Blackface minstrel shows put on by white performers died out in the 1960s with the advent of the Civil Rights movement. While it was a popular form of live entertainment, it was considered too crass and crude for the silver screen. But another tactless tradition did make it to the big screen. Yellowface, in which non-Asian actors portray East Asian characters, was a standard practice in Hollywood up until the late 1950s.
Most of the yellow face actors and actresses were of white European (Katharine Hepburn), Jewish (Luise Rainer), or mestizo Hispanic descent (Rita Moreno). Anti-miscegenation rules in Hollywood played a big part in yellowface casting. If a white male actor was cast, an Asian female actress could not be cast as his on-screen lover or wife.
This was part of the Hays Code, which laid out a set of "decency" standards for members of the Motion Picture association. Among the things prohibited by the code were any depictions of mixed-race marriages, sexual perverions or homosexuality, riducule of the clergy, and most ironically, offenses to any race or creed.
Most Famous (and Infamous) Yellowface Portrayals In Hollywood
Katharine Hepburn as Jade in Dragon Seed
This 1944 war drama was based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck. Dragon Seed is set in China during the Second Sino-Japanese war and depicts a small village that resigns itself to its conquers -- except for one headstrong resident, Jade, who chooses to stand up to the Japanese invaders. Katharine Hepburn is a particularly odd choice to play a Chinese woman because of her angular European bone structure, not to mention her light eyes.
Katharing Hepburn's transformation to an Asian woman is one of the least convincing in the history of yellowface.
Luise Rainer as O-Lan in The Good Earth
Pearl S. Buck won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in literature for her novel The Good Earth. Not only did Buck grow up in China, but up until the age of 42 she spent most of her life in China, immersing herself in Chinese culture and humanitarian efforts. Though Buck had a deep understanding and appreciation of Chinese culture, Hollywood's adaptations of her books are considered culturally insensitive for their casting choices. Buck lobbied for Chinese and Chinese-American actors to play the key roles, but studio executives preferred white actors. Ultimately the execs won and Buck lost.
German-Jewish actres Luise Rainer was cast as O-lan, the heroine of The Good Earth. Rainer's casting was controversial because several writers initially suggested the role of O-lan go to Anna May Wong, a Chinese-American actress who was familiar to American audiences. But the role of O-lan's husband Wang Lung had already been given to Paul Muni, an Austrian Jewish actor. Because of anti-miscegenation rules, it was forbidden for an Asian woman to play a white man's wife, even if both were playing Asian characters. Anna May Wong was instead offered the role of Lotus, the villain, but turned it down out of pride. Wong refused to be the only Asian actress in the film and relegated to the role of bad guy.
Like Katharine Hepburn, Luise Rainer is unconvincing as a full-blooded Chinese woman.
After Anna May Wong (above) turned down the role of Lotus, the role went to Austrian actress Tilly Losch (below).
Rita Moreno as Tuptim in The King and I
In the 1956 film The King and I, Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno played, Tuptim one of the wives of the King of Siam. Though the character of Tuptim is an ethnic Burmese woman, the makers of the movie did little to make Rita Moreno's face look more Asian except for black eyeliner. They figured her black hair and dark brown eyes were enough to put on a convincing potrayal of a Burmese woman.
Yul Brynner as King Mongkut in The King and I
Rita Moreno's onscreen husband was played by Yul Brynner, the Russian actor famed for his role as the Pharoah Ramses in The Ten Commandments. Among the actors discussed here, Yul Brynner may have beeen the best suited to play Asian characters due to his Buryat ancestry through his paternal grandmother. The Buryats are a subgroup of the Mongols who live in Siberia.
Regardless of his Eurasian heritage, Yul Brynner still looks distinctly European in his role as the King of Siam. As with his costar Rita Moreno, makeup artists did little to give him an authentically Asian appearance.
Mickey Rooney as I. Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's
Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Holly Golightly's Japanese neighbor is considered offensive not only because it's a white actor playing an Asian man, but also because of the crude racial stereotypes Yunioshi exhibits. Despite his being a comedic character, most modern views find the buck-toothed and nerdy Yunioshi to be cringingly over-the-top. Producer Richard Shepard favored a Japanese actor to play Mr. Yunioshi, but director Blake Edwards preferred a heavily madeup Mickey Rooney, presumably because famous names sold more movie tickets.
Why Not Cast Asian Actors?
Some movie studio executives felt that audiences were not "ready" for films with Asians playing the lead roles, but also they didn't want to forfeit the power of famous names. At the time Dragon Seed was Made, no Asian actress could match the fame of Katharine Hepburn, and movie studios wanted to cash in on that.
It also explains why many of the white actors were not made up very well. At the time, makeup artistry was advanced enough to transform Katharine Hebpurn and Luise Rainer into convincing Chinese women, but doing so would have obscured their famous faces. Movie producers figured that if Katharine Hepburn could not be recognized as herself, then what was the point of casting her at all? The same logic informed casting choices for other famous yellowface actors.