Thursday, June 12, 2008


Recently TCM’s been showing a string of films featuring Chinese American actress Anna May Wong – as well as a documentary about her unique life and career. Whether you’re a fan or not, knowing even a little of her story, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the lady’s awesome determination and focus. With so many forces arrayed against her – chiefly, of course the pervasive and unapologetic racial exclusionism of heyday Hollywood – she somehow managed to carve out a film career that stretched from the silents to the 60’s, spanned two continents and even made her famous in China, though she never filmed there. There’s no denying her movies ranged wildly in quality. But Wong often achieved prominent (and sometimes top) billing. People knew who she was. A genuine – albeit marginalized – movie star. The roles she was offered were – more often than not - ciphers or stereotypes. Dragon ladies or doomed butterflies. But she committed to them and consistently elevated the material with her marvelous stillness and intensity. In Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS(1932), she holds her own with Dietrich – no mean feat. Marlene’s operating on all cylinders but Wong matches the insolently seductive Dietrich cool with plenty of her own. In retrospect, Anna May Wong’s miracle picture was E.A. Dupont’s PICCADILLY made in Britain in ’29 – and certainly the best British silent I’ve ever seen. Wong has a large supporting part. But it’s the film's key performance - one that lingers in the memory. Intriguing work - nuanced, sympathetic, alluring, dangerous, touching. And the chemistry she creates with (under-rated) leading man Jameson Thomas is really superb. Far beyond anything nominal star Gilda Gray can muster. If the Oscar had introduced its supporting category this early, I’d have unhesitatingly given the trophy to Wong that year. What an amazing alternate universe awards show that would have been!. With Anna May Wong honored for her Shosho and Louise Brooks carrying off the Best Actress trophy as Lulu in "Pandora’s Box". An alluring embarassment of icons. As it was, the supporting category wasn’t around till ’36 and the ’29 Best Actress trophy went to Mary Pickford in "Coquette", surely the worst performance ever to win an Academy Award. But that was then and now is now. Milestone has a lovely print of PICCADILLY available on DVD. Do yourself a favor. Rent or buy it soon. And watch Anna May Wong shimmer.

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