Director’s Notebook December, 2008
There’s a quirky 1950’s movie starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson that I’ve always been drawn to called Sunset Boulevard. What always fascinated me, other than Swanson’s gloriously over-the-top performance, were the glimpses of the early days of movies and the larger than life escapades of the silent picture stars. That’s probably one of the reasons that I first decided to read The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr, since it is a novel about a silent picture star whose sex appeal and glamour kept pace with the likes of Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks in their heydays.
But there’s a difference. Jun Nakayama is Japanese, and for Japanese Americans, even those native born, California in the early 1920's was not a comfortable or even safe place to be. Despite Jun’s fame and success in motion pictures, he encounters many overt and many more subtle forms of racial prejudice. His legions of adoring female fans seem to be drawn to him as to forbidden fruit. In his films, where Jun plays the Oriental villain, usually with evil designs on the innocent white maiden, his sexual attractiveness is the result of his “otherness”; since his amorous advances are forbidden by white society, they seem all the more exciting to his squealing admirers.
Jun is willing to accept the strictures of society on his public life, so long as he can make the huge sums of money his movie stardom engenders. He loves the craft of acting and seeks to perfect his art. He relishes the fame, fast cars, big houses, and bigger parties, pretending not to notice the frisson in the room should he ever appear to be too intimate with any of his white co-stars.
Reckless of the tension building around him and indifferent to the growing strife experienced by the Japanese community, Jun pretends that the rules can be bent and even broken by someone of his fame and acting calibre. When his world comes crashing down, he goes into hiding–and denial–for decades.
But as an old, reclusive man in the 1960’s, he is approached by an eager young man who wants to write a film script about the silent film era, and wants the feature role to go Jun, who hasn’t appeared in films for 40 years. At first Jun refuses to even consider the matter, but speaking to the young man stirs up memories and fears of a long forgotten murder investigation and threatens to bring to the surface many sordid and unexplained acts of violence Jun has tried to bury. With the past revived and breathing down his neck, Jun feels compelled to ferret out answers and locate any of his former friends and film associates who might help him get to the truth.
Told in a series of flashbacks that vividly recall the special time and place of Los Angeles in the early movie-making days, The Age of Dreaming is a wonderful melding of nostalgia and edginess. There’s a mystery to solve and guilt to resolve, and along the way a lost love to understand and regret. Jun is a character worthy of our admiration and our exasperation, but above all, he and his story are unique and memorable.