Best Director Final 50: Joshua Logan – Sayonara

JOSHUA LOGAN FOR SAYONARA

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

David Lean for The Bridge on the River Kwai

Sidney Lumet for 12 Angry Men

Mark Robson for Peyton Place

Billy Wilder for Witness for the Prosecution

NOTE: henceforth, dark blue text will denote individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue will indicate those who were nominated.

Movies don’t change with the passing years, but we do.  As a result, social problem films pose perhaps the greatest challenge to the judgment of future generations.  Deliberately wading into complex problems with a forthright purpose of speaking to their own times, these movies wind up repeating the same message over and over to a changing society, exposing their makers’ biases and assumptions more with each passing year to viewers whose values grow further and further apart.  As a result, I tend to err on the generous side when discussing these films, far more willing to compliment them for their virtues than condemn them for their sins.

So it was very tentatively that I watched Joshua Logan’s Sayonara charge into the fraught terrain of miscegenation.  Logan is no stranger to the subject, or even to adapting James Michener works on the subject, having previously co-authored and directed the stage and films versions of South Pacific, although here he takes the novel straight to the screen and bypasses Rodgers & Hammerstein entirely.  (One wonders what kind of Puccini-inspired musical creation they might have concocted.)  The story of two American servicemen and their love for two Japanese women echoes a Western storytelling vein at least as old as Madame Butterfly in drama and Broken Blossoms in film.  From today’s vantage point, Logan seems caught between past and future, charging head on against some prejudices while remaining blind to others.

On both a thematic and an aesthetic level, the success and shortcomings of Logan’s key creative decisions are closely bound together, most notably in his casting of the major roles.  Despite commendable performances by Marlon Brando as the laconic Major Gruver (played with a Southern accent, initially against Logan’s wishes) and Red Buttons as his former charge Joe Kelly, the highlights of the cast are Miiko Taka and Miyoshi Umeki, Japanese actresses making their screen debuts (Umeki’s success was to continue the next year with her Broadway debut in Flower Drum Song—there’s the Rodgers & Hammerstein connection after all!)  These bold casting decisions, however, are offset by the casting of Ricardo Montalban as a kabuki “male actress” or onnagata.  I hardly blame Montalban; he convincingly enacts kabuki performance style—at least in closeups; I’m not convinced it’s him in the long shots—and a Mexican actor playing a Japanese actor playing a woman who turns into a lion onstage amounts to a critical studies motherlode.  Still, his casting alongside Umeki and Taka epitomizes the compromised nature of the film’s progressive politics, further underscored by the fact that Taka was only cast after Audrey Hepburn, convinced that she couldn’t effectively portray an Asian woman, turned the role down.

In similar terms, the resolution for the two biracial couples feels caught between the doomed-lover sentiments of its predecessors and hope for what would nowadays be termed a post-racial future.  Even as such, though, the mixed outcome of the film was an advance from the novel’s pessimistic ending, due in part to lobbying by Brando.  Indeed, Brando’s portrayal of man evolving from casual racist to brave rebel anchors the film and allows it to have its cake and eat it too, wringing moving drama out of the film’s most stirring and devastating scenes alike.  Though Brando was of course a genius, Logan deserves credit for drawing forth one of the his best performances of the 1950s—and that’s saying something.  Finally, I have to mention Ted Haworth and Robert Priestley’s production design and Ellsworth Fredericks’ astounding Technicolor cinematography.  Would they do largely present 1950s Japan as a pristine kingdom of pagodas and kabuki theaters, in fairness this is the side of Japan that Brando’s top military brass would have seen, and their work is some of the most accomplished of the entire decade.

THE VOTE

For decades, 1957 was the only year in which the five Best Picture and Director nominees overlapped—a strong field overall, though I have no idea how Mark Robson and Peyton Place penetrated these highest of categories.  The award went to a worthy David Lean for The Bridge on the River Kwai, his pivot away from intimate drama and toward vast productions that would come to define the term “epic.”  Logan makes for a solid contender against the British master (and puts forth a much stronger effort than he did in adapting his own stage work in Picnic two years earlier), but my vote goes to Sidney Lumet (I’m starting to sound like a broken record, I know), for his unparalleled movie debut, directing cameras and ensemble to tremendous success in the ultimate exercise: shooting (almost) an entire film inside one room.

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2 thoughts on “Best Director Final 50: Joshua Logan – Sayonara

  1. Jerome says:

    Fwiw the depressing surprise of buttons &meki still haunts. I saw sayonara a ampas grea t be nominated series… Thought brando’s southerner was too much, ESP because a Californian or Nebraskan can be pretty racist too. But umeki was. Revelation… & I think Logan in general is problematic- South Pacific’s color shifts are horribly odd although they might have worked on stage. 12 angry men is a tour de force but I find it even more dated. Agree- Peyton Place is a puzzle. Personally I think Lean creates a .huge scope and yet brings out the humanity of everybody

  2. […] is quite commendable.  I’ve talked before about the tendency for social message films to have a short shelf life, but the film’s unfussy interpersonal drama (especially compared to the pedantry that would […]

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