Friday, June 10, 2011

It's Sessue Hayakawa's Birthday—Let's Celebrate

Today is Sessue Hayakawa's birthday. You remember Sessue Hayakawa, don't you? I wrote this about him last month:

The best performance by an actor in 1915 was given by Sessue Hayakawa. The Cheat, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, is the story of a rich, spoiled housewife (Fanny Ward) whose profligate spending is driving her husband to financial ruin. Rather than give up her lavish lifestyle, she embezzles a charity's funds then turns to an Asian businessman (Hayakawa) for an emergency loan. Long on the receiving end of Ward's flirtatious attentions, and impatient to consummate their emotional affair, Hayakawa gives her the money but insists she sleep with him in lieu of payment.

When she takes the money but reneges on her end of the bargain, Hayakawa brands her flesh with a heated iron—one of the most startling scenes of this or any other era.

Like Francesca Bertini, however, Hayakawa elevated this potentially trashy material with a terrific performance.

At a time when
The Birth of a Nation could play on Americans' fears of interracial sex to sell $16 million worth of tickets, DeMille no doubt intended the explicit attraction between Hayakawa and Ward as a means to provoke the xenophobic passions of his audience. But Hayakawa brings such elegance and subtlety to the role that, prior to his brutal act of violence, a modern audience is likely to find him the only sympathetic character on the screen.

The years before the United States' entry into World War I represented a brief moment of acceptance for Asians in the American film industry and with the box office success of The Cheat, Hayakawa became a major star. Later, he and his wife, actress Tsuru Aoki, formed their own production company and made several films together, most of which are now lost.

Rising anti-Asian sentiment in the early 1920s, however, put an end to Hayakawa's Hollywood career. After failing to find work in his native Japan, Hayakawa moved to France and launched a second film career. After World War II, he returned to Hollywood and earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting performance in
The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Let's celebrate by watching his performance in The Cheat, which is available for a limited time thanks to the Internet Movie Database:

2 comments:

thingy said...

Wow. He was quite the cad. That scene and the end scene are pretty amazing.

Thanks for posting the movie. : )

Rachel said...

I just saw The Cheat not too long ago and thought Hayakawa deserved the accolades he got; he made that role sexy, threatening, and enigmatic. Hayakawa's deliberately understated performance has also aged way better than Ward's fussy, hysterical playing.