Apr 29, 2014

Luise Rainer, The Good Earth

as O-LAN
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Won: Academy Award - Best Actress
"A product of its time" -- it's something I come across often when I read up on any of the films and/or  performances of classical Hollywood. It's usually used dismissively, sort of like, "Yeah, what they did there was pretty offensive, but what can you do? It's just a product of its time." Now, I've been immersed in enough movies from this era to know what to expect--that it was a racially insensitive time, and thus the characters of color presented in these films are intrinsically racist depictions. But this doesn't change the fact that The Good Earth was vexing to watch. Normally the presences of ethnic characters acted as decorative flourishes as opposed to any portrayal of substance or real-life. Yet here was The Good Earth, the first film of the era I've seen to boast "ethnic" lead characters and an entirely "ethnic" cast--so what was normally just the occasional spoonful of racism now becomes a big 'ole full-course meal of it. And as a staunch enthusiast of naturalism in the films I watch, you can imagine how frustrating it was for me to not only sit through The Good Earth but to also separate from its performances my apprehension towards the film's (personally) offensive racist representations. It didn't matter to me how honorable these characters actually were--no level of honor justifies the cultural appropriation of billions of people through yellowface, slanted eyes, and buck teeth. And at the heart of the film is the Academy Award winning performance of Luise Rainer, whose O-Lan has proven to be a tough piece of work for me to evaluate.

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I expect a certain level of believability when watching performances. I loved Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory because I believed her to be a naïve ingénue, I loved Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson because I believed her to be an entrancing and headstrong harlot, and I loved Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey because I believed her to be the dizzy blonde she was playing. For me at least, there are core competencies to every performance that have to be convincing--otherwise, what's the point in trying to tell the story to begin with if you can't get your audience to buy what they're seeing? Irving Thalberg, when pressed as to why he decided against having Chinese actors like Anna May Wong take on the lead roles in his film, said: "I'm in the business of creating illusions." Thus, if I'm to evaluate Rainer on the sole basis of how well she achieved the illusion of a Chinese peasant woman, it goes without saying that she does a rather poor job. Oriental attire, slanted eyelids, and being made up to look emaciated a Chinese woman does not make. What's worse, when she speaks, you hear a European accent (not that a pure American accent or an accent of broken English would have made things better). The point I'm trying to make is that it's all a really inharmonious packaging of sight and sound. I didn't buy her as a Chinese woman, which is an issue given that "Chinese woman" is the most basic aspect of who O-Lan is.

 photo ScreenShot2014-04-24at35754PM.pngBut that said, because O-Lan isn't just your typical one-dimensional supporting character, because she's a full-fledged lead character, there's more to her than just a Chinese woman. So I can't solely base her performance on how much I bought her as Chinese. She's certainly more than that--she's a timid woman who has suffered under abuse, she's a deeply submissive, under-appreciated, long-suffering wife, and she's a resilient fighter. Rainer tackles all of these attributes with some gusto. At times it seems like Rainer's in a daze, which makes sense given O-Lan's passive nature. She sort of looks like a zombie the way she drags herself across the screen. I took some issue with the way she delivered her lines--it sounds rather forced and stagey. For instance, the scene in which O-Lan stares off and recites her dreams about presenting her son to the people at the Great House is awkwardly theatrical in the way she presents herself and took me back to the early days of sound acting. Rainer doesn't have the airy, organic quality to her that I enjoyed so much in The Great Ziegfeld. Instead, she's a lot more mechanical in the way she moves and the way she speaks. Other parts in the film, such as when she's telling her children how to beg for money, or when she tells her husband not to sell the farm or reveals that her newborn is dead--they're all pretty heavy moments and yet I found her to have overdone it or taken on a peculiar lethargic way of speaking in which she says. her. lines. slowly. with. deep. emphasis. to. evoke. drama. But in actuality, O-Lan doesn't really speak all that much, and a lot of the time Rainer is required to take up some silent acting. That's where I feel she really shines, and that's what ultimately saved the performance for me. Rainer's got a very expressive set of eyes, and she's able to convey so much facially. She does so powerfully and with seemingly no effort at all. Often times I would catch a close-up of her and notice those eyes, and with a simple glance you really feel the weight of all of life's cruelties on this character. I was impressed with the scene in which O-Lan discovers the bag of jewels and is subsequently caught by soldiers--the way she displays shock and fear is fierce and robust yet completely soundless. Same goes for the later scene where she breaks down in her garden--Rainer can handle emotion so deeply and it's such a sight to see. Her silent expressiveness is just sublime, and I probably would have liked the performance a lot more overall if it were a completely silent one. But ultimately, I found this performance to be very volatile in quality. Visually and sonically, the performance was totally unconvincing to me, and yet inside the wrapping is a quiet storm to it that packs a punch. This isn't the worst Best Actress winner out there and it's hardly the most offensive Asian representation I've seen. Realistically there was probably no chance a caucasian actor could have scored more from me than what I give Rainer here...but alas, I could tell she did the best she could.


ACTRESSES REMAINING: 270

12 comments:

  1. Well, I did not expect you to love her :) It's a very divisive performance but for me, it's one of the best ever.

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    1. I was thinking about you while writing this one up! I definitely took some time to think about the performance from a positive point of view, and I think I did my best to express all the things I did like about Rainer.

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  2. I absolutely agree with most of your points here. Righting of the racism as being "of its time" just feels reductive. But, I still quite liked this perf (and even the film). I don't remember the speaking parts bothering me as much as they did you, but those quiet moments are so so moving. Even through the unfortunate makeup she excels imo.

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    1. Yeah...I've seen quite a few arguments saying that the characters are portrayed in a respectful and honorable manner--but is it really that less offensive to smear on blackface if one is playing a really honorable black character? It's a complicated matter, but regardless I still thought Rainer had some great moments. I liked the internal and soundless aspects of her performance but didn't like the external/diegetic qualities.

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  3. I liked the film & the performance a lot, when I first saw the film, as a teenager, on TCM, 10-15 years ago. I still like the film. The performance is ok.

    Probably because I come from an European background, which in a way is slightly more racist, or rather more indifferent/chill about such issues, I find such matters as casting less offensive. In this particular case, it was obviously a business choice, I think. [This is just me confirming you are right, and me confessing of not always finding such cases as problematic, because I tend to be more insensible to race issues, I guess].

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    1. I totally agree that it was a business decision…I’m just generally a picky/cranky brat when it comes to political correctness in movies. Watching Emile Zola, all I could think during was that if you’re playing a French person you ought to be speaking French and not American English! So even if they’d had gotten Asian actors in the lead roles, I’d have been annoyed that they were speaking fluent English. So obviously it’s even more annoying for me to watch when an actor swaps races/ethnicities, even more so when it’s my own ethnicity/race—but what can I say, I am spoiled by modern day realism. The entire project is sort of a lose-lose situation for me. It’s a story about Chinese people written by a Caucasian Christian missionary, adapted for the screen by Caucasian producers to appeal towards (presumably) Caucasian audiences. It is what it is and for me to have dwelled on the casting entirely wouldn’t have been right. But it all leaves a bad taste in my mouth on a filmgoer level and on a personal level.

      I’m not one of those people who get into an uproar over the slightest racist thing, and I don’t fault Rainer for taking on this role. But from my own set of eyes, when I watch her, I don’t see an actress who has BECOME her character, I see an actress who’s playing dress up. It’s like…if Denzel Washington put on some whiteface and played a juicy dramatic white-character role to the best of his ability—it could be great…but something about it would still not feel very right. And that’s really how I felt about the performance overall, in a nutshell :)

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    2. I totally get what you are saying.

      So you think only black actors should play / should've played Othello?
      [a question I myself have no answer to :) ]

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    3. I think I realized... I have less problem with the "blackface" concept. Sure, I think it's silly and, to do it nowadays like Julianna Hough or whatever her name is, is quite stupid, but I don't see it as something (that) offensive or outrageous, maybe just stupid or uninspired.
      If we can have gay actors playing str8 characters, str8 actors playing gay, men playing women and women playing men [and we mostly celebrate all these previously mentioned achievements of acting], what's the problem in having Caucasian playing Black or Asian, Black playing Caucasian and so on?... I'm not saying it SHOULD, I'm just saying why not. Gender, sexual orientation and skin colour are not choices, so why do we treat them differently?

      :P

      this is too deep.

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    4. Well, for me I think that it's easier to believe a straight actor playing a gay role or a gay actor playing a straight role, or even a male actor achieving the illusion of a female and vice versa--any given individual can transition genders or realize a different sexuality if necessary to them. You can't really do that with the color of your skin, and so it's harder for me to accept/believe an actor playing up a different race or ethnicity..

      That said, I'm unsure myself about Othello. I've only ever read the play and I've never seen any film adaptations. But I suppose I'll cross that Olivier bridge when I get to it. :)

      But yeah, I don't mind getting deep, so long as there's a healthy conversation :D

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    5. I haven't seen his Othello either.

      I'm just more generous with actors playing whatever roles they feel like. Even in White Chicks - I wasn't offended. :)

      What bothers me in terms of race on film A LOT is "the portrayal of". I still remember in Cimarron the black character getting all excited when seeing watermelon. THAT I think is far more racist than putting black paint on a white actor's face or taking a German actress and "transforming" her more or less successfully into an Asian woman.

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  5. "The Good Earth" was one of MGM's most expensive productions up to that point. I recall reading some executive from those years stating that American audiences of the time would not have accepted an all-Asian cast, regardless of who the characters were. Even Katharine Hepburn played an Asian character in "Dragon Seed" (based on another novel by "Good Earth" author Pearl S. Buck). Diversity was almost nonexistent in Hollywood films of that era.

    Keep in mind, when black performer Lena Horne appeared in musicals of the 1940s, her sequences were stand-alone segments that could be easily excised so as not to offend certain audiences, particularly in the south.

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