This Day In History: March 21

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Noted for his innovative use of wide-angle shots, low-key lighting and deep focus, cinematographer James Wong Howe becomes the first Asian American to win an Academy Award on March 21, 1956.

Receiving the Oscar for Best Cinematography for The Rose Tattoo, starring Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster, Howe had a knack for making "old stars young, plump stars thin, ordinary faces beautiful," as he once said, according to Smithsonian.

Born in China in 1899 and immigrating to America at age 5, Howe got his Hollywood start as an assistant to Cecil B. DeMille. Considered one of the most influential cinematographers of all time, over his six-decade career he was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning twice. He also took home the Best Cinematography award for Hud in 1963.

Married in 1937 to writer Sanora Babb, who was white, Howe endured ongoing discrimination. The couple’s interracial marriage was not even recognized until 1949, when California nixed its anti-miscegenation law, according to Variety. "Even then, Wong Howe and Babb couldn’t go public, since mixed-race marriage violated the studios’ morals clause," the publication writes. Post-World War II, Howe was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee and was "gray-listed."

Although the gray-listing caused him to lose out on work in the 1940s and early 1950s, he still earned credits on more than 130 films, including The Thin Man, Picnic, Funny Lady and Yankee Doodle Dandy, working with legendary stars such as Ronald Reagan, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand, among others.