Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Majority of One

A Majority of One
seen on TV @ TCM

It started with a post from the TCM blog about how to judge films with actors cast against race, gender or sexual orientation. The subject was hardly a new one for me, yet I still found it worth meditating on once again. Then came a blogathon post about an old Charlie Chan movie, in which I stated that the fan-favorite character may have merit as a character, but I found it difficult to see past the fact that he was portrayed by a white man. That generated a lot of feedback and got me thinking about my own ingrained biases when it comes to acting.

Then came this. For my Diamonds & Gold Blogathon back in April, Jacqueline wrote a post about a movie I had never heard of before called A Majority of One, starring Rosalind Russell in a Golden Globe-winning performance as an old Jewish woman who learns to put aside old prejudices when she meets a Japanese businessman, played by a white actor, Alec Guinness. It would've been easy to have had the same reaction to this as I did to Charlie Chan - oh, Hollywood racism strikes again - but Jacqueline's interpretation of this casting in the context of the film as a whole made me stop and think:
...Sir Alec Guinness plays his role with subtle grace, an economy of movement, and if you do not believe he is really Japanese, that is not the point. He is, like Rosalind Russell, a symbol, an allegory like the tale he tells of the ancient emperor and his commoner bride. This is a movie that speaks to the heart and must be embraced the same way, as symbolic and allegorical. The real brotherhood of man takes place when we walk in each other’s shoes.
Suffice it to say that I had to see this movie for myself.

All film stills here stolen from Jacqueline's blog
because most of the available ones are in black & white.

Quick summary of the plot, in broad strokes: Auntie Mame's son-in-law is a diplomat who's got a promotion and a business deal cooking which requires relocating to Japan for three years. She reluctantly comes along with him and her daughter, his wife, and meets Obi-Wan on the boat ride, a major player in the deal. He can tell that she's standoffish around him, and when called on it, she confesses that she has hated Japanese people ever since her son was killed in WW2. Obi-Wan gets her to relax around him, though, but Son-in-law is worried that their budding friendship might make him look bad at the bargaining table, so he and his wife gets Auntie Mame to break it off before they arrive in Japan. That, however, leads to other complications. (Look for a very young George Takei as one of Obi-Wan's servants!)

Guinness in yellow-face is even less convincing than Warner Oland in yellow-face. I couldn't tell if they used the old eye-stretching trick they used to use on other actors, but if they did, the effect made him look more like he was perpetually sleepy than anything else. As for the accent, well, I hate talking about such things because it sounds like I'm trafficking in stereotypes, but while he does pronounce his l's like r's and so forth, at least he's not speaking Engrish. He knows how to talk in complete sentences. Plus, he still has his British accent - and of course, his voice in particular is so familiar to generations of movie lovers who have heard him say "The Force will be with you, always." That said, however, I was able to recognize his character and he was good in the part.

Russell absolutely nailed her role as a Jew despite being a Catholic. She was outstanding. Jacqueline noted how Majority was based on a stage play starring a Jewish comedienne, Gertrude Berg, who was known for playing up her Jewishness. With Russell in the role, however, doing things like holding a Sabbath dinner complete with all the appropriate incantations, accouterments and gestures, a kind of alchemy unique to this performance takes place, says Jacqueline:
...I find this terribly moving especially knowing that she was a devout Roman Catholic, that in these pre-Vatican II days she wore a mantilla to Mass, probably very similar to what she wears on her head in this scene, and that when she says “Amen,” so does the Buddhist character played by Alec Guinness. It is a moment of reverence, and nobility, when we really think the brotherhood of man is possible. Gertrude Berg would be playing herself. Rosalind Russell morphs into a symbol.
A word Jacqueline uses a lot, and I think it's in the movie too, is "transcendence." Let's look at that root word - "transcend" - for a moment (so we don't have to think about the crappy Johnny Depp movie). says it comes from the Latin trans, meaning across or beyond, and scendere, meaning "to climb," so to transcend is "to rise above or go beyond; overpass; exceed."

Obviously all acting requires assuming identities not one's own - playing make believe - but when Jacqueline talks about Russell and Guinness becoming symbols in this movie, I suspect she's talking about something a little bit more, something that we could call transcendence. It's hard for me to think of a story like this as being allegorical because it's so rooted in the real, modern world, in recognizable, relatable people and situations. I guess when I think of the word "allegory," I think of something like out of the Bible, perhaps. 

Still, even a godless heathen like me knows that stories like those are told the way they are in order to clearly convey certain fundamental values and morals, and Majority certainly does that, and in a less heavy-handed and preachy way than a similar movie like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, for example. The fact that two seniors are involved adds a poignant twist: they both miss their deceased mates and don't want to die alone.

Honestly, I think the casting of Russell and Guinness looks a whole lot like the star-recognition factor at work more than anything else, but if in the process of casting them, an inadvertent statement was made - specific to this movie - about walking in another's shoes, then maybe having them instead of an actual Jew and an actual Japanese isn't so bad... though I wonder how many other people would see it the way Jacqueline sees it, given the chance.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention how Majority made me think of my sister and her husband, who is Japanese. Obviously the two of them were able to transcend their racial identities in order to see something in each other; in their case, it was the universal language of music that did the trick. They're the guiding force behind their cover band - she sings, he plays drums and composes - and while they may look like an unusual couple, they're quite devoted to each other. He's also taken a shine to my mother, in part, I suspect, because his own parents are still living in the old country.

So when is it appropriate for an actor to play a role that's different from their own race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.? Maybe when a larger point is being made within the story. The closest, most recent example of a similar approach in a movie that I can think of is the comedy Tropic Thunder, in which Robert Downey Jr. plays a white actor in blackface and in character as a black man, throughout the whole story (about a war movie being shot in Southeast Asia that goes all wrong). The larger point being made there was about how some actors tend to have their heads up their asses when they make certain movies. It was hilarious, and I had no problem with RDJ at all, who even got Oscar nominated for the role - which makes me think enough people got the joke.

Whether the filmmakers of Majority cast the movie the way they did to make a statement or not is ultimately irrelevant. Now that I've seen it, I'm willing to accept Jacqueline's interpretation of it because it makes a good movie even better. (And if you're not reading her blog, you totally should.)


  1. You're very kind, Rich. In fact, I'm overwhelmed. Thank you. And make sure you have those screen caps dry cleaned before you return them.

  2. Who knew they could get so dusty?

  3. Nice article with good points, Rich. And I totally agree with you about Jacqueline's blog -- really fine....


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