Sunday evening saw the first Asian woman to ever win an acting Oscar with Michelle Yeoh’s long-awaited Academy Award for Best Actress. Leading up to Oscar night, odds seemed to be in her favor as she scooped up award after award this season including the Screen Actor’s Guild, the Golden Globe and BAFTA for her role as an ordinary immigrant mother who becomes a superhero in the multiverse in “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.” The film, directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, won for Best Picture, “the Daniels” won for best director, Ke Huy Quan won for Best Supporting Actor (husband Waymond to Yeoh’s character Evelyn) along with wins for Best Screenplay (another win for the Daniels), Best Editing by Paul Rogers and Best Supporting Actress for Jamie Lee Curtis. It won seven out of the eleven it was nominated for and dominated the Oscar telecast.
But something different was happening in the room where it happened as speech after speech had everyone in tears. From their authenticity, humility and gratitude to their inspiring personal stories, these speeches were coming from people whose time had finally come. For Quan, who had early childhood success as Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and Data in “Goonies”, his win was particularly sweet coming after twenty years of no acting roles and almost giving up on acting entirely. After years of rejection and just a dearth of roles for Asian Americans, Quan finally trained to work behind the camera but as he said in his acceptance speech, his wife told him every day for twenty years, “your time will come.” Sunday night it did. He told the audience of over 18 million viewers that he started life out on a boat and spent a year in a refugee camp and that now being on Hollywood’s biggest stage was in fact “the American Dream.”
Yeoh, whose speech was equally emotional, added even more layers as the 60-year-old actress, who has been in films for more than 40 years, said, “Ladies, don’t let anybody ever tell you you’re past your prime!” She went on to say that her win meant for boys and girls out there who look like her “a beacon of hope and possibilities.”
Yeoh has spoken about how she and so many like her have been here all along and all they have asked for is an opportunity to have a seat at the table. Veteran actor James Hong plays Yeoh’s father in the film and has been in the business, well, for a very long time. He made his first film with Clark Gable! Back then roles for Asian actors were scarce but Hong did what he had to do, which was to mostly play cooks and servants all the while suffering the humiliation of discrimination and racism on set and off. In those days, if there was a bigger role for an Asian character, it would be given to a white actor who would don “yellow face” to play the role because Asian actors were deemed not good enough. So to say “we’ve come a long way, baby”, is an understatement. But also ridiculously long overdue and there is still much work to be done.
When “Crazy, Rich Asians” was a huge hit in 2018 (starring Yeoh), it seemed to usher in a new era where Asian lead actors were seen carrying a commercially successful Hollywood movie. In fact, seeing that film had Quan in tears because he couldn’t believe it was finally happening. It was the catalyst for him giving his dream of acting one more shot after years of work as a stunt coordinator and assistant director. The first thing he got a call for? The film that would change everything for him.
There was tremendous good will for the film, not only because it featured authentically cast Asian actors, often speaking Cantonese and Mandarin, but because it was this small, independent feature that grabbed people’s imaginations. A shattering family story wrapped in a crazy, sci-fi multiverse action movie, the innovative, mind-blowing adventure will have you gasping, laughing and crying – sometimes all at once! If you haven’t seen it, get on that.
Often producer speeches can be a bit on the dryer side, but when Jonathan Wang accepted the award for Best Picture, he had his own emotional moment dedicating it to his immigrant father who died young saying, “he’s so proud of me, not because of this, but because we made this movie with what he taught me to do – no profit is more important that any person – no one is more important than anyone else.” He then spoke the words “Memory Eternal” in Chinese.
Yeoh dedicated her Oscar to her mother and “all the moms in the world because they are really the superheroes.” Yeoh’s mother was the guest of honor at a large watch party in Malaysia and Quan’s 84-year-old mother watched from home. I think all 18 million of us cried along with him as he held his Oscar aloft looking straight in the camera and tearfully said, “Mom! I just won an Oscar!”
For a complete list of winners visit Oscars.org