Suing Hollywood? Maybe Iran has the right idea
As you may have heard, Iran plans to sue Hollywood over the way it's been portrayed in the movies. That may seem a ridiculous idea but don't laugh. They just might be onto something.
Since the earliest days of Hollywood, California's southern neighbour has provided not just cheap labour but also a cheap target.
In case you've missed it, French lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre is reportedly acting on behalf of the Iranian government in a suit to be brought – though in which country and under which jurisdiction is far from clear – against Hollywood over charges that it has systematically misrepresented Iran in the movies, and is collectively guilty of "Iranophobia". Iran's depiction in Argo was the trigger, but a bunch of other films have also been identified for crimes against the country's image. The Wrestler and 300, you have been warned.
Mickey Rooney delivered an over-the-top performance as Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961).
Given that "Hollywood" can hardly be considered a legal entity of any sort, you'd imagine there might yet be a few hurdles to cross before this case sees the inside of a courtroom staffed by anyone other than kangaroos. But still.
The idea that Hollywood might be brought to book for some of its more egregious transgressions holds a certain appeal, even if it has taken the putative wife of Carlos The Jackal to act upon it. (They were married in an Islamic ceremony in prison in 2001, though they appear to have forgotten that they each were in fact already married to someone else at the time. Consequently, their union is not recognised under French law.)
Imagine what might happen if someone more palatable to Western tastes were to take up cudgels on behalf of the wronged nations of the world – a Geoffrey Robertson, perhaps, or a Julian Burnside, or a Judge Judy even. Why, you can practically hear Hollywood running for the hills already.
Leading the charge for damages would be Mexico. Since the earliest days of Hollywood, California's southern neighbour has provided not just cheap labour but also a cheap target, its citizens turning up repeatedly as feckless villains and lazy halfwits. Tony The Greaser (1911) and The Greaser's Revenge (1914) were early examples of the stereotyping that continues to this day. I mean, did you see Oliver Stone's Savages (2012), with its wall-to-wall chainsaw-wielding, double-crossing, coke-snorting banditos? No, didn't think so.
Trouble might be stirring on the USA's other border, too, with Canadians having good cause to mounty (sorry) a case of their own. Way back in 1975, Pierre Berton conducted a survey of Hollywood films featuring Canadian characters and found that of the 575 movies, 250 included members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Reductive, for sure, but given they were typically depicted as earnest, determined and always likely to get their man, you'd imagine the damages flowing across the Great Lakes might amount to no more than a stack of buckwheat pancakes to soak up some of that maple syrup. (Sorry, I seem to have been seduced by the Hollywood hegemony here. I should be a bit more serious aboot this, eh?)
Looking east, the Irish have a moighty claim to be offended, if only because their brogue has been so frequently and flagrantly defiled. Mickey Rourke's "Tharl bay no maw cullen, feather" ("There'll be no more killing, Father") in A Prayer For the Dying (1987) is execrable, but it seems a paragon of accuracy when held up alongside the likes of Tom Cruise in Far and Away (1992) – a movie from which our own Nicole Kidman does not emerge unscathed – Kevin Spacey in Ordinary Decent Criminal (2000), Tommy Lee Jones in Blown Away (1994) and Brad Pitt's indecipherable "traveller" gibberish in Guy Ritchie's Snatch (2000). Oh, and special mention must be made here of Julia Roberts, who was so chuffed with her efforts at mangling the lilt in Michael Collins that she just carried it right on into her next role, as Dr Jekyll's housemaid in Mary Reilly (both released in 1996).
And we haven't even mentioned the fact that Hollywood's favourite Irish (or Irish-American) characters tend to be drunks, brawlers, halfwits, rogues or – the hands-down favourite – terrorists. Imagine how bad things might be if the Americans didn't love the Irish!
The English fare little better, turning up repeatedly as the posh-voiced villains of the piece. Anthony Hopkins may be meant to be American in 1991's Silence of the Lambs, but he is the archetypal blight from Blighty. But Hollywood is nothing if not equal-opportunity in its offensiveness, and has frequently managed to insult the English and the Germans with the same stone: James Mason is the villainous Vandamm in North by Northwest (1959), Alan Rickman the grasping Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988) and Jeremy Irons the deliciously dissolute Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune (1990) (he even managed to squeeze in a nod to von Bulow's "you have no idea" line as Scar in Disney's animated Lion King in 1994). But the other end of the class spectrum isn't spared either: all over the East End, Cockney geezers are still reeling from the barbarism that was Dick Van Dyke's accent in Mary Poppins (1964). Say no more, guvnor.
As for Africa, where do you start? From the 'natives' of King Kong (1933) and the cannibals of the Tarzan films of the 1930s and 40s on to the gangster warlords of Blood Diamond (2006), the continent is a bubbling cauldron of danger, crookedness and superstition.
Japan? Tom Cruise being the best ninja in the land in The Last Samurai (2003) might be a bit hard to take but it's nothing compared to the hysterically over-the-top performance of Mickey Rooney as Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). Those teeth looked like they came out of a mixed bag of lollies, and that accent – "Miss Gorightry" – makes him sound like a right 'sirry iriot', as the equally stereotype-sensitive Benny Hill would have said.
As for India, Peter Sellers has a lot to answer for as the havoc-wreaking extra Hrundi V. Bakshi in The Party (1968), but he's so funny that we're hoping the entire country feels as Indira Gandhi reportedly did. According to writer Vinod Mehta, she was fond of responding to the question "Who do you think you are?" with a line spoken by Sellers in Blake Edwards' gloriously chaotic comedy: "In India we don't think who we are, we know who we are."
And what of us down under? We have some reason to be upset too, and not just on account of Quentin Tarantino's insanely bad accent in Django Unchained (2012). It was a place to set the end of the world in On The Beach (1959), a place to send a couple of actors – Don Johnson and Mickey Rourke – at the end of their bankability in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991), and a place you could always make look like it was another place, preferably America, in Ghost Rider (2007), Knowing (2009), and the Matrix films (1999 and 2003). Oh, and whatever you do don't mention Kangaroo Jack (2003). I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it all right.
So, I rest my case. You can mock all you like, but I'm with the good people of Iran. Hollywood is a serial offender and it's time they were made to pay.
Let the class action begin.