In 1994/95, I was obsessed with a television miniseries called Vanishing Son. It probably doesn’t ring a bell. I was off at university, away from home for the first time. This was before the days of PVR (which I have still never used) and still long before YouTube introduced me to endless compilations of the best dunks EVAR! and soul-crushing unboxing video creators who are drawing salaries ten times higher than mine. You see, Vanishing Son had something I had never seen before.
It had an Asian in the lead role.
Actually, it had a lot of Asians in it. I couldn’t believe the show wasn’t more popular! Russell Wong – okay, he clearly had one non-Asian parent, but close enough – had the good looks and moves and he was obviously going to revolutionize Hollywood. It had countless Asian actors in small roles. Who cares if they were still doing martial arts? It was better than having the ignominy of seeing Mickey Rooney as Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or what I call the “mix-casting” of Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, and every other “Oriental”. They all look the same. So what if the Vietnamese guy can’t speak Cantonese? Just teach him the basics, right?
And to top it off, Vanishing Son starred Haing Somnang Ngor, only the only Asian actor to ever win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, which he managed with 1984’s The Killing Fields.
I begged my mom to scan the Toronto Star’s tv guide which came with one of the weekend editions for the my new favourite show. She would then dutifully set the VCR (the WHAT?) and on my once-a-month visit home, I would revel in the show’s glory, sure in the fact that finally – finally! – Hollywood would get Asian casting right. No more pretend Asians. No more the-wrong-Asians.
Clearly, I was wrong. Casting directors still cast white actors in roles where the source material called for a person of colour. Ableism is still rampant. And somehow, Russell Wong never became the next Tom Cruise.
I love the book Wonder. It made me cry buckets of tears. I read it to my third- and fourth-grade students last year, and some of them cried – and this was before they knew how personal a connection I had to Auggie, the boy with Treacher Collins syndrome (which also causes a craniofacial difference, as does my little Marshy’s Apert syndrome). A movie adaptation has been made, and there is no doubt it’s going to be a hit. Julia Roberts! Owen Wilson! Mandy Patinkin! No, really, I love these actors. I’m going to see the movie. I’ll probably cry. Oh, actually, I know I’ll cry. I have no doubt the movie will be well done, the acting will be impeccable, and the soaring soundtrack will have tears rolling down my face as they roll down Owen Wilson distinctive nose onscreen at the same time.
I’m so angry at myself for thinking about this, but, oh, Auggie. The boy who plays Auggie is already a seasoned actor, and no doubt hits a home run with this role. To play Auggie, I assume he had prosthetics and a ton of makeup applied each day, which must have been difficult. The sarcastic side of me thinks it was probably not as difficult as actually having a craniofacial difference.
Treacher Collins is rare, but I wonder if there were any English speaking boys in the world who could have played Auggie. Somewhere, someone reading this wants to punch me in my left-wing Social Justice Warrior face and say I’m being too politically correct, but I can’t help wondering what could have been. I have no doubt the search would have been hard. Would possible hearing loss and a cleft palate make it even more difficult to find a prospective actor? I don’t know the answers to these questions I have.
But surely, no matter how gifted the actor, no portrayal could be as genuine as that coming from someone actually living the life. I get that it’s cinema, and you have to take into account the matter of entertainment, which too often is on the opposite end of the spectrum from authenticity. Still, wouldn’t we rather have gay actors in gay roles, black actors in black roles, and kids with facial differences playing kids with facial differences?
For all I know, the movie will be so good, I will forget these misgivings. I look forwarded to seeing the blockbuster version of Marshall’s potential future, and not just because I think being Owen Wilson would be really cool.