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Why wasn't her career bigger?

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Initial post: Apr 24, 2007 2:59:58 PM PDT
Robert Payne says:
Joan Chen is the real deal. She isn't just beautiful - she's drop-dead gorgeous. And she's talented, too. If you don't believe me, just check out her self-effacing supporting performance as the lead character's mother - in which she ages from a youngish adult into a white-haired crone - in Oliver Stone's "Heaven and Earth" (1993). When she arrived in Hollywood in the late 1980s, Chen's treasury of traits, combined with her auspicious occidental breakthrough in "The Last Emperor" (1987), had all the ingredients for a brilliant career in the U.S. entertainment industry.

So, what happened?

The only answer that I can come up with - and it's an easy one, I know - is race. Hollywood, by default or design, is not a colorblind place. I guess that there just wasn't a place for a high-profile Asian leading lady when Chen made her splash. Whatever the reason, she ended up playing the love interest in a by-the-numbers Steven Segal actioner and straight-to-video flicks with Rutger Hauer. As Chen herself said in a 1998 interview with the Los Angeles Times, "The Last Emperor" brought her jobs, but she never really had a career. It wasn't until she stepped behind the camera, directing "Xiu-Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl" (1998) and "Autumn in New York" (2000), that she gained back her self-respect.

This is a shame. All things being equal, I would rather see a movie with Joan Chen as the female lead than with, say, Michelle Pfeiffer (to name a contemporary) or Julia Roberts. But it's Pfeiffer and Roberts who got the choice scripts and million-dollar paydays, while Chen had the less enviable career. Past the first flush of youth but still sexy, Chen enjoys a comfortable private life that allows her to be choosier with her projects, which include indies like the small gem "Saving Face" (2005). But I can't look at the uneven arc of her career without wondering what it might have been like if pearls-before-swine Hollywood had known what it had and took advantage of it.
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