If you’ve been to the cinema in the last few weeks, you might have seen one of the “summer hits” the studios are still holding out for. Or maybe you’re just waiting around for Transformers 5? Not me, Mark Wahlberg! On the original-ish end of the cinematic spectrum, we have a few reworked films adapted from other material. But I’m not here to gripe about the endless stream of sequels that we’ve had shoved down our throats. Besides, there’s something to take pride in: Wonder Woman got to stay number one at the box office for the second week in a row. Everyone and their cousins have been reeling from the surprise (?) success of Wonder Woman, despite it being DC’s first critically adored film since Nolan left. Maybe, just maybe, Zack Snyder is better as a producer and not a director? I mean we only like to remember him as the director of 300 and like to conveniently forget that he was responsible for The Owls of Gahoole or whatever that thing was called. What’s interesting and relevant about Wonder Woman isn’t just the fact that it’s a female-driven action vehicle (because we all saw Mad Max), it’s the fact that our star is an Israeli transplant. And she’s just one of a horde of foreign ladies who have made their way into top billing in the Hollywood film industry, and I’m not talking about the massive influx of Brits. Just a few weeks ago, Priyanka Chopra joined the rest of an all star cast with the release of Baywatch. Chopra, who also stars on the TV darling Quantico, regularly returns to her home country of India to work on films over there. Though she’s just now breaking into the US market, her imdb page indicates that it’s just the beginning for her career stateside. For both Chopra and Gadot, there’s a certain ‘likability factor‘ working in their favor. And I think it could be indicative of a wider trend to come – or perhaps reminiscent of an one which has resurfaced. I think audiences today are experiencing, what I’m going to affectionately call the Hayakawa effect.
Let’s jump in a time machine back to when Hollywood was trying to pull-off black face, a.k.a. the “Golden” age of Hollywood. Sheesh. Back in this (obviously ‘vErY AcCepTing‘) time, one of the most in-demand leading men was a guy named Sessue Hayakawa. The man was a legend. He was a Japanese actor with linguistic flexibility (English, Japanese, German, French), who would capture the screen with dynamism and steal the hearts of early fangirls everywhere. He was a straight up sex symbol in his day, and it’s not a stretch to think that people would have killed to be this man’s waifu. He had a long and colorful career, which spanned decades, nations and helped him make a pretty penny. Let there be no doubt: Hayakawa deserves to be a legend. A straight up G! A Japanese national, Hayakawa moved to the US with the intention of becoming a banker. But after almost giving up and heading to Los Angeles before setting sail back to Japan, Hayakawa stumbled upon a theater performance in Little Tokyo and instantly fell in love. Quickly after that, he was drafted into film and became a superstar. He was considered a very sexy leading man in his time. The early talkies moviegoers swooned over his exotic looks. His appeal was both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, he won roles many Asian-American actors would dream of having today. He received top-billing on a lot of his films, which was nearly unheard of for a foreigner, no less one from Japan. Not only that, but he was making the equivalent of twenty seven million dollars a year through his own film studio in the mid-twenties. Not too shabby for even today’s standards. On the other hand, he was relegated roles that typecast him as a villain and emphasized his Japanese qualities to a comical proportion. Sometimes they didn’t even pay any attention to the “Japanese” part at all. He was a stand-in for every eastern country. Roles like ‘ruthless Burmese loan shark’ (The Cheat) or ‘Oki – The Valet’ (After Five) or ‘Ahmed’ (An Arabian Night, also…really?) were squandering his talent as a performer and forcing him to play monotonous characters with the same amount of motivational complexity put into most tweets. But he was pushing the envelope for a letter that hadn’t even been written yet. Because of this, he never really felt complete in his quest to grace the screen as himself.
Despite never getting the roles he wanted, Hayakawa was a hot ticket. He made a name for himself as a handsome, foreign individual worthy of top-billing. He paved the way for generations of actors to come. But as the forbidden lover, the audience was always distanced from him. He may have graced the covers of the 1920’s equivalent of Tiger Beat but not without the bad boy label. You just couldn’t be an ‘eastern’ actor and play the charming hero. Douglas Fairbanks would always be there for that. This was problematic and heartbreaking for Hayakawa who so desperately wanted the shot at a different kind of role. His one Academy Award nomination – a notable first for an Asian actor at the time – was for playing the villain in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Hey, he at least has more bragging rights than Jeff Daniels! But unlike Daniels, even by his retirement, he had failed to secure the simple goal of playing the hero. Some would argue that that particular ceiling still needs to be broken. But perhaps that thing Hayakawa had – that charm, that finesse, that beauty, that talent, and that gravitational personality from a foreigner – the Hayakawa effect is back in full swing.
Enter these past weekends box office results. Clearly Gadot fits into the Wonder Woman role nicely and I believe it lends to the conversation at hand. Her adorable Israeli accent helps her pass as greek(ish?) hero Diana, though it’s no bother to American audiences whether or not speaks with any accent – she’s charming and she has the box office numbers to prove it. She’s benefitting from the Hayakawa effect, but simultaneously building on his dream. She’s a foreigner, who’s got enough global appeal that Israeli companies are utilizing her to reach international audiences. But the appeal is more complex than just her looks, it’s her ability to lead. She doesn’t have to resort to playing up her exotic features to secure roles; Hayakawa didn’t have that luxury. Unlike him, she just fits into Hollywood seamlessly as a foreigner. The same goes for Chopra. I mean, not only does she play a character on Quantico called Alex Parrish, but she also shows up on all the DVR-less TVs in her Pantene ad-campaign (also GAP). It’s a kind of star-quality and adoration that you just don’t see regarding eastern actors. At least not since Hayakawa himself.
Now, one disclaimer: it also doesn’t hurt that these ladies happen to be beauty queens. Literally. Chopra was Miss India – later Miss World. Gadot was Miss Israel. So there you go. Looks do get you somewhere. But obviously it takes much more than that to make it big. Otherwise every beauty queen would be an in-demand actress by now. There’s a certain amount of talent that it takes to propel you to where these ladies are now. After all, how else would a young lady like Sofia Boutella make it as far as she has today? Boutella, who you probably don’t know from The Mummy (unless you’re Chinese), is an Algerian-French actress who has been seen in films like Kingsman: The Secret Service as well as this summer’s film, Atomic Blonde opposite Charlize Theron. She also happens to play the titular character in last week’s disaster flick The Mummy. She isn’t a beauty pageant winner and she might have a thick accent, but Boutella is another actress who seems to be giving off the Hayakawa effect. She’s slated to appear in a few upcoming Hollywood productions as well. Part of this is certainly just good casting. I mean, if you’re looking for an Egyptian-looking person to play a role in your film, it’s best you don’t go with Christian Bale (but if you do, have a better excuse). Boutella’s eastern roots certainly help with the role, but it’s important to see where her career goes from here. Will she experience a Gadot-like breakthrough? Are American audiences (and Hollywood in general) experiencing an eastern/middle eastern wave of fascination? Is this the Hayakawa effect in full swing?
I think these actresses embody a look and a change in taste so far as American cinemagoers are concerned. They bring in something a little bit different. We as humans are built to be attracted to diversity — it’s a huge reason that we continue to exist. Part of that is our ever-changing standards of beauty. But to distill the Hayakawa effect down to mere physical attributes is making the same mistake that was made decades ago. All these stars, Hayakawa included, have a special kind of pizazz that attracts American moviegoers. It makes them mainstream. So what has changed? You.
Hayakawa was never able to be the hero in his day. It would validate so many things early 20th Century America stood against. But today, the story is different. Audiences have been such a strong factor in the changing landscape of cinema. Their appearance or lack thereof at the box office can either kill a franchise dead in it’s tracks or jumpstart several spinoff films. In that way, it’s a bit like it’s own amoebic organism, responding to the environment around it. Part of what was working against Hayakawa was the lack of power audiences had at the time. Hollywood used to be run by the studio heads who would act as curators for their paying patrons. Eventually, they moved onto full-blown censorship of the entire medium. But the situation is different today. Every week, the box office results come in and make or break tons of films. It’s the people who really get to choose what lives or dies. The critics definitely can make their statement and exert notable influence in many cases, but even they’re outdone every once in a while. Just think, many people considered DC to be a near-dead studio until this last movie came around! And the power from the people is where things have changed for our contemporary stars. The character Diana might not live up to Gadot’s true Israeli roots, but she does indeed remain a blatant symbol of America with her red, white, and blue regalia shimmering on the battlefield. And while Chopra plays a villainous drug lord in Baywatch, she’s the hero on Quantico, fighting for a US intelligence agency. Boutella might have similar opportunities coming up. And while these ladies hail from lands far, far east of here, they manage to fit in just fine. They fit in like Hayakawa always wished he could.
There’s a careful balance to be struck here. One of validation and one of hegemony. It’s not just an evolution of Hollywood, it’s an evolution of casting standards based on the influence of audience. Certain stars appeal more to certain audience members and, at least lately, wherever the audience goes, the money follows. Which is why Bette Davis was such a hit in the thirties and Audrey Hepburn in the sixties and Meg Ryan in the nineties. They were audience darlings! But these days, those tastes have changed. We now have guys (yes, men too!) like Kumail Najaini leading rom-coms and demanding good money. He’s managed to take a stereotypical role on one show and really expand his career into broader reaches. The market is wider now, and it’s not just those darn Brits who are taking over Hollywood (though damn they try)! It represents a wider range of talent. People from all over: the Swedes, German-Irish, Mexican-Kenyan, Afro-Samoan – you name it! And it’s not jarring, which is kind of the point. I think audiences have been craving something different for so long, that seeing all these new faces is…refreshing.
Perhaps Hollywood is having a renaissance affinity with the exotic east. There’s certainly a lot more faces from that part of the world capturing the hearts of moviegoers. Hayakawa should get a lot of credit for breaking the mold here, but it’s been the shifting nature of the audience that has been all too important to it’s success. The Hayakawa effect isn’t about diversity onscreen so much as it is the recognition of inclusion in cinema. It’s not just about showing middle eastern women as soul-sucking mummies, but about having Indian actors to play characters named Alex or Tom Haverford for that matter. Because that’s how it really is in America. There are Latino Americans named Luis and Latino Americans named Alexis. There are Israeli-American actresses who can play any vanilla American or European role necessary, and Israeli actresses who play into the personification of America, embodied in a single role. And that’s all because the audiences, just like the Hollywood itself, is constantly changing. It’s something fresh, different and, in paying perfect homage to Hayakawa, real.