Academy Museum offers viewers rare chance to see acting legend Anna May Wong’s movies on the big screen

Chinese American acting legend Anna May Wong

What is Asian representation in Hollywood? That’s the question the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles was faced with when it decided to host the film series “Beyond the Icon: Anna May Wong.”

From now until Nov. 27, the museum is honoring Anna May Wong — Gemma Chan’s iconic style influence at the Met Gala earlier this year — as the first Chinese American star in Hollywood. The series will feature some of Wong’s greatest works such as “The Toll of the Sea,” in which she landed her first lead role. The film will be shown on Nov. 20 at 7:30 p.m.

Kiva Reardon, film curator and programmer at the Academy Museum, told NextShark that the idea for the film series came about in 2016 when she first read a profile of Wong in a film journal she previously ran. It wasn’t until she started working at the museum that she was able to do a deeper dive into Wong’s films.

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In preparation for the virtual program, the Academy Museum spoke with Wong’s niece, Anna Wong, and filmmaker Arthur Dong, who linked the recent wave of discussion about the actress’ work to the racism brought about by the rise of the pandemic.

“It’s interesting pairing those two because her trajectory was working in Hollywood being completely fed up with the racism that she faced here and the limitations on what she could actually do as an actor,” Reardon said. “There’s just so much texture to her story and that was also the idea behind the series’ title. ‘Beyond the Icon’ is deconstructing this flattened idea of a glamour shot and looking at this woman who was so active in creating her own iconography and creating her own image and career path.”

“Shanghai Express,” a film where Wong was cast opposite her friend Marlene Dietrich upon returning to the U.S. from Europe, and “Pavement Butterfly” were both shown at the opening night of the series on Nov. 13.

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Nancy Yuen, a sociologist and pop culture expert who introduced “Shanghai Express” on opening night, said the reason Anna May Wong’s work resonates in Hollywood is because to this day Asian American women remain underrepresented as leads in films. 

Only six of the top 1,300 highest grossing films from Hollywood between 2007 and 2019 had Asian or Pacific Islander women as leads or co-leads, according to a recent study of Asian and Pacific Islander representation Yuen co-authored. 

“That is less than half a percent,” she said. “Consequently, a century later, Hollywood films starring an Asian American woman like Anna May Wong remain anomalies in Hollywood.”

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Other notable films starring the pioneer actress, including “Picadilly” and “Daughter of Shanghai,” will be shown at the Academy Museum when the series closes on Nov. 27. 

 

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