July 31, 1939—France Nuyen, whose exotic Eurasian looks enabled her to carve out a small but precious niche in Hollywood from the Fifties to Seventies, was born in Marseille, France, to a French mother and Vietnamese father.
The striking actress-model came to my attention in a show I recall from my impressionable youth: Star Trek. Several years ago, when I rediscovered this particular episode, “Elaan of Troyius,” from the sci-fi series’ third and final season, what struck me were its seriocomic allusions to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and Antony and Cleopatra, Shaw’s Pygmalion, and, of course, in its title (a sound-alike of Helen of Troy, the world’s most beautiful woman), The Iliad.
In the series’ characteristic way, its depiction of the title character looks backward (to the above literary sources that dramatize a young woman, often a foreign princess, intent on getting her way against an older male from outside her environment) and forward (it would provide a major theme of spinoffs The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager—the crew tasked to transport foreign dignitaries amid intergalactic peril).
But what struck me as a youngster was not any of this literary or pop-culture analysis, but the way that Elaan turned square-jawed, resolute, brave Capt. James T. Kirk into a hopeless puddle of passion through the drop of a tear.
“Oh, oh, here we go again. The old juice...stronger than any acid,” Spencer Tracy snorted at wailing wife Katharine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib. But ol’ Spence might have reacted differently in the presence of Ms. Nuyen’s hot-tempered but comely alien.
Several Internet sites (notably, the Internet Movie Data Base) suggest that Ms. Nuyen might have been the first person of Vietnamese descent to appear on American television. I am unable to prove or disprove that assertion. But I think it would certainly be correct to say that she was the first actress with such ancestry to make her mark on the big screen and TV.
She came along during a post-WWII atmosphere in which Americans thought back to their recent encounters with Asians—with a strong undercurrent of male wish fulfillment about females of this race, in particular.
In an interview for a TCM film festival discussion on “Race and Hollywood,” a now-middle-aged Nuyen reflected, “I think those films are popular because the American people like to feel that they have overcome their racism, that they have overcome their blind, cruel prejudices, and that they are no longer of that society.”
Indicative of that would certainly be the 1958 movie adaptation of South Pacific, in which Ms. Nuyen played Liat, or I Spy, the popular series of the mid-to-late Sixties, where she acted and fell in love with her eventual second husband, Robert Culp.
But she made a more enduring impression through her Star Trek appearance—not only because the series has played somewhere all the time all over Earth in the half-century since NBC canceled it, but also because sci-fi fans—and especially aficionados of this show—are so obsessive.
It’s indisputable that, amid the murky, fight-for-survival vibes of the show’s last season, “Elaan of Troyius” cannot be ignored. In a post on “The Movie Blog,” “Darren” speaks for a not-inconsiderable portion of the show’s fan base offended by the perceived sexist and racist teleplay by John Meredyth Lucas.
But if you look at many comments on a YouTube segment from this episode, there is an equally large component of the fan base who could care less about any of that. Elaan’s alien tears might have been the functional equivalent of the love potion from Tristan and Isolde.
But the (overwhelmingly male) YouTube commentators I read thought that was an unnecessary plot device. Captain Kirk was so randy, they figured, that, once he got a good luck at Elaan’s skimpy outfit, he’d be a goner for her, anyway.
(In an interview for StarTrek.com four years ago, Ms. Nuyen remembered that her costumes only finished being sewed on her just before she went on camera, and her heavy Cleopatra-style wig, because it didn't turn at the same speed as her head, could end up with half of it on the wrong side of her face.)
Unconsciously but certainly, I absorbed one overwhelming lesson from this episode even at this early age: When in the presence of an attractive woman, a male authority figure is unlikely to think with his brain.
All the pushing, grabbing, throwing around, and—oh yes, passionate clinches—between Kirk and Elaan must have required a certain level of comfort between William Shatner and Ms. Nuyen. Indeed, they had acted together a decade before filming this show, during the Broadway run of The World of Susie Wong, and they would appear together again as a sea captain and his wife in a 1974 episode of Kung Fu, and in The Horror at 37,000 Feet.
I wonder, over the years, if Ms. Nuyen ever had occasion to share thoughts with another person of Asian descent associated with Star Trek, George Takei, on the trials and tribulations of landing acting jobs and fighting racial stereotypes at that point in Hollywood history? The whole struggle may have gotten to Ms. Nuyen, who, aside from a role in the 1993 film The Joy Luck Club, has not been as prominent onscreen in the last 40 years.