Question: I was channel surfing and came across a movie with Katharine Hepburn playing an Asian character; her eyes seemed to be taped back to give them an Asian look. What was the movie's title, and was there any backlash against it because a white person was playing an Asian character?
Answer: The film is Dragon Seed (1944), based on the novel by Pearl S. Buck, a Hillsboro, West Va., native who was raised in China by missionary parents. It involves World War II atrocities against the Chinese by Japanese soldiers. I'm unaware of any significant backlash against the casting of Caucasian actors like Katharine Hepburn, Walter Huston, Aline MacMahon and Hurd Hatfield as Chinese characters. It wasn't uncommon as late as the early '60s for white actors to play Asian roles, witness Mickey Rooney's really mortifying performance as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). Most people now expect more racially appropriate casting, and though Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai actors are generally treated as more or less interchangeable, we've still moved forward from taped-back eyes and yellow foundation makeup.