“My one ambition is to play a hero.”
January 24, 2020 12:11 PM   Subscribe

One of the First Hollywood Heartthrobs Was a Smoldering Japanese Actor. What Happened? [Atlas Obscura] “If you think about silent-film era sex symbols, you probably conjure up a mental picture of Rudolph Valentino—even if you don’t know his name. Valentino has become synonymous with sex appeal in early films. But he wasn’t the first male star of American movies to make millions of American women go weak at the knees. That distinction goes to Sessue Hayakawa, the Japanese star of Cecil B. DeMille’s cinematic rape drama, The Cheat.” [A Brief Bio & Film History: Who was Sessue Hayakawa?][Career Highlights and Retrospective][IMDB][wiki]

• Sessue Hayakawa: America’s forgotten sex symbol [Asian Cinevision]
“Asian men have routinely been emasculated, humiliated and denigrated in American films and TV shows. Anyone remember Long Duk Dong from “16 Candles” (1984) or Hop Sing from “Bonanza” (1959-1973)? But what if I told you that there already was an Asian actor who’d achieved success as a romantic lead? Not only that, what if I was to inform you that this same Asian actor was the first big screen sex symbol, the highest-paid performer of his day, and the first Asian person ever to be nominated for an acting Academy Award? In the 1910s and 1920s, Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa was one of the biggest stars of silent Hollywood. His fame was on par with that of Charlie Chaplin. Often cast as a forbidden lover or sexually dominant villain, like in his breakout role in “The Cheat“ (1915), Hayakawa had a huge fan base of mostly white women, and at his peak, was paid up to $2 million a year. For context, that’s equivalent to roughly $28 million today. He was so successful that, in 1918, he started his own movie studio, Haworth Pictures, which produced vehicles specifically for him. He had total control over the 23 films that Haworth made, producing, starring in, and contributing to the design, writing, editing, and directing of the movies. Very often, he would star opposite a white woman, most notably the serial actress Marin Sais, whom Hayakawa personally chose to be his leading lady. Unfortunately, due to anti-miscegenation laws at the time, Hayakawa very rarely, if ever, got to “get the girl.” This was so well known that in 1957, while interviewing Hayakawa, Joe Franklin quipped, “there were two things we were sure of in the silent movie era; the Indians never got the best of it, and Sessue Hayakawa never got the girl.” The only times Hayakawa did wind up with a romantic interest at the end was when he starred opposite his wife, Japanese actress Tsuru Aoki, in “The Dragon Painter” (1919).”
• Cinema can't keep up with Hayakawa's strides [NJ]
“Progress is never a straight line. Gains are made and lost, breakthroughs braked by backlashes. Lasting change is less a result of revolution than evolution -- minds slowly won, hearts gradually softened. Which is why the enlightened past can sometimes feel like the far-off future. Today, Asian actors are coldly marginalized. Yet 90 years ago, one of Hollywood's biggest stars was Japanese. He co-starred opposite white actresses. He even ran his own production company -- a first for a minority performer. His career as an American leading man ended before the silents did. He recaptured his old celebrity only once, decades later, getting an Oscar nomination for playing the Colonel in "The Bridge on the River Kwai." And yet Sessue Hayakawa still seems far ahead of us today.”
• Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom [Wayback Machine]
“Audiences were captivated by Hayakawa's gentleman-villain character. However, as Miyao explains, over time he faced an irresolvable artistic dilemma: Depending on Japan's relative popularity with the U.S. government—the country and its culture fell out of favor as Japanese imperialist aspirations rose after World War I—on American screens, the actor could play the likable but distinctly foreign Asian but often was forced to play the bad guy. He could not play romantic leads who ended up "getting the girl" when "the girl" was Caucasian. As a result, Hayakawa sometimes played honorable villains who sacrificed satisfying their own desires so that white heroines could find true love—or at least light-skinned, European-descended mates. Hayakawa founded his own production company, developing scripts, starring in his own movies, and taking part in directing and editing. In 1937, he headed to France to play a Japanese spy in Max Ophuls' Yoshiwara. He spent World War II in France, making movies with French directors and helping the French Resistance.”
• Sessue Hayakawa Is Dead at 83; Silents Star Was in ‘River Kwai’ [New York Times]
“In Hollywood's heyday, be fore talking pictures and the graduated income tax, Sessui Hayakawa was one of the silent screen's leading figures He starred as lover and villain in more than 120 films, made $7,500 a week in 1920 and played host at his 32‐room castle to such friends as Francii X. Bushman, Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford. Though younger filmgoers knew him solely as a figure 6 menace in such films as “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” foi their parents Mr. Hayakawa's reputation had been established 42 years before, in 1914, when he starred in “Typhoon” wits Bessie Barriscale. For some, the darkly handsome leading man was the first Japanese they had ever seen. Mr. Hayakawa's career had many stages. After the days of Hollywood opulence, with the advent of sound, he became an impoverished unknown; for 12 years he lived quietly in France, subsisting by doing oil paintings on silk. After his comeback in “River Kwai,” there were a few years of new stardom and then another falling off. The actor ended his days in a modest five‐room bungalow in an unfashionable suburb of Tokyo, teaching acting and devoting his time to Zen Buddhism. “Today in maturity nothing annoys me,” the actor said in an interview 15 years ago. “I pity the man who tries to hurt me. Never am I angered. I feel only pity.””
• The Untold Story of Asian Americans in Early Hollywood [Pacific Citizen]
“Born in 1889 as Kintaro Hayakawa in Chiba Prefecture, he emigrated to the United States to pursue a degree in political economics at the University of Chicago. After flunking out of school, Hayakawa’s plan to return home became waylaid when he caught a theater performance in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo — he fell in love with the stage. Hayakawa became a regular player at the Japanese Playhouse in Little Tokyo, where he was discovered by Hollywood film producer Thomas H. Ince. Against all odds, Ince agreed to pay him the extraordinary sum of $500 per week to star in the silent film adaption of a stage play called “The Typhoon” in 1914. “The Typhoon” starred Hayakawa as a Japanese diplomat to France who, after having an affair with a chorus girl, strangles her to death in a fit of passion. Despite the negative stereotyping of his character, Hayakawa’s brooding good looks made him an undeniable sex symbol amongst white women across America. Cast in a similar role the following year by legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, Hayakawa shared the first-ever onscreen interracial kiss with a white woman in the 1915 film “The Cheat.””
posted by Fizz (9 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Weak in the knees ability confirmed.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 12:16 PM on January 24, 2020 [12 favorites]

It's a crime that he's not more well known outside of more focused film history type of circles. He was talented, handsome, charming, and dedicated at his craft. And he faced so many obstacles along the way, all the racism/bigotry/stereotyping.

Also, for anyone interested in this kind of history, you should check out the documentary The Slanted Screen, produced, and directed by Jeff Adachi which examines the stereotypical portrayals and absence of East Asian males in the cinema of the United States. The film analyzes Hollywood from the silent era to the 21st century. It's available on Kanopy, so if you have access to your local public library, you can stream online.
posted by Fizz at 12:20 PM on January 24, 2020 [15 favorites]

I always got him confused with S.I. Hayakawa, who was my senator for a while. I assumed his first name was Sessue, and was excited that he used to be in movies.

But he wasn't.

Thanks for this post!
posted by allthinky at 12:21 PM on January 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

The protagonist of Nina Revoyr's The Age of Dreaming is based on Hayakawa, although their career paths diverge sharply once the novel reaches the 1920s and the William Desmond Taylor scandal.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:31 PM on January 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

I like this man already.
posted by Mrs Potato at 12:32 PM on January 24, 2020

Thanks for this post! Wonderful, and heartbreaking.

Also, for anyone interested in this kind of history, you should check out the documentary The Slanted Screen

This is a great doc. Also wonderful, and also heartbreaking.

So much potential squandered, due to subtle to overt racism.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:50 PM on January 24, 2020

And now I know where the visual inspiration for one of the 1920s-era characters in Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked and the Divine came from. Thank you for an amazingly informative post.
posted by sobell at 6:32 PM on January 24, 2020

Thanks for this extensive post! I had read about him before (and oh yes, he really deserved that heartthrob status) but this is just the encouragement for me to start looking for his films.
posted by cendawanita at 1:59 AM on January 25, 2020

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