Most people over the age of 35 know that France Nuyen is a Hollywood legend whose career was launched 35 years ago. What most people don't know is that Nuyen was the second Asian actress to become a major star, after Anna May Wong. What jump-started her career was the role of Liat in South Pacific, a 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. She was only 17 then. "I'm the first Asian woman who made a name for herself in Hollywood," she claims, not quite accurately. Perhaps the hyperbole is understandable. After all, by the time Nuyen came on the scene, Anna May Wong had virtually faded from the scene.
"I was the first colored person to appear in a title role," she adds. The statement is debatable, depending on what one means by "title role", but, again, the exaggeration can be excused. It would certainly have felt that way for Nuyen in the Hollywood of the 1950s. "And South Pacific was the first major Hollywood film to talk about racism."
What clinched the Euriasian actress's status as a Hollywood legend was the role that followed in the heels of her first. The World of Suzie Wong was a spectacular Broadway musical before it migrated to the big screen to enjoy an equally triumphant run. Nuyen was the star of the Broadway version. She was to star as well in the screen version and participated in the shooting of the first half of the movie before its producer Ray Stark made the tough decision to replace the 19-year-old with an even fresher-faced 18-year-old Eurasian actress named Nancy Kwan.
It's hard to imagine any actress being able to keep her career on the same high pitch on which Nuyen's began, and indeed, her post-Suzie Wong years have been somewhat anticlimactic. After a half dozen forgettable movies, she has settled into a string of TV appearances.
It was a few days before the Oscar nomination announcements when I visited the spacious Tudor-style Beverly Hills home she shares with two dogs, Max and Lilly, and a Siamese cat named Mon Amour. At 53 Nuyen retains much of the beauty that launched a pair of legendary movies, and is without makeup except some red lipstick. She is jaunty with her cropped hair, pear=grey turtleneck, black leggings and black knee-high boots. Her only jewelry is a wristwatch. Simple. Chic.
She has recently been asked by a Taiwanese company to write an autobiography. "I have a terrible time writing it," says Nuyen. "I had a terrible, painful life. But I have a duty to write it. I am a pioneer among Asian actresses. Asian women need a role model, someone to identify with."
She dug up a preview video that contains what she considers her finest moment in Joy Luck Club. It is a powerful scene in which she confesses to her screen daughter about how in China she had killed a baby son born without a brain. She emotes with great force in a succession of closeups. Nuyen is convinced the performance could have earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination. But to her deep indignation, it ended up on the cutting room floor. Amy Tan, who was intimately involved with every stage of the production, had the scene cut to sabotage her Oscar chances, Nuyen believes. Tan's motive? To make sure the public associates the film with no one but Amy Tan.
Understandably, Nuyen is delighted that the film didn't receive a single Oscar nomination.
Nuyen's complaints range from the seemingly trivial to the monumental. "I had to eat Chinese food every day and I don't eat meat and oil," she grouses of the joyless, luckless weeks spent on the Joy Luck set. "And Chinese gamble, smoke and are pushy." Nuyen can say that because her father is Chinese. "It was a supreme effort to fit in with that group," she adds. "I didn't connect with them. To please was work." The strongest words she reserves for Amy Tan whom Nuyen accuses of being difficult to work with.
What adds to Nuyen's sense of discontent is the attitude prevailing among the current generation of Asian American actors. They have shown an inclination to dismiss her pioneer status. "The younger generation is strange," says Nuyen. "Their concept is that Asian roles should always be higher class. They're upset that I played prostitutes [like Suzie Wong]. They sneer at non-glamorous, outcast parts," she continues. "I'm bothered by that reasoning. It's like saying that the English shouldn't play butlers. Characters are treasures whether they are dramatic or light.
"My prostitute did not cease being a human being," she says. "It was not a lesser role. I gave her all the power and humanity Suzie Wong deserved. An actor should be able to play a lower class character with all the depth and humanity they deserve as a full human being.
"This generation of Asian actresses thinks that they always have to play Grace Kelly parts. They are missing the point that you do what you can with a role you are given." Nuyen points out how she could not freely choose her roles in Hollywood's bad old days. PAGE 2