When Anthony Quinn announced Miyoshi Umeki as the winner of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, the audience gasped since Elsa Lanchaster was the clear favourite and also the other three nominees seemed to have better chances. But it was Miyoshi Umeki who took home the Oscar for her very short role as Red Buttons’s suffering wife in Sayonara, a story about love that has to fight intolerance to succeed. I think it can be assumed that both actors, Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki, won their Oscars not so much for their acting but rather for the characters they played and their ultimate tragic fate. Yes, Academy members are sentimental.
But even with this observation, I don’t want to take anything away from Miyoshi Umeki’s performance. She used to have a lower position in my ranking but I ‘upgraded’ her a few spots because I can’t deny that, out of all the elements in Sayonara, she is by far the most memorable – okay, this does not mean a lot since Sayonara is a rather messy film but while the story of forbidden love regarding Marlon Brando does not work, Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki do work.
But the good thing is that Miyoshi Umeki is not only sweet – but also good. It’s clear that if she had been given a better part in which she would have gotten more to do than smile at Red Buttons or Marlon Brando, she would easily have been up to it. But as it is, she was only given a little bit – her few scenes may not be truly remarkable but her combination of screen presence and instincts for her role help to achieve very memorable results. Overall, she has three great scenes: first, when she serves Marlon Brando and Red Buttons with wine before dinner. She doesn’t say much and the scene is surely not very challenging but she is so loveable, so adorable that you immediately fall in love with her. She wins you over in two seconds and so lays the foundation for the plausibility of the love between her and Red Buttons’s character. Later, there is a heartbreaking scene when her husband finds out that she wants to have an operation on her eyes to make her look American. He is furious about her and she cries, sobbing that 'Then I have good eyes. I fool everybody. I look American, like Joe. I want him be proud of me.’ It’s just heartbreaking and Miyoshi is wonderful in this scene. And then, later, they watch a puppet show, where the lovers kill themselves because they can no longer face live. Miyoshi says, moved to tears, ‘It is so beautiful…They will live in another world, on a beautiful lake…floating always together. Like water lilies.’ It’s a banal line but Miyoshi Umeki makes it almost sound like poetry.
So, considering the low position in this ranking, the praise may be a little too much but I just want to explain why I see more to like in this performance than most other people do. Yes, it’s almost nothing she has to do – but the little she has to do is realized beautifully.