Hollywood develops a thing for social problems

Several 2008 movies — “Milk,” “Gran Torino,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” among them — deliver big messages of social justice, and deliver them in highly sophisticated ways.

In contrast, a famous mogul of old Hollywood once nixed a proposed movie about social justice by informing the producer, “When I want a message, I’ll send for Western Union.”

Afraid that American audiences might agree, pioneering producers who wanted to make “message” movies found “solutions” to get their points across and still protect the box office: they cast big-name movie stars in minority roles, built stories around a crusading liberal character or inserted a passionate love story into the mix. (Sometimes they just took the easy way out. They sent for Western Union and waited for the times to change.)

Back then, the casting “solution” was often ludicrous. The blue-eyed Burt Lancaster played a renegade Apache. Jeff Chandler was cast as Cochise (twice), and Boris Karloff essayed Pontiac. Robert Taylor, Don Ameche and Rock Hudson all played Native Americans.

Natalie Wood was cast as a Latina, and Esther Williams was inexplicably presented as Ricardo Montalban’s twin sister. Dorothy Lamour became famous as a Polynesian, and Hedy Lamarr was a native seductress on an African plantation.

Asians were portrayed by Edward G. Robinson, Nils Asther, Paul Muni, Luise Rainer, Lana Turner, Loretta Young and Katharine Hepburn. John Wayne played Genghis Khan! Even the all-American Jimmy Stewart was screen-tested for a role as an Asian in “The Good Earth.” (If Clint Eastwood had made “Gran Torino” back then, his young Hmong neighbors could have been Sandra Dee and Pat Boone.)

Serious solutions

In perhaps the most unsettling example of this casting ploy, Jeanne Crain, a creamy-skinned sorority-girl type, played the title role in “Pinky,” the story of a young black woman crossing the color line.

A more serious “solution” appeared in films in which a central nonminority character (reporter, friend, politician) discovered firsthand the issue and “educated” the story participants — and thus the audience — about it. Heroism was focused away from the minority figure. (By this rule, “Milk” would be called “Moscone.”)

A classic example is the Oscar-winning movie of 1947, “Gentleman’s Agreement.” The handsome and noble Gregory Peck brings to life the sensitive reporter from Laura Z. Hobson’s bestselling novel. Peck pretends to be Jewish in order to experience anti-Semitism firsthand, a bold idea for the times. Ten years earlier, “They Won’t Forget,” based on the lynching of the Jewish Leo Frank, presented the victim of anti-Semitism only as a “Northerner.” The real story had to wait another 40 years and 1988’s TV movie “The Murder of Mary Phagan.” The “Gentleman’s Agreement” technique of using a nonminority character to illuminate the experiences of minorities — make the issue personal for the widest possible audience — was also used in 1989’s “Glory.” A white commanding officer guides viewers through a story about the bravery of black soldiers in the Civil War.

Social-minded producers often used love stories as an easy “solution” to draw audiences to message movies: Romeo and Juliet cross the color line. The racially mixed love story was around in the silent days (“The Squaw Man”), kept going through the 1930s (“The Bitter Tea of General Yen,” “Ramona”) and began to reflect casting honesty by the end of the 1950s. In Marlon Brando’s 1957 box office hit “Sayonara,” Asian women actually played Asian women. Brando’s love interest was the beautiful Miiko Taka, and Miyoshi Umeki won the Oscar as best supporting actress for her role as the Japanese wife of Red Buttons. The idea was still working in 1991 with “Come See the Paradise.” A serious story about the very real internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the main plot was a love story between Tamlyn Tomita and Dennis Quaid.

Today’s headlines

Hollywood always understood the importance of being topical. Movie mogul Jack Warner said, “The headlines of today are the movies of tomorrow.” Credit can be given to any producers who at least tried to make movies about social injustice while juggling box office pressures. As embarrassing as some of the older “solutions” may seem today, moviemakers were trying to bring ideas onto the screen. Men like Darryl Zanuck, Stanley Kramer, Otto Preminger and others laid the groundwork for some of the changes we see today.

And we do see them. The movies of 2007 show progress. Many producers have exercised the freedom to cast appropriately, and to tell stories about social issues directly, from the point of view of characters once either ignored, played down, cheaply victimized or labeled “the other” for comic purposes.

The face of the hero has changed. Harvey Milk can own the title of his own film and be its central force. The Indians of all ages in “Slumdog Millionaire” are actually played by Indians. Clint Eastwood can take a chance on amateurs in “Gran Torino”: real Hmongs play real Hmongs. The romantic hero of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a decrepit old man half the time (and yes, I know it’s really the scrumptious Brad Pitt under there, but hey, a decrepit old man). By being willing to tell new stories with new faces and braving box office challenges, today’s producers (and the entire filmmaking team) are moving us forward. Speaking as a member of the audience, I’m ready for more. Let’s go, producers.

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