Sessue Hayakawa, The Forgotten Hollywood Sex Symbol

Years before Gary Cooper or Clark Gable left their mark as the most classic ‘sex symbols’ of the mecca of cinema, there was another actor who went down in history for being among the first to be crowned with this term between 1910 and 1920. Without However, despite having starred in more than 120 films, today very few remember it. I’m talking about Sessue Hayakawa, a Japanese who at the time made viewers sigh with each of his films. And in an era of burning political sentiment, he accomplished something historic by rivaling in popularity with legendary figures like Charles Chaplin and John Barrymore. His story is truly a movie, and it is a pity that his name is not remembered like other film legends. He had a castle-like mansion, gave the wildest parties in Hollywood, and was the first Asian male actor to be nominated for an Oscar. Today, however, most of his films have vanished. 1918 Promotional Image (Fred Hartsook, CC, Public Domain) More Sessay Hayakawa came to the cinema purely by chance, and due to the prevailing racism of the era became the Beautiful villain of silent movies. Surely, classic film lovers will remember his name for his role as Colonel Saito in the unforgettable The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) – the same that earned him his nomination for best supporting actor – however, his history in Hollywood dated back to several decades with amazing popularity. As I tell you, it was one of the first male sex symbols in film history, remembered alongside the Italian Rudolph Valentino or the Mexican Ramon Novarro -the same man who made the nickname of Latin Lover fashionable for the first time. All three were foreign superstars of silent film at the time, Hayakawa achieved success thanks to the image of being a forbidden fruit. What does this mean? Well, basically, the United States still lived under its anti-miscegenation laws (and it did until 1967) that in many states prohibited interracial relations and marriages. So Sesseu rose to stardom as the forbidden lover, the irresistible villain who could be seen but not touched, becoming one of the highest-paid stars of the time, charging $ 5,000 a week in 1915 – a barbarity at the time – and amassing a $ 2 million fortune a year with his own production company in the 1920s. The best-known description of him defines him as a “melancholy handsome” actor and, for thousands of viewers, he was the first Japanese face they saw in their lives. But how did he get there? Keep reading because your story is not wasted. Born on June 10, 1886 in Japan, he was one of the six children of the head of the local fishermen’s union. His family, which made up a small fortune, had his future decided waiting for him to become an officer in the Japanese Imperial Navy. But after breaking his eardrum when he was swimming at the bottom of a lake, he failed to pass the test, being the shame of his family. This caused him to distance himself from his father, attempting to commit suicide by resorting to the haraquiri – the samurai code of ethics of stabbing oneself. Thanks to his dog that alerted with the barking that something was happening, his parents managed to stop him in time and save his life.Hayakawa dressed as a prince for a promotional image of the 1920 film The Beggar Prince (Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, CC, Public Domain) MoreRead moreOnce recovered, and following the wishes of his parents to become a banker, he left for the US to study political science at the University of Chicago in 1909. And here the stories differ. There are historians who say that he graduated and others who say he did not. But be that as it may, he arrived in Los Angeles and fell in love with the Japanese theater in Little Tokyo, and decided to stay to try his luck as an actor. He married actress Tsura Aoki in 1914 and that same year began his meteoric rise, his natural beauty and intense gestural expressions made him perfect for silent films and after several short films, he caused such a sensation playing a Japanese diplomat in the film. The Typhoon, who immediately got a contract with Famous Players-Lasky, which later became Paramount Pictures. Between 1914 and 1915 he made dozens of film works, crowning himself as a romantic ‘sex symbol’ with his role in The Mark of Fire (The Cheat, 1915) directed by the legendary Cevil B. DeMille. This story of betrayal and forbidden wishes put him on the definitive map of teenage girls becoming a mass idol overnight. Sessue represented the forbidden apple before a public oppressed by racist laws. He represented the taboos of sex and race and that made him a movie star himself. Pathetic for culture, and ironic for politics, right? In less than what a rooster crows, he earned a fortune a week and in 1917 his own mansion was built. A castle-shaped house that was legendary at the time for the parties it gave and later as a mandatory stop on tours of Hollywood, until it was destroyed in 1956. Furthermore, its parties were even more famous because it had large amounts of Liquor acquired before Prohibition.After that film, Hayakawa enjoyed the role of protagonist and romantic hero of his films, although the segregation caused him to be typecast in the roles of exaggerated villains -by the Asian stereotype of Hollywood- or in romances that he could only share with actresses of the same race or be the constant forbidden fruit. Tired of always doing the same thing, he opened his own production company and made some 23 movies in three years, earning $ 2 million in the first year. He himself starred, produced and participated in the writing, design, editing and directing of each of them. Unfortunately he could not share his success with his family. Several years passed before he told them what he was doing since, for them, acting was of a lower status. One day, and despite the enormous success, in 1922 he left Hollywood. The exact reason is unknown. Some say that he got tired of the anti-Japanese sentiment that was in the US; others that it was due to financial or family difficulties. The truth is that he left and the following years he dedicated to making plays and movies in Europe and Japan. So much so that it was a sensation in France, Germany and Russia, being remembered as the first non-Caucasian actor to achieve international star popularity. His wealth was such that in 1926 he lost $ 965,000 in one night in a Monte Carlo casino, however he was lucky to return to Japan at this time and not at the beginning of his success. Basically, Hayakawa was not as popular in his country at first as he was seen as a traitor who agreed to represent his culture under American stereotypes of sadistic and cruel villains. However, by becoming a superstar, the national sentiment shifted, applauding his accomplishments further.He tried to try his luck again in Hollywood in the 1930s, but the arrival of sound had changed everything. His accent didn’t appeal to studios, and to top it all off, the Production Code that banned the representation of interracial couples in movies had gone into effect. It was a code popularized as the Hays Code – because it is related to Will H. Hays, the most remembered censor in Hollywood – and was active between 1934 and 1954. In other words, his options were limited to those stereotypes that he had already tried to flee in the past. Before so many blunders, he continued traveling with his family – he was married to the also actress Tsuru Aoki (with whom he starred in many of his films) and they had three children (a boy that he had had with another woman long ago and two adopted girls) – but In 1940 he was trapped in France during the Nazi occupation, during those years he survived by selling his paintings while helping the Japanese community during the war. He did not make any films between 1938 and 1942, and maintained his nomadic life until well into the 1950s. In those years he worked with Humphrey Bogart in the film-noir Kidnapping (Tokyo Joe, 1949) and in other productions, until he reached the pinnacle of his career with the Oscar and Golden Globe nomination with The Bridge over the River Kwai. He made several more films, but almost all as a guest character, except You, Kimi and I (1958) with Jerry Lewis. And so in 1966 he made his last film lending his voice to the animated film The Dreamer Adventurer. Hayakawa retired from the cinema to return to his hometown, play golf and dedicate himself fully to Buddhism after the death of his wife in 1961. He was ordained as a Zen Master before a court of six teachers where he had to pass a test in the form of a riddle. Additionally, he worked as a private acting coach and wrote his own biography. “Fate has given me a lot. It has been kind. But I have been allowed to model the insight of the facts into the pattern that destiny has drawn, to solve the great riddle of life for myself, ”he wrote in his 1960 book. He died in Tokyo in November 1973 of a cerebral thrombosis. , complicated by pneumonia. Sadly, many of his films have been lost over time, though his star can still be found on the Walk of Fame at 1645 Vine Street in Hollywood.More stories that may interest you: Sources: Goldsea, Wikipedia, The New York TimesImages: 1918 promotional image (Fred Hartsook, CC, Public Domain); Hayakawa dressed as a prince for a promotional image of the 1920 film The Beggar Prince (Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, CC, Public Domain)