If one of this site’s numerous missions is to do justice to unjustly neglected actresses, here’s another concrete example of that very intention: France Nuyen, a face that everyone knows but on which so few can place a name on. And yet, she’s been equally present either on the big or small screen since 1958, aptly able to give memorable performances of stoic and/or tragic characters, too often hiding some passionate fire.
France Nguyen Vannga was born July 31, 1939, in Marseilles, France, of a French mother and Vietnamese father. Needless to say, people of oriental origins are not that many in Marseilles and it took many years before France could meet any other Asian. She was very close to a cousin who transferred a love of nature and the arts. Surely with no great surprise, we can learn that her beauty and determination won her the chance to pursue a modeling career.
Even at the end of the ’50s, it was still difficult to find credible roles for any Asian in American productions. Only Anna May Wong could be considered the only Asian female movie star in North America (principally in the ’30s). In a way, France would be considered the second, making her film debut in 1958 for In Love and War, a war picture telling the story of three young soldiers serving in the Pacific. Robert Wagner, Bradford Dillman and Jeffrey Hunter were the main characters, with one of them (the luckiest?) enjoying an affair with Kalai Ducann, played by France.
The same year, a big production of South Pacific was rolling before the cameras, with stolid Rossano Brazzi and frantic Mitzi Gaynor as the main stars. As a musical in times of war, it tells the story of an American nurse during WWII serving in the Pacific who falls in love with a French farmer. This busy fellow has two children from a Polynesian woman. Another soldier is in love with a local girl, Liat, splendidly played by France, stealing the show from well-established stars and making anyone notice her beauty. With an absurd 167 minutes running time, this picture was nevertheless one of the biggest US box-office success of the ’50s, mainly for the quality of its songs. South Pacific remains one of the first American picture to frankly talk about racism. France’s presence was not forgotten, as she was nominated at the Laurel Awards for Top Female New Personality.
Still in 1958, France made her Broadway debut, nothing less, in the title role of The World of Suzie Wong, with William Shatner. The play (about the relation between a prostitute and a painter in Hong Kong) played until 1960. At first, France learned her lines phonetically (like Bela Lugosi!), as her mastery of the English language remained awkward. A movie adaptation was soon to follow, but starring Nancy Kwan. Actually, France filmed half the movie before being replaced by producer Ray Stark, the latter preferring young and fresh talent (Kwan was 18, France 19!). A bitter disappointment. Still, France made her television debut in an episode of Adventure in Paradise. She even found the time to enjoy a brief liaison with Marlon Brando, with the actor once threatening a gossip photographer intending to disturb their peace.
In 1961, France was cast in the military comedy The Last Time I Saw Archie, with Robert Mitchum. The following year promised to be more fullfiled. In A Girl Named Tamiko, France was the title character, an innocent Japanese woman having relationship trouble with an Eurasian more concerned in winning his US citizenship. Soon after, she would share the screen with Charlton Heston in Diamond Head. Heston portrayed an ananas planter in Hawaii who disagrees with his sister on her love affair with a native. Meanwhile, he begins himself a relationship with a local girl, played by France, whom he’ll get pregnant. Talk about morality! Another film on racism with France playing more or less a martyr. And once again, Asian characters were played by Caucasian actors… mmmm… France closed the year with Satan Never Sleeps where she’s a young cook in love with a catholic priest, just arriving in a Chinese mission. The shadow of communism would thwart their plans.
France would again be reunited with Mitchum for Man in the Middle, another WWII film (as if oriental characters could not be included in modern scripts?). The next year, she would take part in an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., to finally become a semi-regular (Sam-than McLean) in I Spy, popular serie about the adventures of two spies passing themselves as tennis players. Of course, this show is well-remembered for presenting a duo of heroes with different ethnic background: Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. In fact, it was the first time that a black actor was the star of a series in an non-stereotypical role. Importantly, France would being a relationship with Culp, resulting in marriage in 1967, which lasted three years. France would remarry with a Canadian and give birth to a baby girl. In 1966, she played in Dimension Five (titled Dimension 4 in Britain, we lost a dimension crossing the ocean?), a sci-fi thriller where a Chinese communist organization wishes to blow up Los Angeles with an atomic bomb.
But the main event in that year 1968 was her participation in an episode of Star Trek, surely one of its more memorable, Elaan of Troyius. She plays Elaan, a representative of an alien culture that seems to be able to manipulate others’ emotions to commit acts of violence. A single tear shed by Elaan would cause Kirk to fall madly in love with her. But the Klingons are prepared to attack… This third season episode would trouble me in my youth, mainly the passive features of that female alien sporting an ancient Egyptian look… and that tear…
Television work kept France busy the following years, as she guest-starred in numerous series: The Magician, Kung Fu (again with William Shatner) and many apparitions in Hawaii 5-0. There were some TV movies too, like Black Water Gold, Horror at37,000 Feet (with Shatner once more, in this curious story of a plane passenger obsessed with a magic talisman), Code Name: Diamond Head (no connection to her 1962 movie) and Return to Fantasy Island, with Ricardo Montalban and Hervé Villechaize.
After taking part in two episodes of Gunsmoke, France played in two westerns, One More Train to Rob and The White, The Yellow and the Black, directed by Sergio Corbucci and starring a samurai (!) and a valuable kidnapped horse. This eccentric spaghetti-western reunited Eli Wallach, Giuliano Gemma and Tomas Milian. The Big Game in 1972 is a sci-fi story about bounty hunters in South Africa protecting a mysterious machine that can control entire armies. In 1973, France can be seen in Battle for the Planet of the Apes, as a mutant resistant that comes close to detonate the infamous atomic bomb which would next be seen in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (or was it already seen?). This is the worst of the series, mainly for low-budget and unimaginative script reasons. Still, France looked formidable enough behind her shades.
France was next seen in the first episode of Charlies’s Angels’ second season opener, Angels in Paradise, which introduced the character of Cheryl Ladd, replacing Farrah Fawcett in search of a movie career… Death Moon in 1978 was an equally impressive viewing in my teens, mainly due to a bikini-clad France. This is a standard werewolf TV movie, but with not-so-bad makeup on main star Robert Foxworth. During the ’80s there were many more TV apparitions for France, as a trend began in which she mostly played doctors. In fact, she had three successive medical roles in St.Elsewhere, Santa Barbara and Knots Landing. Now, who wouldn’t want to be treated by her? “Doc, I have this nagging groin pain…” Maybe another reason: in the mid-’80s, France became a psychologist (after years of studies) and opened her own consultation cabinet. She mainly treats abused children and convicted women. This work won her numerous awards, like Woman of the Year 1989 of the city of Los Angeles, her actual residence.
In 1991, France returned to the big screen for China Cry, in a supporting role for this story of Shanghai being invaded by the Japanese in… guess what? WWII! Only Bill Shatner was missing! A thriller would follow, Write to Kill. Then came great critical success for The Joy Luck Club in 1993. This film shows various relationships between young Asian-American women and their mothers born in Asia, having come to the US to escape a certain big war… Every women I know having seen this movie confessed recognizing themselves somewhere in these characters, confirming how much a mother-daughter relation is difficult. Ah, these moms who pretend to be your friends but only to manipulate you more… Still an excellent film with a great cast, The Joy Luck Club was saluted as one of the best movie of that year (but was curiously absent for any Oscar considerations). France is still upset at director Amy Tran for cutting her best scene. But it was reassuring to enjoy her presence on a major production.
France would be back on TV (as in the Tom Clancy thriller OP Center); there was also a part in a The Outer Limits episode intitled Ripper. It’s not so easy to find quality parts when 1) you’re a woman, 2) you reached your 60s and 3) you’re Asian. But for only Elaan’s tear, France Nuyen would still have become an Immortal. My only regret with this page is not having found sufficient and worthy pictures, like it sadly happens too often for more neglected actresses. I had the herculean and dubious task of visiting many Star Trek sites to only find the same photographs. Be it as it may, our other Sirens here welcome France as a sister.
1958 In Love and War; South Pacific 1961 The Last Time I Saw Archie 1962 Satan Never Sleeps; A Girl Named Tamiko; Diamond Head 1964 Man in the Middle 1968 Dimension 5 1971 One More Train to Rob; Slingshot 1972 The Big Game 1973 Battle for the Planet of the Apes 1975 The White, the Yellow and the Black 1990 Write to Kill 1991 China Cry: A True Story 1993 The Joy Luck Club 1994 A Passion to Kill 1995 Angry Cafe 1997 A Smile Like Yours 2003 The Battle of Shaker Heights 2007 The American Standards