Dir: Joshua Logan (Mister Roberts; South Pacific; Camelot; Paint Your Wagon)
Red Buttons is dead. I know his comedy from television. But this film netted him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Buttons proves that having comedic talents often translates into dramatic ones. His performance is really strong, very natural and confident. His role calls for both joviality and deep commitment to principle, and Buttons surprises in both. An excellent performance from a great talent.
Sayonara is a race tale, the sort of once controversial story of interracial love that would have been the stuff of newspaper headlines back in the day. Now, it still works but as a tale of international mistrust in the aftermath of a war. It is 1951, and American servicemen stationed in Japan are falling in love with local women. The Army and the homefront, still burning with the fire of racism and resentment, put bureaucratic and social sanctions on these marriages.
Marlon Brando plays an ace fighter pilot and General's son, expected to marry into another military family. But he too succumbs to the native charms of the exotic women. Brando's acting ability is on full display, but I do admit that his Southern rubeness is over done in my mind. He plays the character the way it was written, that "Aw, shucks, I don't nothin' 'bout dat. Us country boys . . ." ignorance explaining the character's early opposition to Buttons' marriage, but overdone when applied to everything else. Still, Brando offers so many little things to delight; the way he sits down in front of his potential mother-in-law, the embodiment of cockiness when he pursues women, the angle of his eyes when coming to some realization. His job in the dramatic climax is testament to his talents.
An Oscar also went to Miyoshi Umeki as Buttons' wife, in what must have been a politically motivated vote. She is fine, but has few lines and does little but stand next to Red. But by giving the couple Oscars, the Academy signaled their approval of the subject matter. The award should have gone to Miiko Taka, as Brando's love interest, if to anyone in this film.
The film suffers from a momumental performative contradiciton, though, by casting Ricardo Montalban as the Japanese Kabuki star. It is offensive and inexcusable, then as now, for reasons that should speak for themselves in the context of Sayonara's message of racial tolerance. Studio interference at its worst, I wager.
My favorite parts of the film were the extended scenes of Japanese theater. Lots of cultural detail infuses the story. Logan's work with musicals serves him well in the production numbers.
The film is fine, dated, but no doubt important in its time. See it because one should always see Brando in his prime and because actors like Buttons can find spaces to shine even in the shadow of an actor like Brando.