Hollywood’s history is not without its share of controversial casting choices, with some roles and portrayals now recognized as culturally insensitive or inappropriate. As societal values and awareness have evolved, certain casting decisions from the past have faced criticism and scrutiny. In this article, we examine some examples of casting choices in Old Hollywood that would likely be met with strong opposition if attempted today.
Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi: One such casting choice that drew widespread condemnation is Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961). Rooney’s portrayal of a Japanese landlord through exaggerated mannerisms and heavy makeup has since been widely criticized as a caricature perpetuating racial stereotypes. The casting of a white actor in this role highlights the lack of representation and opportunities for actors of Asian descent at the time.
John Wayne as Genghis Khan: Another notable example is John Wayne’s casting as the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan in the film “The Conqueror” (1956). Wayne’s portrayal, despite his talent and star power, was met with backlash due to the glaring historical and cultural inaccuracies. The decision to cast a Caucasian actor in a role that should have been played by an actor of Asian or Mongolian descent reinforces the problematic practice of “whitewashing” roles in Hollywood.
Charlton Heston as Ramon Miguel Vargas: Charlton Heston’s portrayal of a Mexican character, Ramon Miguel Vargas, in the film “Touch of Evil” (1958) has also faced criticism. While Heston was a prominent actor of his time, his casting in a role that called for a Mexican actor reflects the prevalent practice of “brownface” or using makeup and other means to make a non-Latinx actor appear ethnically different. Such casting choices perpetuated stereotypes and denied opportunities to Latinx actors.
Anita Ekberg as Wei Ling: In the film “Blood Alley” (1955), Swedish actress Anita Ekberg portrayed a Chinese character named Wei Ling. This casting decision sparked controversy and raised questions about the lack of authentic representation and diversity in Hollywood at the time. Ekberg’s portrayal of Wei Ling highlights the industry’s tendency to overlook actors from the appropriate cultural background and instead opt for non-Asian actors to play Asian roles.
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra: Elizabeth Taylor’s casting as the Egyptian queen Cleopatra in the film of the same name (1963) generated significant controversy. Taylor, a British-American actress, was selected for the role, despite Cleopatra’s historical background as an African Egyptian. The decision to cast a white actress as Cleopatra further exemplifies the industry’s historical disregard for accurate representation and diversity.
As societal awareness and calls for authentic representation have grown louder, the film industry has made strides in casting actors who reflect the diversity of the characters they portray. Casting choices that would have been accepted in Old Hollywood are now rightly scrutinized for their lack of cultural sensitivity and inclusivity.
In conclusion, the examples mentioned here serve as reminders of the need for Hollywood to continually reevaluate its casting decisions, embrace diverse talent, and provide opportunities for underrepresented groups. By doing so, the industry can move toward a more inclusive and equitable future, where actors of all backgrounds have the chance to portray characters authentically and contribute to a richer and more accurate representation of the world we live in.