non-white races. So, most actors of color were relegated to stereotypical and secondary roles in film. This part of the code certainly placated the segregated South.
Box office also played a big role in casting decisions, with studios going with big stars to play Asian — like Katharine Hepburn in 1944’s “Dragon Seed” or John Wayne as Attila the Hun in 1956’s “The Conqueror’ — or having Humphrey Bogart (1940’s “Virginia City”) or Frank Sinatra (1948 “The Kissing Bandit”) play Latino. Countless legends have appeared in blackface in musical numbers, such as Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and even Bing Crosby.
(Of course, Robert Downey Jr. earned an Oscar nomination for his bravely hysterical performance in 2008’s “Tropic Thunder” as an Academy Award-winning Australian actor who takes method acting to a new level to play a black soldier.)
Because Hollywood wasn’t political correct, neither were the Academy Awards. Several performers won or were nominated for non-white roles. Though a lot of these performances are hambone and silly, these films give insight into the political climate and social history of the 20th century in the U.S.
Here’s a look at some of the white performers who were nominated or took home the Oscar for playing minorities.
The Cisco Kid is a fictional Mexican western character who first appeared on O. Henry’s 1907 short story “The Caballero’s Way.” Though the character was a cruel killer in the story, he was turned into a far kinder bandit who robbed from the rich to give to the poor in movies, radio and TV.
Unfortunately, Fox studio didn’t hire a Latino actor to play the Cisco Kid in the 1928 talkie “In Old Arizona,” but opted for popular actor Warner Baxter. Actually, he was the second choice. Actor/director Raoul Walsh, who was also white, had been slated for the part until a freak car accident resulted in him losing an eye.
“In Old Arizona” (1928) is painfully creaky and so is Baxter’s Frito bandito accent. Still, he beat out the likes of Paul Muni, Chester Morris, George Bancroft and Lewis Stone for the Best Actor Oscar. He went on to play the role in 1931’s “The Cisco Kid” and 1939’s “The Return of the Cisco Kid.”
Latino-American actor Cesar Romero, Mexican-born Gilbert Roland and Romania native Duncan Renaldo took over the role in future films, with Renaldo also doing the 1950s TV series.
The Production Code reared its ugly head with the casting of MGM’s lavish 1937 production “The Good Earth,” based on Pearl Buck’s novel following the lives of two married Chinese peasants.
Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong campaigned to be cast in the lead role of O-Lan. But because Oscar-winning actor Paul Muni had already been cast as the husband, Wong wasn’t a viable choice. She was offered the vamp role in the drama; she turned it down.
So, the role went to MGM’s star du jour, German actress Luise Rainer. She won Best Actress for 1936’s “The Great Ziegfeld” and retained her crown with a win for “The Good Earth,” becoming the first performer to win multiple Oscars and the first to win back-to-back Oscars. Muni also earned an Oscar nomination for the film.
With Wong as the female lead, “The Good Earth” would have been somewhat watchable. But without her, you just want to cringe.
That same year, British actor H.B. Warner, who played Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 epic “King of Kings” and Mr. Gower in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), was nominated for Best Supporting Actor as Chang in Capra’s fantasy “Lost Horizon.” He gives a strong performance, but yet again a Chinese actor wasn’t cast.
MGM went to the Pearl Buck well once again with 1944’s “Dragon Seed,” And this time around, veteran character actress Aline MacMahon picked up a supporting actress nomination for her work.
Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American woman to win the Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actress for 1939’s “Gone with the Wind,” and Dorothy Dandridge was the first to be nominated in lead for 1954’s “Carmen Jones.” But it was a white actress who was the first woman be nominated for lead actress for playing an African-American.
20th Century Fox’s top ingénue Jeanne Crain, who had starred in such films as 1945’s romantic musical “State Fair” and 1946’s charming teen comedy “Margie,” was cast in “Pinky” (1949) as a light-colored African-American woman returning home to the South to visit her grandmother (Ethel Waters). She had passed for white while going to nursing school in the North and fallen in love with her doctor who didn’t know of her heritage.
Dandridge and Lena Horne were interested, but the studio opted for the popular Crain. Director Elia Kazan was not a happy camper about the choice. “Jeanne Crain was a sweet girl, but she was like a Sunday school teacher,” Kazan later said. “I did my best with her, but she didn’t have any fire. The only good thing about her was that it went so far in the direction of no temperament that you felt Pinky was floating through all of her experiences without reacting to them, which is what ‘passing’ is.”
Jeff Chandler was a nice-and hunky-Jewish boy from Brooklyn who played Arab sheiks, Polynesia chiefs and earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for playing the famed Native American Cochise in “Broken Arrow” (1950). Though Chandler is miscast, he’s certainly not embarrassing. Rock Hudson didn’t fare as well in the 1954 sequel “Taza, Son of Cochise.”
Anthony Quinn won his first of two supporting actor Oscars for actually playing a Mexican, Efumio Zapata, in 1952’s “Viva Zapata!” But none other than Marlon Brando donned the dark makeup and accent to play the famed Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, earning his second lead actor Oscar nomination.
Jennifer Jones, who won Best Actress for 1943’s “The Song of Bernadette”, earned her fifth Oscar nomination as an Eurasian doctor in Hong Kong who falls in love with a dashing American reporter (William Holden) in 1955’s “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.” It was the second time she had received a nomination for playing a biracial character; Jones was also nomination for playing the beautiful and willful Pearl in 1946’s “Duel in the Sun.”
For centuries, white actors have been playing the role of Shakespeare’s Moorish general of Othello. Such lauded actors as Orson Welles and Anthony Hopkins have donned black greasepaint to play the character. Laurence Olivier earned a Best Actor nomination for his performance in the 1965 film version. Though Olivier gives a towering, albeit stagey star turn, it is disconcerting in this day and age to see Lord Larry in blackface.
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