Well-meaning doesn’t really cut it when your movie is as much of a slog as Sayonara. That scarcely matters to the Academy, though, so accustomed are they to virtue signalling. Yes, even during the ’50s. You’d be hard pressed to make a case that either those winning the supporting actor categories that year really deserved it, but there was maximum agreement with the message, protesting an unjust rule. As an exercise in Hollywood cultural fence mending, though, the picture might at least have had a bit of fire in its belly, or in its performances.
Sayonara was a bit hit, of course – as Wiki has it, the third highest grosser of 1957 – so there must have been something audiences were responding to; that it came off the back of James Michener’s 1954 best seller, focussing on MacArthur’s policy that US military personal should not have relations with local women in post-WWII occupied Japan, probably helped.
Perhaps it was the love story, but there’s no chemistry between Brando (as USAF Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruber) and Miiko Taka (as Hana-ogi). Brando’s putting far too much effort into his eccentric choice of a Southern accent – against his producers’ and director’s wishes – to commit to the romance, while Taka is, on this evidence, a bit of a plank (director Joshua Logan cast her after Audrey Hepburn – wisely – passed on the basis that it would be ridiculous for her to play a Japanese person; this didn’t stop Ricardo Montalbán from playing Nakamura. If he escapes unscathed, relatively, it’s probably because his part isn’t a large one, and because he isn’t going the full Mickey Rooney). If I ever watch the movie again – unlikely – I’ll diligently count how many times Brando doesn’t end a sentence with “boy”.
He evidently made the movie out of sympathy for its message rather than believing the actual material – or his part – was very special. However, while his choice of accent may have been couched in terms suggestive of accentuating its themes – “I could enhance the cause of brotherhood a little… I thought maybe if I could play this role as a Southerner then maybe some of the people down there would see themselves in a similar situation – a self-identification” – it conveys itself as one of his perverse attempts to sabotage a movie through his foibles (it has also been suggested he simply wanted to return to Japan, following Teahouse of the August Moon). One could readily imagine him announcing he was going to sing the part in the key of E flat, knowing there wasn’t a thing the producers could do about it.
While he’s nevertheless often the most interesting part of the picture, the selfishness of his decisions is also clear to see; just look at him methoding his way through the West Point scene – relating how his father persuaded him to go, and he isn’t quite sure how he managed it – and how James Garner, a fine, naturalistic actor, is stuck listening while the screen titan indulges himself. There’s no hint of sharing there; it’s all about Marlon. Garner, who doesn’t have much of a part beyond his first scene of insolence and is basically there to be Brando’s buddy, would compare him to McQueen in his autobiography The Garner Files (“Like Marlon Brando, he could be a pain in the ass on set”). Raymond Strait obviously found some sunnier quotes for James Garner: A Biography where Brando is “the nicest person you’d ever want to know on a set” and “the best actor we’ve ever had”: “an absolute joy to do scenes with”. When he wasn’t being a pain in the ass, presumably.
Strait documents the issues Brando posed, such as indulging rewrites to a degree that offended director Joshua Logan, who then withdrew consent for his changes. He also notes the Time review, which suggested Brando’s accent “sounds as if was strained through Stanislavsky’s moustache” (Jack Warner complained, nervous of potential box-office impact, to no avail). Present and correct, for Marlon connoisseurs, is the necessary Brando beating scene, where he gets whooped on by anti-America Japanese. It’s less than a scratch compared to The Chase, though.
Gruver is curiously unannounced in motive, initially objecting to Joe Kelly (Red Buttons) marrying Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki) for military and cultural reasons, and unhappy to be sent to Japan because he’s being stranded at a desk job; it has been finagled by General Webster (Kent Smith) as Lloyd’s due to marry his daughter Eileen (Patricia Owens). When the relationship with Eileen falls apart, Lloyd simply gets the hots for theatre-company performer Hana-ogi; there’s no real dawning of awareness or cultural rapprochement. If you didn’t know better, you’d think Lloyd was simply swapping one girl for another. Which I guess IS a form of progressiveness, but it’s as one-sided as his later Fletcher Christian and the native girls.
General Webster: You want a court-martial?
Lloyd: Would that mean I could stay in Japan?
In fairness, to Taka, the part of Hana-ogi isn’t much of one, requiring her to react passively to Ace telling her how much he loves her etc. When she’s allowed a voice, it tends to be for the purpose of reeling off cultural education or explaining her background (how her father sold her to the theatre company, and how her life has been mapped out for her, one that does not include marriage).
The sense of balance isn’t very much improved when it comes to married couple Joe Kelly (Red Buttons) and Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki); they won Oscars, but Buttons is doing all the talking, excepting her bright idea that they enter a suicide pact. There are some provocative plot points here – such as Red’s fury that Katsumi is considering getting her eyes “fixed” so she can pass for western – but Logan, a musicals guy first and foremost, isn’t much of a dramatic director.
The irony is that, with Brando indulging himself and the neither of the romances really landing, the antagonists hold more juice. Martha Scott is overbearing and parochial as Mrs Webster, yet betraying of double standards when it comes to famous Kabuki performer Nakamura (Montalbán). Likewise, Eileen is shunted to the side-lines by Lloyd, but her solace in Nakamura is more engaging than the bland wooing of Hana-ogi by Ace.
The picture is careful to identify that Japanese feelings run high too, although it’s questionable how much of the content was altered at the behest of the US military. Per Straits, military cooperation was requested, but the reply from Gen Laurence Kuter, Commander of the Far East Air Forces at Fuchu Air Station in Japan, held that it “reflects far from favourably on the Air Force and its personnel”. However, changes to script were made to ensure cooperation. One can only wonder how critical the screenplay was beforehand, as no one will watch it and come away with a rosy view of the establishment. Michener himself had married a Japanese American (they divorced prior to the movie), so had some first-hand knowledge of the retrograde attitudes of the period. Despite the difficulties imposed by the military, the movie notes more than 10,000 servicemen had defied the order (as Lloyd notes “a few slipped by you”).
Lloyd’s expansive response to Hana-ogi’s concern for their future (“But what will happen to our children?”) is a nice lyrical touch: “They’ll be half you and half me. That’s all it’s going to be”. Generally, though, Sayonara is laboured and plodding, weighed down by endless theatrical performances during which we are expected to absorb the educational content (even when its Montalbán’s Japanese actor educating us). I’m sure you can see Marlon’s nodding off a couple of times.
Quite beside being a big hit, Warner ploughed a lot of money into the movie, so it should be little surprise that it made a sizeable splash when it came to Oscar nominations; at ten, it led the pack that year. Fortunately, a really good picture concerning American-Japanese relations was also in the running, and The Bridge on the River Kwai took the top prizes. Sayonara had to content itself with four: Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction and Best Sound Recording.
Brando was also nominated, his fifth that decade; it would be his last for fifteen years. Per Anthony Holden “according to his publicists, Brando was threatening to turn down the Oscar ‘to protest Hollywood’s treatment of minorities’” and “they had threatened to sue him if he carried out his threat”. Yep, Marlon could be a pain in the ass. Still, he’d be able to make good on turning down the Oscar next time.