Monday, April 05, 2010

façade: Nancy Kwan

Kwan in her most iconic moment - the "I Enjoy Being a Girl" number from Henry Koster's film of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song" (1961)
In anticipation of Brian Jamieson's new documentary, "To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen's Journey," which played San Jose's Cinequest 20 Film Festival in February, today's space is devoted to words about and images of the sublime Nancy Kwan, an enchanting film presence who flirted fleetingly with movie fame in the 1960s in a string of titles that never quite matched her talent and magnetism but which challenged the notion of who could be a star when moviegoers still weren't colorblind.

Kwan dancing with Lionel Blair in her first film, Richard Quine's "The World of Suzie Wong" (1960), and with her leading man, William Holden

Born Ka Shin Kwan in Hong Kong in 1939, Kwan was 20 and studying at England's Royal Ballet School, when she was snagged by producer Ray Stark and director Richard Quine as a last-minute replacement for France Nuyen, the play's original star, in Quine's 1960 film version of playwright Paul Osborn's "The World of Suzie Wong," with William Holden as her leading man. Nuyen had been a sensation opposite William Shatner on Broadway - Josh Logan directed - but untimely weight gain reportedly is what ruled her out for the film.

Nancy Kwan/then
I was always charmed by Kwan's ever-so-slight speech impediment, a quality which added immense vulnerability to her affecting portrayal of Mee Ling Wong, aka Suzie Wong.

The following year, she appeared in Henry Koster's faithful 1961 film adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song," a film which made use of Kwan's dance training and which has become legendary for Koster and producer Ross Hunter's decision to go with an all Asian cast. (It's a recent addition to the National Film Registry.) The film's only Caucasian (not counting extras, including an uncredited Virginia Grey) is Herman Rudin, as the vagrant who holds up Benson Fong.

Nancy Kwan/now
Miyoshi Umeki, James Shigeta and Jack Soo joined Kwan in what should have been starmaking roles for all of them, but "Flower Drum Song," for some bizarre reason, effectively ended their film careers. Umeki and Soo segued into TV work ("The Courtship of Eddie's Father" and "Barney Miller," respectively), although Soo was recruited again by Hunter for a shocking racist role in George Roy Hill's awful "Thoroughly Modern Millie"; Shigeta went on to play supporting parts in forgettable films, and Kwan, the most productive of them all, appeared in a string of pleasing, if uneventful films ("Honeymoon Hotel," "Fate Is the Hunter," "The Main Attraction," "The Wrecking Crew," "Arrivederci, Baby!," "Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N." and an amusing conceit titled "Tamahine," Philip Leacock's clever take on Debbie Reynolds' "Tammy") before abruptly disappearing.

At one time, Stark was preparing to team her again with Holden in a film version of Richard Rodger's interracial musical, "No Strings," which starred Diahanne Carroll and Richard Kiley on Broadway, but the project was aborted when Carroll reportedly complained about changing the female lead's ethnicity - and with good reason. The character of international model Barbara Woodruff is shaped by America's civil rights and racial issues that, while not spelled out in the play, are crucial to the role. At one point, Kwan was poised to appear in Wayne Wang's film of Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club," but that obviously never happened. She still acts occasionally, most recently in 2006's "Ray of Sunshine," which was made her her third husband, actor-director Norbert Meisel.

In 1996, Kwan buried her only child, actor Bernie Pock, who died at age 33. Jamieson's documentary no doubt covers much of this, tracing how Ka Shen became Nancy. Among those interviewed in the film are Joan Chen, Vivian Wu, Sandra Allen and, yes, France Nuyen, the actress who, inadvertently, presented Nancy Kwan with her big break.

I read somewhere that Kwan once starred as Martha in a stage production of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Viginia Woolf?," an intriguing bit of casting that I would have loved to see. She is missed.


Tom said...

I agree and appreciate that you posted this wonderful tribute to Nancy Kwan. Looking over her credits, which only really span about eight years, I am amazed by the body of her work. Is there anyone who had that range of roles? She really did defy race. Most of the roles she played did not specify ethnicity. Ordinarily blondes would have been cast, but she added an extra dimension to roles that really didn't have any. Is it fair to say that Stark was her mentor?

joe baltake said...

Probably, Tom. Just as Logan was the mentor of Nuyen, who he also directed in the film of "South Pacific." Both were discovered by powerful men. I've a hunch that if Logan had directed "Suzie Wong" (and why didn't he?), Nuyen may not have been replaced. But then we would have been deprived of Nancy Kwan. Both are wonderful. I've often wondered if Nuyen might have replaced Kwan in "The Joy Luck Club." Imagine the circuity of that!