Michelle Yeoh has long been an icon and legend, with or without an Oscar. But whatever happened at the Dolby Theater on Sunday night, there was always so much more at stake. For anyone from a community that has historically excluded Hollywood, awards — for better or worse — often carry the weight of history.
Many of us waited nervously and with bated breath for most of the night to see if she would actually win, as well as before each award for Everything At Once, which remarkably won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Picture. Director. But all of that was far from assured given the academy’s miserable history of representation and inclusion.
Perhaps no one was more aware of the weight of this story than Yeoh herself, which she acknowledged in her acceptance speech.
“For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibility. This is proof that dreams are big and dreams come true. And ladies, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re past your prime. Never give up,” she said.
At the end of her triumphant and cathartic speech, she directly recognized the seriousness of the moment: “Thank you to the Academy. That will be history.”
Everything was so big: the prospect of Yeoh becoming the first Asian actor to win an Oscar for Best Actress (and only the second black woman ever) and the grim stats. In fact, by Sunday, more white women had won Best Actress awards for playing yellow-faced Asian characters (one: Luise Rainer in the 1937 adaptation of The Good Earth) than, um, real Asian women, period ( zero). In a nod to this story, Halle Berry, so far the first and only woman of color to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, presented the award to Yeoh on Sunday night.
At the start of the ceremony, the ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ star’s win or loss carried so much more weight than Cate Blanchett, the awards season’s frontrunner, who has already won two Oscars and been nominated eight times. While Blanchett’s performance in “TÁR” was undeniably a stellar performance, another contender for awards season is likely to follow in due course.
It’s never been easier for Yeoh, despite her decades as a star and a household name for Asians worldwide. even now She still gets questions — usually by white reporters — who ignore the fact that she’s been at the forefront of the movie tent since the 1980s. In 1997, she gained even greater global recognition with her Hollywood debut in the James Bond series Tomorrow Never Dies. But the industry didn’t seem to know what to do with her, as she recalled in her Golden Globes acceptance speech in January.
“I remember when I first came to Hollywood it was a dream come true – until I got here. ‘Cause look at that face. I came here and was told, ‘You’re a minority,'” she said, recalling how surprised people were that she spoke English. She recalled joking with them, “Yes, the flight here was 13 hours, so I learned it.”
In a recent interview with People magazine, she revealed that it took her almost two years after Bond to land her next big role in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon because everything else she was offered were stereotypical roles were.
Crouching Tiger further solidified Yeoh’s status as a global star. It won the Oscar for Best International Feature Film and remained the highest-grossing non-English language film in US box office history. And in recent years she has starred in several films that have been milestones in Asian representation in Hollywood: Crazy Rich Asians, the first studio film with a majority Asian cast in 25 years to go on break box office records; and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the first Asia-led Marvel film.
Still, at the age of 60, it took her so long to land a role that fully encapsulated all of her talents. As Evelyn Wang in the genre-bending multiverse film Everything Everywhere All At Once, she could do everything at once, from action to sci-fi, adventure, film noir, comedy and drama. It obviously meant a lot to her.
“I was so intrigued and overwhelmed by the fact that these two young men had written a story for an older woman – an elderly Asian immigrant mother – and actually given her superpowers at the end of the day,” Yeoh told me last yearand described the first time reading the screenplay by screenwriters and directors Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan. “She’s like a superhero because she says all universes hold the family together. That they had the audacity, the audacity, the guts to write that. If you look around, when was the last time you saw an older woman as a superhero?”
These landmark moments for representation come with mixed feelings: celebrating the victories but also wondering why it took so damn long. There are reasons to be optimistic, but also to be cynical. It says a lot about the state of the industry that an icon like Yeoh was an underdog in the Best Actress race for much of awards season. Or that it was hard to believe that “Everything Everywhere All At Once” really had become the best-selling movie, because Oscar history suggests otherwise.
At the Screen Actors Guild Awards on February 26, when The cast of the film took home the grand prize of the night, they handed the microphone to veteran character actor James Hong. The man has seen it all since the 1950s when he was 94 and has more than 450 acting credits. He recalled how “The Good Earth” cast yellow-faced white actors because studio execs claimed, “‘Asians aren’t good enough, and they don’t box office.'”
“But look at us now, huh?!” he exclaimed to thunderous applause.
In fact, things are undeniably changing. And it’s fitting that a legend like Yeoh was at the center of this period of transformation for Asian representation in Hollywood. She brought a lot of people with her. Among them is her co-star (and now Oscar winner) Ke Huy Quan, who is spearheading the success of Crazy Rich Asians. as a reason he was convinced acting was worth giving it another try after being forced to give up due to a lack of roles for Asian actors in the early 1990s.
But it would be nice to live in a world where it didn’t take an icon like Yeoh nearly 40 years to get a role that finally honored all of her many talents and got the accolades she so much deserved.
And a world where Quan had been a star all along, instead of watching the roles dry up and waiting 30 years for the phone to ring.
And a world where Stephanie Hsu’s Best Supporting Actress nomination was a foregone conclusion, not a wonderful surprise, followed by a deep sigh of relief on the morning of the Oscar nomination.
And a world where an Asian actor and an Asian-directed film wins or loses doesn’t have to represent victory or defeat for an entire diaspora and carry the weight of the story.
We’re not there yet. But here we hope to be much closer.