Red Buttons (1919-2006) in SAYONARA - A Great BM Tribute

Honestly -- when recommitting to "Great BM Tributes" earlier this week -- StinkyLulu had no inkling 'twould turn out to be such an, um, busy week. To be absolutely clear, StinkyLu has no insider information 'bout such things. Either midsummer's a busy time or MamaStinky's maxim that such things "come in 3s" is a bitsybit true...

Word just flashed upon StinkyLulu's interweb machine that old reliable Red Buttons made the big move onwards and upwards. For a man lil Lulu first encountered being sorta freaky on the Dean Martin roasts, over the years StinkyLu developed a distinct fondness for Mr. Buttons (almost wrote "old Red" but that seemed just as wrong). Please. In the space of a single decade, the man with the goofy name starred both in Pete's Dragon and in one of Lulu's most favoritest movies ever (see disclaimer below). That sorta forever secures a permanent place in StinkyLulu's movie obsessive hall of fame... Then with reliably cool guest spots on everything from Little House to ER? Well. In spite of his ridiculous stage name, Red Buttons always upped the pedigree.

Anyway, the disclaimer: When encountering this sad Buttons news, the very first Red performance to pop in Lulu's noggin was actually his surprisingly nuanced work in a certain tipsy tub of a movie -- possibly Lulu's most treasured Red Buttons performance. But. StinkyLulu refuses to refer to said movie as a "bad movie" (on certain subjects Lulu just will not budge ) so attention necessarily turns to...

...Red Buttons in Sayonara (1957).

Talk about a kooky racial time-capsule. Jeepers. This epic piece of technicolor piffle is just brain-sprainingly wierd (like most movies based on the work of James Michener and/or directed by Josh Logan). Here, Marlon Brando and Red Buttons are US servicemen stationed in Japan during the Korean conflict. Brando -- sporting a peroxide blond "do" and an awful Southern accent -- plays an officer; Buttons plays Joe Kelly, a enlisted man under his command. The whole hoopdedoo motivating the story is that Buttons' character has fallen in love with a Japanese woman, and must come to Brando's Lt. Gruver for permission to marry her. Under the War Brides Act, all kinds of paperwork has to happen, all of which Gruver (who, remember, is Southern which is Hollywood code for...) must approve.

Buttons' Kelly invites Brando's Gruver over for dinner, and Gruver's shocked to see how far his friend has "gone native." But he's won over by his buddy's sweetheart Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki) and their giddy love for one another. (Then of course, Brando goes all native himself for a Japanese actress which cause a whole 'nother kerfluffle.) (And this is totally leaving out a whole 'nother subplot containing Lulu's favoritefavorite performance in this flick: Ricardo Monalban as a Kabuki actor. A latin actor playing an asian actor playing female roles. Brainspraining good times. And that accent -- boy howdy!)

But Red Buttons' character Joe Kelly -- a simple guy simply in love -- is the heart and soul of this picture. It's scripted to be a cardboard cutout of a role but when things go wrong -- when the brass rejects Kelly's petition and orders him to ship out; when he deserts his post to stay with the woman he loves; when Katsumi nearly dies following "corrective" eyelid surgery; when Katsumi and Joe make an eternal choice -- its Buttons' honesty and emotional clarity that actually keeps this bus from totally going off the cliff. It's still always something of a surprise, when revisiting this film again and again (it's a teaching fave), that Buttons' acting blows Brando's off the screen. (Buttons and Umeki both took home Supporting Oscars for their work in this film.) It's real, solid work.

You'd think that, after all these years, StinkyLulu'd have come to expect the surprising from Red Buttons. But no. Like the best comics, he always "got" StinkyLulu -- 'specially when he got serious. Blessings, Mr. Buttons.

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