By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
After all these years, movie casting remains politically incorrect
Peter Sellers plays the sitar in the slapstick comedy "The Party" (1968), in which Sellers depicts an Indian actor. - photo by Chris Hicks
Back in the good ol days or perhaps the bad ol days, depending on your point of view it was quite common to see people of various ethnic backgrounds played by Caucasians in the movies.

Consider Warner Oland and Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan; Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto; Peter Sellers and Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu; John Wayne as Genghis Khan; and Burt Lancaster, Chuck Connors, Jeff Chandler and many others as Native Americans, for example.

But today, in this enlightened and politically correct era? Well, actually, its still pretty common.

Considering all the Hispanic actors out there who might like the work, it was surprising last weekend to sit through The 33, about the 2010 mine disaster in Chile, and discover that two of the more prominent Chilean characters are played by French actress Juliette Binoche and Irish actor Gabriel Byrne.

Binoche and Byrne are very good in the film, but why not cast Hispanics in those roles? You might think today that such a thing would be a given.

Actually, Im not really too bothered by such portrayals as long as they dont devolve into caricature. I come from an era when this kind of thing was very much the rule, not the exception.

Every movie that was set in ancient Rome was filled with white actors speaking in British accents. And American Indians in Westerns were hard to distinguish from cavalry soldiers, except for their attire.

Today, however, there are those who see this as a black-and-white issue no pun intended. And its easy to see why when we examine recent examples.

Take the recent flap over Aloha, a romantic comedy that played during the summer. Both filmmaker Cameron Crowe and redheaded actress Emma Stone have since apologized for her being cast as a character that is a quarter Chinese and a quarter Hawaiian.

So an actress whose ethnicity is more on the mark wasnt even considered? There are a lot of wonderful Asian actresses out there who could easily have filled the bill and been every bit as appealing as Stone.

Critics also called out Rooney Mara, who was inexplicably cast as Tiger Lily, daughter of an American Indian chief, in Pan, a reboot of Peter Pan that opened last month.

Im not so sure anyone complained about Ben Affleck playing the real-life character Tony Mendez in Argo, and one could argue that the Oscar-winning film, which Affleck also directed, might not have been made except for his nurturing it as a pet project.

And thats often the excuse. Unless a recognizable star is used to supposedly guarantee an acceptable box-office return, such films might never come to fruition.

But for The 33, will Binoche and Byrne really bring in a significant number of ticket-buyers, even on an international level? Are Stone or Mara even box-office draws?

The surprising thing here is that these choices seem to have been made casually, without any consideration for the ethnicity of the characters.

Going back to the silent era and the dawn of talkies, the earliest films of Myrna Loy (nee Myrna Williams, of Montana) somehow cast her as an Asian. In fact, she became typecast in those roles early on. In 1937, two European-American actors, Paul Muni and Luise Rainer, won acclaim (and Rainer won an Oscar) for playing a Chinese couple in a big-budget adaptation of Pearl Bucks Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Good Earth, both wearing heavy makeup for their roles. And there are many more from the Golden Age of cinema.

Fast-forward 30 years to the 1960s and things havent changed much, as British comic actor Peter Sellers plays Indian characters in The Millionairess, The Road to Hong Kong and The Party, as well as a Spaniard in The Bobo and, into the next decade, Chinese characters in Murder By Death and The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu. Charlton Heston was cast as a Mexican drug-enforcement officer in Touch of Evil. Natalie Wood played a Puerto Rican girl in West Side Story.

Then theres Elizabeth Taylor as the Egyptian queen of the Nile in Cleopatra, Marlon Brando as a Japanese interpreter in Teahouse of the August Moon and Laurence Olivier in blackface as Othello. Granted, the last three were deliberate box-office decisions, above-the-title stars deemed necessary to each projects success.

But that doesnt explain one of the worst casting decisions of all time, the truly stupefying attempt by Mickey Rooney at playing a Japanese comic-relief character in Breakfast at Tiffanys. (The film is still much beloved today, and it provided a memorable, iconic role for Audrey Hepburn. But I cant watch it anymore; Rooneys performance makes me cringe.)

And into the 1970s, 80s and 90s, right through the 21st century, it has continued.

Take Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger; Jake Gyllenhaal as Disneys Prince of Persia, along with British actors Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina in support; Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton as Egyptians in Exodus: Gods and Kings; and Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart with her skin darkened and a curly wig atop her head for her portrayal of real-life Mariane Pearl, who is of African ancestry.

Maybe this isnt such an enlightened age after all.